Gambians seek justice after a 22-year reign of terror

After historic election ousted president Yahya Jammeh, many are eager to see how truth and reconciliation unfolds.

Gambia's President Jammeh smiles during a rally in Banjul
Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh has demanded a vote recount citing 'serious abnormalities' [Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters]

Serrekunda, The Gambia – In a dusty backyard tucked behind a hardware store, two men sit under the shade of a Kapok tree, chatting animatedly about the fate of their outgoing president, Yahya Jammeh.

“We cannot forgive him. There is no mercy,” says Ismael, whose name has been changed to protect his identity after Jammeh announced he’s not yet ceding power.

“We need to go after Yahya. He did things we cannot forget. He seized our brothers and we didn’t see the dead bodies. It is too painful. He must go to court. We want him to tell us where are our brothers.”

Such is his emotion that Ismael, an unemployed 30-year-old, has to stop to catch his breath.

“It will not be easy to forget,” says his friend Yunus, a 30-year-old farmer whose name has also been changed. “It was like he kidnapped us and put us in a big hole. He blocked our minds and our brains.”

As the dust settles on The Gambia’s historic election, which saw the nation oust longtime dictator Jammeh after a 22-year reign of terror, the national debate over his eventual prosecution has reached fever pitch.

Jammeh’s brutal regime locked up and tortured countless journalists and opposition figures. Some, such as Solo Sandeng, an activist who was arrested at a protest in April, died in custody. Others have simply disappeared into the system, their fate a mystery to grieving families and friends.

President-elect Adama Barrow addresses crowds outside his residence [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
President-elect Adama Barrow addresses crowds outside his residence [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]

After a week of euphoric celebration, Gambians have high expectations of how the incoming coalition government will handle the process of truth, reconciliation, and justice that will enable the country to move on. On the streets of Serrekunda, a town on the outskirts of Banjul, Al Jazeera found a clear majority calling for Jammeh to face trial.

President-elect Adama Barrow told Al Jazeera that a truth and reconciliation commission would be established to look at human rights abuses committed during Jammeh’s rule, after which the government will file a case at the International Criminal Court.

“It is a matter of justice. People should not fear. The process will be fair and will not pinpoint anyone,” he said. Filing at the ICC would, he said, ensure that principles of “good governance” are upheld. In other words, it would ensure things don’t get personal.

“We didn’t contest the elections to take revenge,” he said. “There are no personal things against anyone.”

Barrow’s caution is understandable. Although power has been draining palpably from Jammeh since last week’s election victory, the country now faces a delicate two-month transition period until Barrow officially takes the reins at the end of January.

As rumours swirl around the country, many fear the incumbent could risk a coup in a desperate act of self-preservation. He is certainly no stranger to coups, having seized power by force in 1994.

As people took to the streets they shouted 'freedom at last' [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
As people took to the streets they shouted ‘freedom at last’ [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]

But, with the heads of the Gambian army and police services having publicly declared their support for the new coalition forces, it seems a coup would be doomed to failure.

As fear of the Jammeh regime fades, the debate over how he should be tried is gaining pace. Although Barrow has stated his preference for an international investigation, other politicians believe he could be tried in the Gambian courts.

Lamin Dibba, senior administrative secretary with the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), the major party in the new ruling coalition, says Jammeh should be tried at home.

“If it can be done in The Gambia, he will be tried in The Gambia because the crimes he committed took place here. If it’s beyond our laws, then international law will take over,” he says.

“We are not interested in any vendetta. Whatever he did wrong, the law will take its proper course. He will be handled by the law, not by sentiment. We don’t want to give the impression we are retaliating,” he says. “We have to be careful, look at things properly.”

The coalition government will move to prosecution – whether nationally or internationally – in the coming year, he said.

Holed up in his villa in his hometown of Kanilai, where his bucolically named business Kanilai Farms – a tentacular enterprise including bakeries, butchers and taxis which has allegedly thrived on tax-funded subsidies and land-grabbing – is based, Jammeh is keeping a low profile.

Omar Jallow, leader of the People's Progressive Party [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
Omar Jallow, leader of the People’s Progressive Party [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]

The incoming government intends to compensate Gambians for their loss of land and property during the regime, says Omar Jallow, the leader of the People’s Progressive Party, which is part of the new coalition government.

He was in prison 22 times and lost sight in one eye as a result of torture.

“If America and Japan can be friends when America dropped bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, if Nelson Mandela could forgive the white South Africans, if Ghana could forgive Rawlings, then we Gambians should be able to learn from those lessons.

“We have seen a leader treating citizens worse than our colonial masters. We want to set up a [reconciliation] commission to remember all these things.

“We will forgive, but not forget.”

Jammeh’s shadowy paramilitary hit squad, the so-called “junglers”, is based near Kanilai. Largely drawn from the Presidential Guard, the group is alleged to have killed newspaper editor Deyda Hydara in 2004.

According to Human Rights Watch, other abuses include the execution of more than 50 migrants who had been detained after arrival in the country, their bodies dumped in a well not far from the village.

