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Gambia’s Truth Commission in a time of uncertainty

All was going according to schedule at the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission in the Gambia. Until the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Public hearings were suspended for the second time last month. An extension of the Commission’s mandate is now certain. With the risk of the end of its work coinciding with sensitive political events.

Gambia’s Truth Commission in a time of uncertainty
Public hearings before the Truth Commission in The Gambia have been suspended since early August because of the Covid-19 outbreak. © TRRC
4 min 25Approximate reading time

In the first quarter of 2020, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) investigating the human rights violations of former Gambian ruler Yahya Jammeh announced it would conclude its public hearings in October. That plan is now out of the door.

The TRRC announced its first suspension of public hearings on March 18, three days after the first case of Covid-19 was found in the small West African country. In July, the Commission resumed with institutional hearings on prisons. But on August 4 when it was expected to continue after a one-week break, the Commission announced another suspension of its public hearings. “While the Commission is very keen on completing its work and submitting its final report and recommendations in good time, we are conscious of the fact that continuing our public hearings may put the lives of everybody concerned at risk of Covid-19 infection,” said Commission’s chair Dr Lamin Sise. No date has since been set for the resumption of public hearings. As of September 5, 3,150 cases of Covid-19 have been registered in The Gambia, and 99 deaths. The global pandemic is having a prolonged effect on the country’s transitional justice process.

Activities outside public hearings

Although the TRRC has already lost over a month of public hearings, the Commission’s executive secretary Dr Baba Galleh Jallow insists that the TRRC has kept working, including on collecting witness statements and writing its final report, and that it is only the public hearings that have been suspended.

On August 31, the Truth Commission endorsed the policy that is to guide its issuance of reparations to victims. The policy was validated with the participation of victims and civil society organisations. However it avoided the complex issue of what amount to pay for victimization, as well as what would become of perpetrators-turned victims and whether they should be paid reparations or not. “The Commission does not have a fixed amount of money to dish out. The policy is just a framework that can guide their work. So, in terms of managing the reparation process, I think they have done the first step designing a policy,” said Sait Matty Jaw, a Gambian researcher and academic who lectures at the University of the Gambia. 

The TRRC has simultaneously started issuing interim reparations in the forms of school fees to children of victims and medical treatment of direct victims. Through the support of a United Nations Development Programme, the Commission has also started preparing a list of victims who are to have a Covid-19 food relief in the coming days. 

But the time loss is of concern to Sheriff Kijera, the chairperson of the Victims Centre, a civil society organization that stands for the rights of the victims under Jammeh. “The pause has created a lot of uncertainty,” said Kijera who suggests the TRRC should look at alternatives to complete suspension. “They could still maintain the social and physical distancing and put some restriction on people coming to the hearings. We are losing more time and resources.” 

The pending programme

Sait Jaw said the suspension “didn’t only affect the hearing process but also some of the ongoing initiatives by the various communities that could have informed the final report”. The Truth Commission does a number of community outreach programmes to encourage mass involvement in their process. However, with a ban on large gatherings, the TRRC has had to rely more on community radios for its outreach activities, explained the Commission’s director of communications, Essa Jallow. 

“We certainly will need an extension beyond the two years” mandate that started in January 2019, Baba Galleh Jallow told Justice Info. “For how long, we can't determine yet.”

Since it began public hearings on January 7, 2019, 219 witnesses have testified before the TRRC, including 54 women, 40 perpetrators, alleged perpetrators and adversely mentioned persons, 25 Gambians from the diaspora, and a few expert witnesses. At the time of the latest suspension of its public hearings, the Commission was probing the fake alternative treatment program that Gambia’s former eccentric ruler claimed could cure Aids, asthma, and infertility, among others. Some key alleged perpetrators, mostly doctors who helped Jammeh in his propaganda, are still expected to appear before the Commission.

Thirteen themes have so far been covered, including the activities of Jammeh’s hitmen called the Junglers. According to the Commission, the Junglers should be called back to talk about killings. Also expected are probes into enforced disappearances, the case of 44 Ghanaians and other West African migrants who were killed in The Gambia in July 2005, and the April 2016 incidents involving the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) which resulted in the death in custody of opposition party UDP member Solo Sandeng. Institutional hearings on the NIA, the judiciary, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) are also part of the workplan. 

Moving into a turbulent political climate

“For the issue of budgetary implications [of the delay], if there is need to extend the work of the TRRC because of the impact of Covid-19, it will be considered,” Gambia’s Communications minister, Ebrima Sillah, told Justice Info. But money may not be the only issue. With an extension of the Commission’s mandate, its activities or its final report would come up in a very turbulent political climate. This September 14, lawmakers will debate on a draft constitution. If it gets a pass, it goes into a referendum in June. Presidential elections are to be held in December 2021.

For Minister Sillah, “there is a strong commitment from the Executive to see that TRRC continues to function effectively”. But for Sait Jaw, things could go badly. “The commission is existing on an already fragile political landscape characterized by growing partisanship,” the scholar said. “So, the delay may further find the Commission and its activity into a political climate that has little meaning to the reasons why the commission was established in the first place.” In other words, politicians may have a different agenda than the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission. “I am not seeing the Commission or its recommendations being a priority as all political leaders will likely focus on election,” said Jaw.

In the Gambia, the TRRC has enjoyed sustained public interest since it began public hearings in January 2019. For Kijera, that momentum is not lost. On September 4, the new minister of Justice Dawda Jallow, his adviser Hussein Thomasi and Solicitor General Cherno Marenah visited the Victim Center. It was Jallow’s first sit-down with the victims since he succeeded to the charismatic and influential Aboubacar Tambadou, who had been a staunch supporter of the TRRC. “[Dauda Jallow] came to assure us that there will be continuity from where his predecessor had left and that he will work closely with the victims,” Kijera told Justice Info.