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Gambia Truth Commission: Darboe, the faithful silent agent of the NIA

With lot of expectations, a notorious member of a ‘Special Operations Unit’ involved in allegations of torture under Yahya Jammeh’s rule, appeared before the Gambian Truth Commission. Allegedly, Lamin Darboe arrested at least 115 people as an agent of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). But Darboe denied everything, while some of his colleagues confessed all, at the same time, in a continued series of hearings on the NIA.

Lamin Darboe testifies before the TRRC in Gambia
Lamin Darboe, former head of the infamous "Special Operations Unit", has been singled out by several witnesses before the Gambian Truth Commission. To date, he is still working for the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). © Mustapha K. Darboe
5 min 55Approximate reading time

The Special Operations Unit (SOU) within the Gambian National Intelligence Agency (NIA), according to Lamin Darboe, does night patrols, carries out directives of former president Yahya Jammeh and oversees firing and handing over of ministers sacked, among other tasks. 

Darboe is one of the most adversely mentioned torturers at the NIA, which is under the close scrutiny of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) for the last three months. The man on the Commission's grill, this time, is a ninth-grade school dropout who could barely read. When Darboe appeared before the Commission on January 28, he stumbled over the words five times in one paragraph while reading a paper he claimed to have written. 

The Unit was created in 2007. And before Darboe, the Unit’s head was Alagie Morr. Unlike Darboe, Morr had a secondary school certificate, but the two are among the most adversely mentioned “torturers” before the truth commission. Allegations against Darboe includes torturing several civilians (Sillaba Samateh, Yusupha Saidy, Saikou Drammeh) anti-narcotic officer Lamin Karbou and a number of co-arrestees, former soldier Sarjo Touray, soldier Sam Kambie, a man called Kebba Secka and Gambian dissidents from United States who launched an attack on Gambian presidency on December 30, 2014 to depose the Jammeh.

Lamin Karbou, an anti-narcotic officer was reportedly arrested and severely tortured by the SOU. The SOU was to arrest some alleged drug traffickers from Guinea Bissau, when they ran into Karbou, who was reportedly following the same operation. He was arrested on charges of obstructions with alleged drug peddlers and brutalized. The Truth Commission started to question Darboe on what happened to Karbou, who testified nearly a year ago.

- Lamin Karbou was taken to the Special Operations Unit and he was brutalized, said lead counsel Essa Faal.

- I was not aware of that, replied Darboe.

- And Lamin Sima (another anti-narcotic officer arrested with Lamin Karbou), did you see him?

- In the office? No.

- What did you say to the suggestion by Lamin Sima that you tortured him?

- That is not true.

“You took him to torture chamber?” – “Yes”

Darboe has been accused of torturing a person called Abass Jarju, who was arrested with Amadou Jogoh Sowe and others. Abass reportedly had stolen an unspecified amount of money belonging to the former Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh. Another laborious examination of the witness then resumed before the truth commission:

- Basiru Sey (member of the SOU) testified here. He said you and him arrested Abass, said counsel Faal.

- That is not correct, replied Darboe.

- Abass was taken to NIA, correct?

- Yes. He was under my control for 2 days. He was handed to investigation department.

- Abass was not arrested alone?

- Later other people were arrested too, yes.

- Isn’t it the case that these people were tortured to confess?

- They weren’t tortured.

- So, they gave you what you wanted (boxes allegedly containing money belonging to the former ruler) and nothing happened?

- I told them Junglers were there and they were going to torture them.

- Why were they brought?

- Probably if the boxes were not found, they would torture these people.

- You are saying probably?

- They came there to torture Abass seriously if the boxes were not found.

- How long did it take before you saw the first box?

- In 2 hours…

- As far as you re concern, this was a clean operation by the NIA?

- Yes.

- You are not truthful.

- Okay.

- Everybody who was involved in this operation and came into contact with the TRRC said these people were tortured and you were at the centre of it.

- They did not torture them.

- You took him to torture chamber.

- Yes.

- If he was confessing, why did you take him to the torture chamber?

