The Gambia: Justice delayed but not denied

Gambians Protest
Gambians yearning for justice

After a month long hearing of testimonies from 13 witnesses – most of them serving or retired officers of the Gambian security forces, the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) announced at the end of January that it had finished its first session of hearings.

The focus had been on the July 22, 1994 coup that brought the then Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh to power and the removal from office of the avuncular Sir Dauda Jawara, who led the country to independence in February 1965.

Gambians, who had been yearning for justice ever since Jammeh, who was then President, departed in January 2017 after 22 years in office, were bemused. They soon took to social media to ask why those accused of human rights violations during the hearings, which began on January 7, had not been called to account.

In the midst of growing online agitation, Baba Galleh Jallow, the Executive Secretary of the TRRC, had to intervene to calm frayed tempers. “We note that our announcement of the end of [the] first session of hearings has generated some interesting questions and concerns from the general public, especially on Gambian social media circles,” he said in a statement.

“Some people wonder how on earth we could end the first session without having some of the alleged perpetrators named by witnesses appear before the commission. We wish to assure the general public that moving on to another session does not mean the TRRC will never deal with what happened during and immediately after July 22nd 1994 again,” Jallow said.

“We may have passed the first session, but every individual who has testified or has been adversely mentioned remains part of the TRRC process. It should also be noted that some of these alleged perpetrators will inevitably be mentioned in at least a few more future testimonies.

“The public can rest assured that at some point during this process, some of those who have been or will in future be adversely mentioned will be invited, summoned, or subpoenaed to appear before the commission. We do not rule out the possibility that some may voluntarily come forward to testify,” Jallow added.

For the TRRC Chairman, Dr. Lamin J. Sise, though, the first session of hearings helped to point the way for the Commission. “The evidence that came from these testimonies puts the Commission in a good position to establish a reasonably accurate historical record of how and why the coup of July 22nd 1994 happened, who the main players were, and how institutional failures and policy lapses contributed to its success,” he said.

“A good picture also emerges of the nature and extent of human rights violations that occurred during and immediately after the July 22nd 1994 coup.”

Irritating encumbrance

Another irritating encumbrance to the process was highlighted by Sise: people talking to the press to counter witness testimony during the first hearings. “We have noticed an emerging trend whereby persons who feel that they have been adversely mentioned or who possess some information about matters being testified about would go to the press to make statements that are aimed at contradicting the testimony made before the Commission,” he said in a statement.

He said that people who had been ‘adversely mentioned’ had been provided with opportunity to state their own side of the story either via a written statement or a personal appearance.

“It is therefore not necessary for such individuals to attempt to litigate the issues in the public media,” Sise said, adding that the TRRC was “not a witch-hunting exercise against any individual or institution.”

He urged “members of the public and armed and security forces who have information or are victims of human rights violations during the mandate period…to come forward and submit complaints”.

The issue of the unfinished matter of the July 22, 1994 coup hearings was addressed by Sise when the second session began on February 11. The first few days were spent on hearing more testimonies directly relevant to the coup.

But the focus of the second of eight three-week sessions scheduled for this year is on the events of the night of November 11, 1994 when the Armed Forces Patriotic Revolutionary Council announced that a number of soldiers had attempted to overthrow the junta. The AFPRC said there was a firefight in which the alleged coup-makers lost their lives.

The TRRC is looking into this incident because, although many Gambians believed that there was credible evidence to suggest that a coup was being planned, the plotters had not set their plan into motion.

“So, there was no firefight at all,” one Gambian familiar with the incident told New African. “It appears that soldiers suspected of being involved in the coup plot were rounded up on that night and in subsequent days and summarily executed. Their bodies have still not been found.”

Invaluable insight

The fact that bodies have not been found could prove a difficult task for the TRRC to unravel. But Chairman Sise is upbeat about tackling the matter. “We are confident that this session will yield invaluable insight into the true circumstances surrounding an event that, until now, is shrouded in mystery,” he said, while urging Gambians to “help us get to the bottom of what happened on November 11, 1994 in the name of justice and healing”.

With the ubiquitous social media monitoring the hearings, the TRRC could have its work cut out as it tries to “create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights from July 1994 to January 2017.”

But with one week of each month devoted by the TRRC to committee work and review of outreach activities, the Commission is trying to keep Gambians better informed to ensure that the whole exercise is not misunderstood and hijacked by partisan interests.

For now, TRRC Executive Secretary Jallow, a former journalist, appears to be on top of public communications. He has been prolific in releasing detailed press releases and statements to guide Gambians along the way while the TRRC tries to “promote healing and reconciliation [and] respond to the needs of the victims”.

Patience, it would seem is the name of the game.

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