Serrekunda, The Gambia – When Ebrima Chongan was confronted by a cadre of mutinying soldiers near Banjul on July 22, 1994, it was a matter of shoot or die.
A former commander of the Gendarmerie, he knew some of the men coming towards him and what they were capable of – hours before they were his subordinates.
But now they had torn off their berets and joined a mutiny led by another one of his trainees, a young colonel called Yahya Jammeh.
“I opened fire,” he said. “They scattered.”
Chongan recounted on Monday his experiences of the coup that brought Jammeh to power at the first hearing of a commission set up to discover the truth of his brutal rule.
For 22 years, between 1994 and 2016, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, torture, and wholesale massacres became state policy. They were most often carried out with impunity.
Chongan would later endure arbitrary detention, solitary confinement in a mosquito-ridden cell, beatings with rifle butts and a crude mock execution.
Other victims, witnesses and even perpetrators are expected to come forward to testify at the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which has broad powers to administer compensation to victims and, crucially, suggest alleged perpetrators for prosecution.
The 11-member commission drawn from all the major regions, and which includes a bishop and an imam will begin at the causes before taking up Jammeh’s oppression, which included the hunting of alleged witches and wizards, his bogus HIV-cure programme, the persecution of sexual minorities, and the silencing of the media.
A session will be devoted to the “Junglers” – the shadowy paramilitary group said to be behind many of the atrocities.
With Jammeh now gone and with him the excuses and cover-ups that had left victims and their families in the dark, they now feel it is time for truth and justice.
“We demand that light be shed. They really have to give us facts and do their homework,” said Baba Hydara, whose father, journalist Deyda Hydara and cofounder of The Point newspaper, was killed in December 2004.
Deyda Hydara was pursued by two taxis after a late night at work while he was dropping off two colleagues. As he drove down a quiet back street, one of the taxis drew close. Shots rang out. Hydara slumped over on his steering wheel as his car veered off into a nearby ditch.
Baba blames the regime’s Junglers for the killing of his father, whose vociferous newspaper columns denouncing regime excesses earned him the ire of state authorities.
Hydara, who now copublishes The Point, said he wants the full chain of Jammeh’s command to be held accountable.
“Everyone, even the drivers that drove the taxis, must face justice,” he said.
The TRRC forms just one part of an ambitious attempt by Jammeh’s successor, President Adama Barrow, to transform The Gambia‘s political culture and society in a way that makes a return to violence and dictatorship all but impossible.
Under the slogan of “Never Again”, human rights workshops at schools, town hall meetings, and listening exercises in far-flung villages will run parallel to the TRRC.
“The idea is that if you empower the people to know their rights and responsibilities as citizens, then it will be difficult for governments to violate their rights with impunity,” said Baba Jallow, executive secretary of the TRRC, an academic and journalist who recently returned to The Gambia after 17 years in exile.
Women’s issues are a salient feature of this strategy. Women-only listening circles will provide a safe space for victims to recount their experiences, while sexual violence training will help communities to understand the needs of victims.
Such training is needed, said Zainab Rilwan Lowe, cofounder of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations, because “a culture of silence” prevents victims of sexual violence from coming forward.
“Women suffered most when the men were arrested and they had to take responsibility for the children,” added Rilwan Lowe, whose brother has been missing since 2006.
As victims at the hearing looked on at Ebrima Chongan swearing an oath on the Quran before giving his testimony, some are hoping to see Yaya Jammeh do the same in a court of law.
Since 2017, he has been hosted in Equatorial Guinea by ruler Teodoro Obiang, who stands accused of a similar record of atrocities.
Equatorial Guinea has never signed the statute of the International Criminal Court, making Jammeh’s extradition dependent on Obiang. A video circulated online last week of Jammeh dancing beside Obiang at a lavish ball on New Year’s Eve, wearing his customary billowing white robe and matching kaftan, could be a sign that he is there to stay.
Holding Jammeh to account
That’s unless lawyer Reed Brody has his way. Dubbed the “dictator hunter” for his part in the successful prosecution of Chadian leader Hissene Habre, Brody has been collecting witness testimonies as part of the Jammeh2Justice campaign.
“I think that the TRRC can lay the groundwork for holding Jammeh and his henchmen to account. When it is finished we’re going to have a much more complete picture of not only the abuses that were committed but also what was Jammeh’s personal role in those abuses.”
With The Gambia still going through the transition process, Brody has sought to bring a case against him in Ghana for the murder of a group of 54 West African migrants en route to Europe, of which the majority were Ghanaian.
“We’ve been working with the government of Ghana to investigate that massacre and to consider the possibility of Jammeh’s prosecution in Ghana, not as an ultimate solution, but as a way of beginning the accountability process while The Gambia gets ready to do that.”
As much as victims support the TRRC process there is some unease the Gambian government has left open the possibility for perpetrators to receive amnesties.
While the commission has agreed to consult families on this, Baba Hydara already knows that he wants those responsible for his father’s death to feel the full force of the law.
“Amnesty can only encourage further impunity,” he said.
“I’m not here to give amnesty to someone who made grandchildren never meet their grandad, who made a wife lose her husband, and who made kids lose their fathers.”