With The Gambia’s highly anticipated election on December 4 set to be a close race, the stakes are high for victims of former President Yahya Jammeh’s era who – five years on from his historic defeat at the ballot box – are yet to see perpetrators brought to justice.
The names of the officials accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for gross human rights violations perpetrated during Jammeh’s 22-year rule and who should face criminal trial were submitted to President Adama Barrow last week.
The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission’s (TRRC) 11th-hour submission, just over a week before Gambians go to the polls, has buoyed victims who, after hearing nearly three years of harrowing witness testimonies, feared the twice-delayed report could be shelved with a change of power.
“While not a flawless process, it is an incredible achievement that the TRRC finally submitted its report,” said Nana-Jo Ndow, founder and executive director of victim organisation ANEKED, whose father Saul Ndow is alleged to have been forcibly disappeared during Jammeh’s rule.
However, Ndow expressed disappointment the recommendations for prosecutions have not yet been made public.
“This will needlessly prolong the agonising wait of the victims towards closure,” she said, noting that the recommendations are not legally binding.
“The government can decide to implement them or not. So, the fight for justice continues,” Ndow added.
There is uncertainty over how or even if the TRRC’s recommendations will be implemented with a change of government.
Anxiety has been building among victims and rights campaigners since Barrow, who had previously promised to implement the TRRC’s recommendations, formed a coalition alliance with Jammeh’s old party – the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) to help him win a second term.
‘Country has gone through a lot’
The APRC has long dismissed the TRRC as a witch-hunt to persecute Jammeh and other party members and has recently been pushing a narrative of reconciliation amid speculation the party has made a deal with Barrow to grant Jammeh amnesty, paving the way for his potential return to The Gambia. He is currently exiled in Equatorial Guinea.
Even if there is no legal basis to the suspected amnesty deal, rights campaigners believe the union, if it succeeds, could be problematic for the country’s ongoing transitional justice process. Key reforms, including the scrapping of the Jammeh-era constitution and overhauling draconian press and public order laws, have yet to be completed.
Many victims are pinning their hopes on a change in government after years of feeling their need for swift justice has been ignored by Barrow’s government.
“The whole country has gone through a lot, and we fought so hard to get Jammeh out,” said activist Fatoumatta Sandeng, whose father, opposition activist Solo Sandeng, was arrested at a political rally in April 2016 and beaten to death while detained by Jammeh’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA).
“We are scared that if this government is re-elected, our fight through the transitional justice system will really be compromised and perpetrators could be left to walk free and victims will not have their needs for justice met,” she said.
She warned of the potential for civil unrest if, for example, “the APRC party was to get much bigger and say and do hurtful things against us, or if Jammeh were to return”.
There is a possibility for a change in power, with five other candidates vying for highest office. Barrow’s strongest challenger is former ally and now archrival Ousainou Darboe, 73, leading the country’s largest opposition force, the United Democratic Party (UDP).
Darboe was in jail for protesting against Solo Sandeng’s death when Barrow was chosen to lead the UDP in his absence. After serving as foreign minister and vice president, Barrow, 56, sacked Darboe in 2019 for reportedly refusing to endorse his bid for a second presidential term, having reneged on his 2016 election promise to step aside after three years.
“They [UDP] are the party that suffered the most violations under Jammeh’s dictatorship, so one would assume they would take the steps to implement the TRRC recommendations if they won the election,” said human rights activist Madi Jobarteh.
Jammeh’s campaign interference
Even while in exile, Jammeh has been causing trouble in the lead-up to the polls. Last month, he rejected the Barrow-APRC alliance and directed his loyalist supporters by voice recording at rallies to form the “No Alliance Movement” with Mama Kandeh running for the Gambia Democratic Congress party.
Jammeh’s interference in the election campaign has been a “major setback”, believes Fatou Jagne Senghore, executive director of human rights NGO Article 19 West Africa. Jammeh “being absent, but quite present in the political scene has clouded the election”, she said.
She is concerned that it has emboldened Jammeh’s followers and sympathisers, who had kept quiet during the truth commission hearings.
“Even though people came and confessed at the TRRC, there are many people in the country who believe that most of the things Jammeh was accused of are not true,” added Jagne Senghore, a Gambian who was instrumental in the diaspora campaign to end Jammeh’s rule while she was based in Senegal.
Jammeh was linked by witnesses at the truth commission to the killing and torture of many opponents, “witch hunts”, a sham HIV treatment programme, the murder of 56 West African migrants, rape and sexual assault.
Even though the TRRC recommendations are not yet public, “the Commission left no doubt that Yahya Jammeh was top among the former officials whose prosecutions it was recommending”, said Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists, who works with Jammeh’s victims, speaking after the TRRC’s submission.
Victims and human rights groups held a public forum on November 17 to discuss the avenues to justice.
As the campaign reached its final week, it was looking likely to be a “two-horse race” between Barrow and Darboe, said Jobarteh.
Whoever becomes The Gambia’s next president, victim campaigners are unequivocal that there can be no reconciliation without justice.
“In my case, and a lot of victims feel this way, you cannot force me to reconcile with someone who has killed my father without me knowing that they have faced justice. And knowing that they could have faced justice, but there wasn’t the political will to make that happen,” said Fatoumatta Sandeng, who is spokesperson for the Jammeh2Justice campaign.
“Bringing Jammeh to justice needs a very strong political will and we have seen the opposite with this government,” she added. “It’s a really tense moment.”