A wave of euphoria spread across the Gambia after the election results were announced [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
A wave of euphoria spread across the Gambia after the election results were announced [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]

The process of reconciliation started last week with the release of political prisoners, who had been arrested after protesting against Solo Sandeng’s death in custody in April. On Monday and Tuesday, 31 prisoners were released in two lots from Mile 2 Central Prison, just outside Banjul.

Among the first group freed was Ousainou Darboe, the 68-year-old leader of the UDP. A human rights lawyer who founded the opposition party in 1996, he is often described as “the Mandela of the Gambia” for his two decades of struggle against Jammeh.

A towering political figure in the country, replaced by Barrow, a real-estate businessman, he made a return to freedom that was viewed by sources as a potentially divisive factor in coalition politics.

But Darboe indicated to Al Jazeera he will not be returning to the fray. Instead, he plans to work on much-needed judicial reform. “I could do that without playing a role in the government. I could be part of a committee,” he says.

If Darboe was not tortured while in prison, he believes it was because of the people power demonstrated during the April protests. “If I hadn’t gone out that Saturday to protest Solo Sandeng’s death, and subsequently went on to be imprisoned for something else, they would have done something to me.”

Ousainou Darboe is released on bail along with 19 other political prisoners [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
Ousainou Darboe is released on bail along with 19 other political prisoners [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]

Sheriffo Suno, 38, part of the second group of activists released on Tuesday, suffered a different fate. Al Jazeera met him on his way back home from the beach, where he went to cleanse himself of his prison experience in the sea.

He described how he had been attacked by riot police at protests, beaten with a truncheon, the tendons on his arm severed with a knife, disabling the middle finger of his left hand.

“Then one of them said ‘Let’s finish him off’ and tried to choke me,” he says.

He was first held at Janjanbureh prison in the east of the country, where he says prisoners were forced to sleep in a hole, men piled two or three deep into a space 2.5 metres long and 1 metre wide, which was covered by wood.

“I cannot describe the heat,” he says. “We couldn’t move, couldn’t change position. We cooked like chickens.”

After 52 days, he was moved to Mile 2 Central Prison, from where he was released on Tuesday.

Barrow has vowed to find all political prisoners who have disappeared without trace. “We will access all the records,” he says.

Sheriffo Suno was released from prison on Tuesday [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]
Sheriffo Suno was released from prison on Tuesday [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]

One legacy of Jammeh’s leadership was the division sown among ethnic groups, in particular between his minority Jola tribe and the Mandinka, Fulani and Wolof.

Although The Gambia does not have a history of tribal conflict, Jammeh feared he might be toppled by the majority Mandinka group, which make up 33 percent of the population, says a journalist with state broadcaster GRTS who did not want to be named.

“He planted Jola boys with no academic qualifications everywhere, at the National Intelligence Agency, at the electricity board and the ports authority,” says the journalist.

Although his cabinets were mixed, a Jola cleaner could be more important than a minister because he or she would have direct access to the president’s ear, he says.

The ethnic tensions were confirmed on the streets.

“Everywhere, at the police or at the airport, if you didn’t speak Jola, you had a problem,” says Ismael Jaiteh, 55, a driver. “If I went to the police station to renew my driving licence and spoke Wolof, they would look at me funny.”

Isatou Toray says she believes tribal differences are not a threat [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
Isatou Toray says she believes tribal differences are not a threat [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]

But Isatou Touray, who entered the electoral race as an independent presidential candidate before joining the opposition coalition after Solo Sandeng’s death, says the call for change came from across the country, from all ethnic groups.

“We are sensitive and aware that these conflicts can come. But we intermarry, so the space for conflict is limited,” she says. “There’s unity and diversity in The Gambia. You have different tribes and societies everywhere. But it’s not a dividing fact. The Gambia is a composition of different religious and ethnic groups.

“That’s the beauty of The Gambia.”

One of the first priorities of the new government will be to reform the system of village chiefs, says Touray.

“Under Jammeh, the constitution was changed so he could appoint chiefs,” she says. “That will change. Because he appointed them, they were under his prerogative, so they gave their allegiance. He was their employer. In a democracy, you allow people to choose their leaders.”

Ironically, for someone who flouted the laws of his own land, the re-establishment of an independent judiciary in The Gambia should ensure Jammeh a fair trial.

Back in the yard, Ismael says Gambians will not rest until the government moves to prosecute Jammeh. “People are still stockpiling food. Anything can happen. We don’t know. Some will still die for this man,” he says. “He has eyes everywhere. He knows all corners of The Gambia.”

Yunus believes a coup attempt would blow up in Jammeh’s face.

“But as long as he is free, we will not be 100 percent free,” he says. “It will not be easy to forget.”

This story has been amended to protect identities after Jammeh announced on December 10 that he rejected the election results

President-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters outside his residence [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
President-elect Adama Barrow waves to his supporters outside his residence [Misha Somerville/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera