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Gambia: When Jammeh’s NIA were “beating the truth out of people”

In his 22-year rule, Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh allegedly put down several coups. In their aftermaths, the purported participants made confessions on television. Details of how these were obtained and how political opponents were oppressed is becoming clearer before the Truth Commission.

Gambia: When Jammeh’s NIA were “beating the truth out of people”
Sering Omar Faal before the Truth Commission : "They told me when we are ready, you will talk." © Mustapha K. Darboe
4 min 25Approximate reading time

“Media trials” was the name given to the ritualized public confessions Gambians had to watch on TV after a failed coup d’Etat against former president Yahya Jammeh. Last week, 10 victims of the former ruler’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) operatives appeared before the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’s (TRRC), in a series of special hearings. The testimonies included several soldiers and civil servants who staged these media trials.

When Alagie Martin, an army general and close aide of Jammeh appeared in June 2019 before the Truth Commission, he made no secret of a frequent practice by his henchmen that was often called “beating the truth out of people”. According to his own definition, such beatings to solicit confessions were “not torture”.

NIA panel

Martin notably participated in the “NIA panel” that interviewed 62-year old Sering Omar Faal, a suspect in the March 2006 coup d’Etat who testified before the Truth Commission on November 12. According to testimonies, Jammeh’s NIA had “a panel”, who served as judges of truth and lies of their interviewees. If you were before this “panel”, you had to either confess your perceived crime and apologise to Jammeh, or get the beating of your life from Junglers, a paramilitary hit-squad operating on his orders.

“They told me I knew something about the coup and I told them I knew nothing about it. I have never met or seen Ndure Cham. They told me, when we are ready, you will talk,” testified Faal. The 2006 coup was allegedly led by Colonel Ndure Cham, the then head of the Gambian army. He escaped to neighbouring Senegal but was later captured upon return to the country and executed by Junglers. A former Jungler, Omar Jallow, confessed his involvement in this execution, in July 2019 before the Truth Commission.

Faal was accused of being the coup leaders’ “marabout”. But he said he only got contacted by one Abdou Dean and later Alieu Jobe, a former accountant general tipped to be their civilian leader, to help Colonel Cham escape after the failed coup. He denied any knowledge of activities leading to the coup or involvement in its organization. His truth was not enough to save him. “They said I was to speak on television and speak about my role in the coup. They said I should tell Yahya Jammeh to forgive me. I refused,” said Faal.

Before the beatings, Faal said he received a slap from two of the panel members for not speaking the truth. They were Baba Saho, an NIA operative whose name is coming up frequently in the NIA probe and former interior minister Ousman Sonko, who was then the inspector general of police. Sonko is currently being prosecuted in Switzerland.

At midnight, some people in masks came. Faal said he could nevertheless identify some of them, who called each others’ names as they interacted. “Malick Jatta took a knife and shaved my beard, testified Faal. I cried because I considered that an attack on my religious belief. Jatta then took a knife and threatened to slaughter me. He pressed it against my neck until blood started coming out. Someone told him to stop. Sanna Manjang also took a razor blade and sliced my right ear… General Alagie Martin came and put a plastic bag over my head and he took a hammer and hit me on my head.”

“Streched on a metal table and seriously beaten”

Faal was not the only one who faced humiliation and torture at the NIA after the 2006 coup.

Several high-profile soldiers, including the current head of the military encampment at the ex-ruler’s village of Kanilai, captain Wassa Camara, were forced to confess on television following the coup. Captain Bunja Darboe read what was presented as their victory speech if the coup had been successful. He revealed to the Truth Commission, in 2019, that the speech was in fact written by the NIA under the supervision of “the panel”. Alagie Martin denied forcing Darboe to write the speech, but he said it was true he was forced by officers of the NIA.

According to the 10 victims who testified before the Truth Commission last week, forced confessions and illegal detentions at the NIA were widespread. One Amadou Jogoh Sowe, a trader from Guinea who came to the Gambia in 1993, told the Truth Commission he got involved with the NIA because the agency reportedly had interest in arresting Abass Jarju, a business associate of his who was arrested on fraud charges. Though Sowe claimed he had nothing to do with Jarju’s business, he was also arrested. 

At this time, the NIA could not lay hands on the third party connected to the alleged fraud, Amadou Wurry Bah. Sowe was beaten to produce him. "They asked me where Wurry was… but I told them I didn't know his whereabouts. That was the time they cuffed me and I was stretched on a metal table and seriously beaten,” said Sowe. In the room, he testified, there was a metal table, electrocution machine and a standpipe used for water-boarding people.

Sowe was illegally detained at NIA for over 6 months. They took him to Mile 2 prison where he spent 2 months before he was taken to court. The court later acquitted and discharged him for lack of evidence. Now, he is traumatized. "I am so scared of the NIA that I can’t look at their gate when passing [their complex at the entrance of Banjul]," said Sowe. 

Oppressing political detainees

The NIA under Jammeh enjoyed sweeping powers. Though they are an intelligence agency, they had overriding powers over police and other security agencies. Several of their victims were political detainees.

One recurrent victim of the NIA is Omar Bah, a native of Faraba, a settlement about one hour’s drive from Banjul. The first time Bah got into trouble was in October 1995 when he was arrested with 47 people and detained at the Fajara barracks, a military encampment close to the Gambian capital Banjul. They were accused of organizing a coup against Jammeh.

The detainees, including Bah, endured thorough beating, he told the Truth Commission on November 11. “I sustained bruises all over my back,” said Bah. At least two of his fellow prisoners died after the torture, he recounted. This was only the beginning. Bah would endure four more arrests and illegal detentions at the NIA. He insisted it was because he was a member of the United Democratic Party, Jammeh’s major political challenger in his 22-year rule. Bah said they prevailed on him to switch allegiance to Jammeh’s then ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party, but he refused.

As the NIA hearings enter into its third week, several alleged perpetrators are expected to begin appearing including current NIA director general, Ousman Sowe.