Dec 17th, 2020, 04:04 PM

The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation in The Gambia

By Nafisatou Tambajang
The victims of the Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh and the silence around the atrocities committed.

The term "truth and reconciliation" is familiar in African politics. In countries such as South Africa and Rwanda, truth and reconciliation commissions have been set up after genocides or atrocities to bring restorative justice to their populations. 

More recently, truth and reconciliation has come to The Gambia. The country set up its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRRC) in January 2017 following the ouster of dictator Yahya Jammeh. Its aim is to investigate human rights violations and determine what reparations can be awarded to victims while encouraging reconciliation and taking steps to ensure that such mistakes never happen again. This is reinforced by the country's "Never Again" slogan.

When Yahya Jammeh was president of The Gambia, between 1994 and 2016, there were alleged killings, kidnappings, tribalism, and witchcraft accusations.  The commission examines records, documents and information from credible sources including former government workers. Commission members visit sites where bodies have been buried and crimes were alleged to have been committed. Once most of this evidence is gathered, they interview witnesses. The commission promotes healing and reconciliation by participating in events that foster forgiveness and healing and create national dialogue and peace building. The hearings of the commission are televised on live television, radio and YouTube.

Some victims are asked if they wish to be seated in the same room as the perpetrators, and if they agree they can receive an apology and acceptance from their torturers and decide to forgive or not. First the victims request must be accepted. If it demonstrated that someone was a victim of human rights violation, there will be some considerations to award reparations. Some victims are given immediate health and medical attention. Community outreach programs make sure that people learn from the past, and the commission's findings promote transitional justice objectives.

The River Gambia which the "The" in the countries name comes from.

The Gambia, a country in West Africa with a population of 1.8 million people, gained its independence from Britain is 1965. It has never had a civil war but has struggled with the experience of colonization and presidents who have remained in power for more than twenty years. The Gambia was part of the Mali empire and the Arabs and Portuguese traded a lot in the area which is why languages such as Mandinka and Wolof have some of the same words and meanings of these languages. Gambia was a hot spot for the Atlantic slave trade where over 2 million Africans were taken and forced into slavery. Its connection to the slave trade was made famous in the popular television series, "Roots". 

The country's first president after independence, Dawda Jawara, was reelected give times and remained in power from 1962 to 1994. In 1981, a failed coup against him was led by Kukoi Samba Sangyang of the Socialist Labor party. More than 500 Gambians were killed in the attempted coup. After the coup attempt, Gambia signed a confederation treaty with Senegal in 1984 that combined the Senegalese and Gambian armed forces to bring together the economies and currencies. Seven years later, however, The Gambia withdrew from this arrangement.  

In 1994 another coup happened, this time successful. It brought to power Yahya Jammeh with four members of the (AFPRC) the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council. Yahya Jammeh was chairman and became Gambian president at the age of 29. Like other African leaders, he claimed he wanted to install democracy and a proper civilian government, but his rule soon became a dictatorship.

In 2013, The Gambia withdrew from the Commonwealth after 48 years. Yahya Jammeh no longer wanted to be a part of neo-colonial institutions. In December 2016 he ran against Mama Kandeh from the Gambia Democratic Congress party and Adama Barrow from the independent coalition of eight parties. Barrow won after 22 years of dictatorship. First Jammeh conceded gracefully, then a week later rejected the election results and demanded wanted to vote recount. He final stepped down after ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States) sent soldiers and jet fighters. After leaving power, he went in to exile in Equatorial Guinea. The Gambia rejoined the Commonwealth in 2018. 

While atrocities were being committed under Yahya Jammeh, many did not dare speak out because of the fear of being murdered or imprisoned again. When journalist Deyda Hydara reported about  free speech violations, he was murdered, though it took years to discovery his body. After Jammeh's departure, Gambians heard of accounts of atrocities for the first time thanks to the TRRC. One witness, beauty queen Fatou "Toufah" Jallow, was allegedly raped by Yahya Jammeh in 2015. The beauty pageant that she won was meant to empower women who were given the opportunity to go abroad and study. It was rumored that beauty queens often became mistresses of Jammeh or traveled with him as protocols to be given to other African presidents to use sexually. She also said Jammeh proposed marriage to her, but she refused. It was said Jammeh married women in a ceremony called “takki souf”, an underground marriage so a wife remains secret.

Jallow also claimed to have been drugged and raped by the former president. "I've really tried to hide the story and erase it and make sure it's not part of me," said Jallow. "Realistically I couldn't so I decided to speak now because it is time to tell the story and to make sure that Yayha Jammeh hears what he has done."

Fatou Jallow alleged rape victim of Former president Jammeh

Another victim was Sana Sabally, a member of the AFPRC who took over the country alongside Jammeh. Appearing before the TRRC, Sabally explained how they had killed soldiers they believed to be traitors after the coup. Sabally told the commission that he believed the new government was going to rule for a six-month transitional period. When he disagreed with Jammeh, he was jailed. Prisoners under Jammeh were tortured, castrated, beaten, even buried alive. Other techniques used to torture prisoners included waterboarding, mock execution, and electrocution. Sabally said two women close to him were brought in and tortured  before his eyes so he would break. In exile in Germany following his release from prison, he studied medicine and became a doctor treating trauma patients. Public perception on Sabally changed when people heard his ordeal. He was forgiven by a murdered soldier's wife

AFPRC Junta Members. Yahya Jammeh, Edward Singhateh and Sana Sabally

Years after Sabally's arrest came that of his former ally, Baba Jobe, in 2003 during the holy month of Ramadan which is a period of peace for most Gambians. Baba Jobe was then secretary to Yahya Jammeh and in charge of the national youth institutions that helped him get close to Libya's Muhammed Ghaddafi. Jammeh, who was paranoid about being usurped, had Baba Jobe arrested and convicted him of economic crimes.  Jobe's wife Tida Jaiteh Jobe testified at the TRRC as thousands watched as she delivered her testimony. "The powers that Jammeh gave to Baba were the powers he used against Baba," she said.

Tida Jaiteh Jobe. Wife of the late Baba Jobe

The Gambian public is now fully aware of all these crimes against human rights. Today the country, under president Adama Barrow, has freedom of speech and human rights are the order of the day in the tiny West African country. All Gambians are fond of the “Never Again” slogan and have a taste of true democracy. There is hope again for a "new Gambia", as some call it. Gambia will never go back to tyranny again.