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TRRC in Gambia: Sanna Sabally’s extraordinary moment of truth

It was a historical moment this week for all Gambians and for the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). Sanna Sabally, the former number 2 of the military junta led by Yahya Jammeh, came from abroad to come forward. No one had ever imagined this could happen.

TRRC in Gambia: Sanna Sabally’s extraordinary moment of truth©Mustapha K. DARBOE
Sanna Sabally before the Truth Commission in Gambia, on 24 April 2019.
5 min 20Approximate reading time

He has been a long lost voice and face. The last message from him to the public in Gambia was to announce the death of soldiers who had reportedly died in a firefight during a counter-coup on November 11, 1994. More than 24 years ago. Since then Sanna Bairo Sabally was never heard on a Gambian television channel or public radio. 

Then, in split second, on April 24, he appeared before the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission that is investigating the human rights violations of former president Yahya Jammeh and his colleagues, including Sabally, between the coup that led them to power in July 1994 and the end of the military regime in January 2017. 

Everything in the country literally came to a halt. Sanna Sabally’s voice was ubiquitous on radio, television and online. The two small halls of the TRRC that take about 20 people each were full to capacity. 

Gambia had a rendez-vous with history.

The Geneva Conventions? Forget it

There have been high-profile and resounding testimonies before this Commission since it opened its public hearings on January 7. But this was the biggest catch. Here was the self-righteous, self-styled former vice-chairman of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, a key member of a once feared military leadership. 

And as the last time he spoke in Gambia was about the November 11, 1994 counter-coup, Sabally was now asked to tell what happened and explain why two dozens of soldiers died, including eleven through summary execution, on that day.

The Geneva Conventions on the rules of war, Sabally first said in regard of the treatment of the coup plotters, “do not operate anywhere in this world, forget it”. This was how he justified the killing of the soldiers, causing particular shock to the chairman of the TRRC, Lamin Sise.

In his voice was candor which could in fact be mistaken for the arrogance that many remembered. Even a repentant Sabally needed convincing on why “enemies” who posed threats to their captors ought not to be executed. “There is no small enemy,” he said, “they too were going to kill us if their coup had succeeded.” But this was Sabally playing fast and loose with a truth he would ultimately accept—the fact that their actions on November 11 was wrong. This was a crime he would admit was “regrettable” and for which he would apologize. 

Yahya Jammeh’s order to kill

Many witnesses before the TRRC have described Sanna Sabally as immature and ruthless. Until this day, what was known of him and the little memory people had of him had made it impossible to imagine him before the 11 commissioners of the Truth commission and lead counsel Essa Faal. 

Some even got worried for his own safety: one of the people Sabally ordered to be tortured “mercilessly” is the current commander of the Gambian army Mamat Cham. 

“I accept responsibility because I was the commander,” Sabally said eventually of the November 11 killings. But he was not the only one responsible. Though Sabally led the executions, he said the decision to kill soldiers was agreed upon by all members of the Ruling Council with orders from Yahya Jammeh. Sabally confirmed what former chief of staff of Jammeh, Demba Njie, said to the Commission earlier, that Yahya Jammeh orders were: “Kill them all, the ring leaders.”

Sanna Sabally aux côtés de Yahya Jammeh en 1994. Il coparaît aujourd'hui devant la Commission vérité en Gambie (TRRC)
In July 1994, Yahya Jammeh (red beret), Edward Singhateh (sunglasses) and Sanna Sabally (holding Singhateh's hand) celebrated their military coup. Today they are accused of torture and executions before the Truth Commission.

Before the TRRC, what goes around comes around

At the time Sabally was fearful. Most people say he was more fearful than Jammeh himself. In Sabally’s bright days, no one would have him for an enemy. But Sabally did not want the military to stay in power for more than the agreed six months. And in January 1995, he was arrested by Yahya Jammeh. With him was Sadibu Hydara, a member of the military junta who also took part in the November 11 executions. 

The two were to be severely tortured to make forced confessions. What goes around comes around, Sabally told Essa Faal. In the earlier days of the military takeover, Sabally’s orderlies were involved in torturing citizens who were not quick enough to leave the road as his convoy passed. There were at least nine incidents where his orderlies tortured, shot at people or at car tyres. One of the victims was Alo Bah, a food vendor who was reportedly shot by a guard from Sabally’s convoy. On April 24, Alo Bah was in the room when Sabally was testifying. The former powerful vice-chairman of the military junta left his seat and walked to her. He admitted responsibility of these actions and apologized before the cameras.

According to Sabally, the torture he personally endured was overseen by Alagie Martin, who is currently a general in the Gambian army. 

They wanted him to confess that he wanted to kill Yahya Jammeh and he refused. They used water-boarding and mock-execution where they buried him to his neck in order to solicit information from him. They drove a needle into his penis and electrocuted him. They hanged him on top of a metal rod that would penetrate his anus if he got weak. They brought two women before him he was fond of to be tortured so that he broke. They drove banana and other things into his private parts so that he confessed. They ordered him and Hydara and others to have sex with each other. When they refused, “they said [that] since we did not want to have sex, we will be castrated. That was the time they put Sadibu [Hydara]’s testicles on an iron bar and hit it with a hammer. There was blood everywhere,” said Sabally. 

Sanna Sabally: “I came out of the prison not bitter but better”

At that point, for the first time in public, the seemingly unbreakable one-time urban legend broke. Sabally paused for a while and sobbed. “Sadibu died in my hands on the 6th of June, [at] 16:17. Sadibu is part of me,” said Sabally.

Sadibu Hydara died in jail of “natural causes”, according to the junta that he had served. This was a lie, said Sabally. His friend died as a result of torture. Before he died, Sabally testified, “Sadibu told me: ‘what do you do with people who do not know where you stand for them?’” The answer Sabally eventually found was to forgive. He had survived the torture, without speaking into the voice recorders the words that his former comrades had solicited. He said he had been disappointed with the behavior of his new enemies, the Ruling Council members. But he had forgiven them, from the day he had left the prison.

Sabally was eventually released in 2005 and left the country for Senegal. He subsequently went to Germany where he was trained to become a doctor. Part of his expertise is to deal with trauma patients. He even offered free counselling for people he had victimized if they would be willing. He now lives in Senegal.

The testimony on the torture meted at him resonated with many Gambians. Even people who were angry with him came sympathizing. A man who once treated the Geneva Conventions with contempt as an “unrealistic document” had learned the wrongs of his past in the most gruesome way. “I wished I knew at the time what I knew today,” Sabally said. “I [learned] wisdom and patience. That is why I came out of the prison not bitter but better,” he repeated – “not bitter but better”.

Apologies and forgiveness

Not only did he apologize, he was also forgiven by Matty Sallah, the wife of Abdoulie Bah, one of the soldiers killed on November 11. As he ended his two-day testimony, a message came from Sallah through the TRRC lead counsel. “I Matty Sallah, the late Abdoulie Bah’s wife, has forgiven wholeheartedly [Sanna Sabally] for his honesty and truthfulness for the crime he committed,” she wrote.

“This is the spirit we try to encourage,” concluded the chair of the Commission Lamin Sise. After two days of a testimony that made history, public hearings before the TRRC are suspended and will resume on June 10, after Ramadan. But its investigations won’t stop.