Friday, January 18, 2019

Gambia: Truth Commission’s ‘Never Again’ Objective Should Be Collective Enterprise

President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the tiny West African country for 22 years, was forced to step-down in 2017 by ECOWAS forces after he refused to cede power following an election defeat to current president, Adama Barrow. (Photo: EPA)
A Gambian journalist who was arrested in February 2013 and charged with sedition has said his country’s Truth Commission’s mission objective should be a “collective enterprise” for all.

Alhagie Jobe, who was acquitted and discharged by a lower court after 18 months in remand, said he hopes the Commission will help establish the truth, promote reconciliation and ensure non-reoccurrence of such rights abuses.

The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) began public hearings into human rights abuses committed under the former regime on January 7.

For two years, it will look into human rights violations allegedly committed between July 1994 and January 2017.

“I expect the TRRC to put victims of human rights abuses at the heart of the process, and its mission objective of ‘Never Again’ should be a collective enterprise for the entire nation,” Jobe, who was tortured while in detention, said in an email from his base in Germany.

He said he expects to see justice as well as reparations for victims and those found wanting for the more serious crimes punished according to law.

Jobe and three other journalists won a case against the Gambia government in February 2018 at the ECOWAS Court over rights violations.

Massive rights abuses

President Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the tiny West African country for 22 years, was forced to step-down in January 2017 by ECOWAS forces after he refused to cede power following an election defeat to current president Adama Barrow. 

Jammeh’s reign is characterized by allegations of massive rights abuses that included killings, disappearances, torture, rape, imprisonment, arbitrary arrests, a government-sanctioned ‘witch-hunting’ - targeted mainly at journalists, the opposition, and students involved in peaceful demonstrations.

The TRRC hearings are coming after two years of broad nationwide consultation and increasing anticipation among Gambians, especially victims and human rights defenders.

Reed Brody, a counsel for Human Rights Watch and a lead figure in the campaign to bring ‘Jammeh to Justice’, said the TRRC’s public hearings promise finally to give Jammeh’s victims a platform to tell their stories.

“The TRRC should lay the factual and legal groundwork for holding Jammeh and his henchmen to account, but through the hearings it can also create a groundswell of public support for justice,” Brody said in an email.

“Gambians who were tortured or raped in prison, who were shot for peacefully demonstrating,  whose family members were killed, who were forced into Jammeh’s phony HIV ‘treatment’ programs, or who were targeted in literal witch-hunts will all be able to come forward.”

He said the hearing is an opportunity to have a much more complete picture not only of the abuses committed but of Jammeh’s personal role in those abuses. 

Very frightening

However, in the build up to the establishment of the TRRC, the new government in Banjul has been criticised in some quarters for allowing people accused of rights abuses under Jammeh to continue to serve, especially in the security service.

This has left victims and human rights defenders worried.

“…and what we are seeing, we are scared sometimes, when everybody is trying to portray themselves as victims when you know they are perpetrators,” Fatou Jagne Senghor, a Gambian lawyer and executive director of ARTICLE 19 West Africa, said in an interview.

“There are political moves that are very frightening, when we see people who have perpetrated crimes, who are trying to sneak back and then get back to the government, to the security service without any consequences - that scares many victims that you talk to.

“I spoke to many victims but they are scared about proofs – if people are still sitting in their positions, if people are still holding power and [have] committed certain violations, it is evident that they would ensure that they erase all those elements of proof to avoid indicting themselves.”

She said there should be mechanisms to ensure that the proofs are not destroyed, to also protect the victims from any possible attacks but also from pressure. “We need a victims' support unit that is strong, that will protect those victims.”   

Justice for victims

With these fears and challenges in mind, the victims still hope there would be justice at the end of the truth hearings.

“I hope that the perpetrators will be punished for their crimes,” said Abdou Karim Jammeh, who has yet to recover from gunshot wounds he sustained in a students’ demonstration in April 2000.

Jammeh (no relations with ex-president), is one of many victims of a brutal regime described as “the worst dictatorship you have never heard of”, hoping to tell his story to the Commission.

“I am hopeful that the victims will have justice, and the perpetrators will be taught a lesson whereby such thing should never happen again,” said Abdou Karim, who now uses clutches to walk and has not been able to continue his education.

“The citizens have rights, and mainly those were the rights we were expressing on that very day – so why the killing, why torturing, why jailing unlawfully.”  

Heal the nation

A law establishing the truth commission was enacted by Gambia’s National Assembly in December 2017 to probe into crimes allegedly committed by the Jammeh regime. It is to provide a historical account of human rights violations under the Jammeh regime.

It begins by establishing the truth about events leading up to the 1994 coup that brought Jammeh to power, and the failures of individuals and institutions that allowed for a 22-year dictatorship.

“We want to know how we created a dictator whose mere utterances became a law. We do not want a dictator again,” the Commission’s lead council Essa M. Faal said.

The public hearings of the Commission are to be held in three formats: a narration of acts of rights violations from victims and perpetrators, hearings on how certain state institutional and individuals contributed to rights abuses, and thematic hearings focusing on the activities of Jammeh's hit-squad (the jungulars) and other events.

At the start of the hearings, the Chairperson of the Commission Lamin J. Sise, a former United Nations diplomat, said it is time to heal the nation.

“It is time to find the truth and justice, to heal the nation and to move forward as one people – united in our determination as a nation to ensure that no person’s human rights are violated with impunity and that no government can impose dictatorship on the Gambian people again,” he said.

Protection from prosecution

Since his flight to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017, not much has been heard of Yahya Jammeh, the iron-fist ruler who threatened to kill homosexuals and vowed to rule for a billion years if Allah wills.

In July 2018, Jammeh was heard in a WhatsApp audio directing officials of his Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party to sack individuals who are no longer loyal to the party.

And in a video posted on Facebook on new year’s eve, a pale-looking Jammeh is seen dancing in Malabo alongside Teodoro Obiang, the president of Equatorial Guinea, to live musical performances by Koffi Olomide, a Congolese Soukus singer.

Obiang, another of Africa’s more notorious dictators who has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979, has promised to protect Jammeh from prosecution.

“...but to prosecute someone who took the decision to give up power might be a bad political idea...,” he told France 24 and RFI in 2018, adding he will examine, in consultation with his lawyers, any indictment brought against Gambia's Jammeh.

"I believe that the stance of protecting former heads of state is a correct one," Obiang said after meeting with African Union leader Alpha Conde last year, according to AFP.

"I hail Alpha Conde who told me he will not accept any demand for Yahya Jammeh's extradition. Even I will not accept it.

"We are in full agreement that Yahya Jammeh must be protected. He must be respected as a former African leader. Because this is a guarantee for other African leaders that they will not be harassed after they leave power."

However, victims of rights abuses under Jammeh believe Obiang can’t protect Jammeh from prosecution should it be required.

Written by Modou S. Joof

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