- I did not take him there alone…

- We are not children here Mr Witness. What you are not saying is that you and the Junglers tortured this man to confess, which your subordinates clearly said…

- If Junglers are beating people. If you are not a member of their team, you do not stay there.

- You were sharing operations with them.

- Okay.

320 people heard by the TRRC

Despite this and many other allegations, Darboe admitted to only one out of dozens of allegations of torture that the Truth Commission found against him during its investigations. “Every staff under the command of this Unit had to be loyal to the director general and keep top secrets secret,” said Darboe. “Being a member of this Unit was hazardous and challenging.Members have to face finger-pointing and fabrications,” he added.

Over the last two years, the TRRC has heard over 320 people, some of whom were tough witnesses. But none of them were close to Darboe, said an exasperated lead counsel after two hours of confrontational testimony. “Would you shut up and allow me to do my job?” once exploded Faal. “If you continue like this [interrupting me], I will ask the Chair to hold you with contempt and send you to Mile 2. This Commission cannot sit here and allow this gross indiscipline happening.”

Few seconds later, the Chairman cut of all mics and addressed Darboe that he cannot “turn the Commission into a circus”. “You are the most difficult witness we have ever had in this forum”, added Commissioner Ousainou Jallow. “You are not only disrespectful; you have no concern for all the evil deeds you meted on people.”

“NIA boys’ survival was tied to the survival of the ruling party” 

As testimonies before the Commission comes to show the vacuum in the capacities of mostly illiterate agents. While their job was intelligence collection, it meant they had no others means than “extract the truth out of the victim” who went out of their way on a policing duty. The Agency gradually became under the rule of Jammeh a policing institution, with sweeping powers granted by a military decree. 

“The environment was toxic”

On February 4, Foday Momodou Hydara, a former NIA deputy director, told the Commission that the apparent defects in the Agency, both by its decree and lack of human capacity, were by design. “The green boys who were recruited into NIA became a thug for the party. Their survival was tied to the survival of the ruling party,” said Hydara. By decree, the Agency was placed directly under the authority of the President. According to Hydara, 90% of assignments they were getting from Jammeh had “no bearing on the work of the Agency”. 

Within the Agency, a serious crime like torture was reduced to simple euphemisms such as giving people “VIP treatment” or perhaps acceptable terms such as “beating”. Such was the case, in 2006, against military officers and civilians accused of a coup against Jammeh.

Hydara was then a member of the NIA “panel” that probed the foil coup. “The environment was toxic. It was treacherous. We were having our interviews, and Musa Jammeh and Tumbul Tamba (both Junglers, Jammeh’s hit squad) were crisscrossing and telephones were ringing. We suspect highly that they were talking to the President. So, even us we were threatened. I wished there was any other way of doing it,” described Hydara. 

Momodou Hydara testifies before the TRRC in Gambia
Foday Momodou Hydara, a former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) deputy director, in contrast to Darboe, fully admitted the violations perpetrated within the agency. © Mustapha K. Darboe

“What were the circumstances that made you close your eyes?”

Then it was the turn of another witness, Demba Sowe, a current crime management coordinator at the Gambia police, who also served at the failed coup investigative “panel”, to admit before that their report was based on confessions that were illegally obtained.

- You were a police officer and a violation were happening right before you. Isn’t that your failure? Asked lead counsel Faal.

- I had no choice. The environment was tense, it was intimidating, responded Sowe.

- What were the circumstances that made you closed your eyes?

- You never know what the repercussions will be. 

- People were prosecuted based on statements that you know to have been illegally obtained…

- Yes.

- As a police officer, do you believe that people should be prosecuted based on an illegally obtained statement?

- That is not fair.

Urgent interim reparations for a victim

Last January, a military officer called Sam Kambie was hospitalized two times. According to the Commission’s head of reparation, Adelaide Sosseh, his medical complications were as a result of torture he ensured in the hand of the Special Operations Unit. Kambie, who was tortured severely by the Unit in 2007 was placed in Commission’s “urgent interim reparations”, said Sosseh. “And here you are saying you have not tortured him,” he declared at the end of Darboe’s testimony. Despite this,Darboe still continues to serve as an agent at the NIA.

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