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Gambia: “We want Truth Commission’s final report binned”

On September 30, the Gambian Truth Commission should submit its final report. But the party of former dictator Yahya Jammeh has made it clear, after the 4 September announcement of its alliance with current president Adama Barrow’s party, that the goal is to scrap all the work done by the Commission over the past three years.

Gambia: “We want Truth Commission’s final report binned”The alliance between exiled former dictator Yahya Jammeh (left) and Gambia's current president, Adama Barrow (right), is jeopardising the impressive two years' work of the Truth Commission, whose final report is expected on 30 September. © Seyllou / AFP
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For almost two decades, a Gambian newspaper, The Point, has been publishing in its top left corner a question: “Who killed Deyda Hydara?” Hydara was a founder of the newspaper. And finally,  in July 2019, Malick Jatta, a member of the hit-squad operating on the orders of former president Yahya Jammeh, confessed before the Truth Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC) that he took part in the operation that killed the journalist in December 2004. Since then, The Point changed its headline to: “Jammeh killed Deyda Hydara”.

On September 6, barely two days after Jammeh’s Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction Party (APRC) announced it has signed a coalition agreement with Barrow’s National Peoples’ Party (NPP) for the December presidential polls, The Point’s front page captured the Gambian contradiction: a box still saying “Jammeh killed Deyda Hydara” and a lead story announcing the controversial alliance that could lead to “Jammeh’s return”.

On September 30, the Commission’s final report should be submitted to Gambia’s president and since it should charge those who bear the greatest responsibility for past crimes, it is expected to indict Jammeh. “Given the fact that we have known [Jammeh’s party] anti-TRRC position, I wonder how President Barrow will prosecute his own ally when the TRRC recommends it,” Gambian academic Sait Matty Jaw told Justice Info.

Amnesty for Jammeh?

The agreement signed between the party of current president Barrow and Jammeh’s party was not made public. But APRC’s wishes have always been public: Jammeh’s return and amnesty, with all benefits afforded to a former head of state, is their primary demand.    

For the APRC, evidence from 2,600 statements and 393 witness testimonies during the last two and a half years before the country’s Truth Commission is a propaganda scheme designed to defame ex-president Jammeh. In July, the party staged a protest in Banjul where they handed a petition to the country’s justice minister Dawda Jallow for delivery to Barrow. Its content was never made public. But two things were clear: they wanted the government to negate the Commission’s recommendations and free a former minister, Yankuba Touray. In July, Touray was sentenced to death for his role in a murder.

“When the TRRC’s final report is out, let it be put in a wastepaper basket just like the Constitutional Review Commission report,” said Fabakary Tombong Jatta after submitting APRC’s petition against the Truth Commission to Justice Minister Dawda Jallow on July 26 this year. Jatta became APRC’s leader after Jammeh departed for Equatorial Guinea, where he has been living in exile since 2017. 

Jammeh’s party spokesperson Dodou Jah told Justice Info that key among their conditions for supporting the NPP is to ensure “the unconditional return of the former president”. 

“The worst betrayal on earth”

“The evidence lies in the fact that neither [Barrow] nor NPP nor APRC has had the guts to disclose their obnoxious memorendum of understanding publicly since they claimed to have signed it on September 2,” activist Madi Jobarteh told Justice Info. “Rather, this criminal agreement has been kept away from public view and knowledge because they know it represents the worst betrayal on earth.”

When the Truth Commission concludes its work, its founding Act says it must submit its final report to the president, to the United Nations Secretary General and to regional and international organisations. Within six months, Gambia’s president is expected to issue a position paper stating what he will do. According to its Act, the Truth Commission can grant amnesty to individuals, excluding crimes “which form part of a crime against humanity”.  

“If Gambia failed to act, ICC could step in”

“International law is very clear that governments have a legal duty to investigate and prosecute torture and crimes against humanity, and that these crimes can’t be amnestied. The Gambian Supreme Court decision denying immunity to Yankuba Touray suggests that the court might not look favourably on attempts to shield government officials from prosecution,” Reed Brody of International Commission of Jurists told Justice Info.  

“Courts in countries like Argentina, El Salvador and Uganda have refused to allow amnesties,” said the American human rights lawyer who is working with Jammeh’s victims. “Any amnesty also wouldn’t stop other countries whose citizens were murdered, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, or indeed any country with jurisdiction, from undertaking an investigation. Nor would it stop the International Criminal Court (ICC) from investigating. The new prosecutor Karim Khan has said that ‘justice must happen’ for Jammeh-era crimes. So, if Gambia failed to act, the ICC could step in.”

Popular support for the TRRC 

After the announcement of the agreement, several members of Barrow’s party have expressed their outrage. His personal adviser on strategic communications, Fatou Jaw Manneh, resigned as a result. “It is my firm belief that this particular alliance undermines the integrity of your government and jeopardises everything I stood for,” said Manneh. He was the second to resign after Alagie Kijera, a prominent NPP supporter in the diaspora.  

But it also seems Barrow is misreading the country’s general opinion.

A study done by Afrobarometer, a pan-African, nonpartisan survey research network, said almost three-quarters (73%) of Gambians think perpetrators of crimes and human rights abuses during Jammeh’s regime should be tried in court, a 5% increase compared to 2018. Furthermore, citizens expected the TRRC’s work to lead to a variety of outcomes: national peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and healing (34%); accurate records of human rights abuses of the previous regime (30%); prosecution of accused perpetrators (28%); and support for victims and their families to overcome long-held pain (16%).

Reconciliation of the leaders, against the victims?

In an effort at damage control, Barrow’s NPP issued a statement  saying it has not signed an agreement with APRC on Jammeh’s return or amnesty. The party said their alliance comes out of the “growing necessity of working together in the best interest of national security, reconciliation, unity and peace for the common good of our diverse people”. However, APRC’s deputy party leader Ousman Jatta refuted the statement on September 8, emphasising that Jammeh’s amnesty and return is part of their agreement. 

“APRC seems to want to reconcile without accepting the atrocities that were linked to Jammeh. But this is different from what the TRRC was tasked to do,” reacted Jaw. “They (TRRC) were to investigate human rights violations, provide reparation and promote healing and reconciliation. Of course, one can argue on the extent to which the TRRC has delivered it. But to ignore the victim-centred approach and push for reconciliation of leaders shows that instead of pushing against the never again, they are pushing for impunity.”

“Transitional justice is still on course” 

Gambia’s Justice Minister Jallow said his ministry is not privy to whatever agreement NPP may have signed with APRC. “As far as I am concerned, it is not treated as a government or a state matter. It has no direct impact on the policy that I am in charge of,” Jallow told Justice Info. “Transitional justice is still on course. We are anticipating the submission of the report and plans are in progress as to what is to be done when we receive the report.”

On September 6, Jallow had a meeting with the Victims Center, a watchdog established by victims of the former dictator to pursue justice for his alleged crimes. The Center issued a statement the same day describing the alliance as “shocking” and “deplorable”, raising doubt about the government’s commitment to justice. But Jallow said he assured them of the government’s commitment to ensuring justice for Jammeh-era crimes. 

“Those who are recommended for prosecution, of course, we will work towards prosecuting them until the government decides otherwise,” said Jallow.

Commission’s lead counsel runs for presidency

This comes after another controversial move by the Truth Commission’s lead counsel, Essa Faal. Shot to fame during his time at the Commission, Faal announced his bid for presidency on August 26. “I will make it a crusade to ensure justice for the victims. I will ensure that all the victims get the reparations they need and the recognition they deserve. I will not lead a government that will put it (justice) under the carpet,” he declared at the launch of his race.

Although Barrow’s alliance with Jammeh could consolidate both Faal’s initiative and his perception as a national hero for part of the Gambian population, it is too early to see whether he could translate that to votes.