When Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh finally gave up power in January after having lost the December 2016 presidential election, one looming question for the administration of Gambia’s new President Adama Barrow concerned accountability: Should Jammeh and his team be punished for their abuses of power, and if so how? Jammeh, on his way out, appeared to have negotiated some form of immunity for himself (and perhaps for dozens or even hundreds of family members and associates) as part of a deal with West African leaders. Jammeh is now in Equatorial Guinea and likely beyond the reach of Gambian (or international) prosecutors. Meanwhile, Barrow’s team has, since December, sent mixed signals about its intentions vis-a-vis the previous regime: some of Barrow’s people indicated an intention to investigate and punish abuses, whereas Barrow himself favored a truth and reconciliation commission.
On March 24, Barrow’s Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou announced that the administration will create such a commission. According to Tambadou, the commission will investigate human rights abuses and financial wrongdoing. It is unclear to me whether perpetrators of abuses will face criminal penalties, but Tambadou said that victims would receive compensation. Tambadou gave a six-month timeline for the creation of the commission. As part of the preparations, Gambian authorities intend to study past commissions from other countries, including the famous commission in South Africa. Deustsche Welle has more details on the proposed process:
Initially, victims are to be invited to give the commission an account of their experiences. But it will be two years before even preliminary findings are forthcoming. Tambadou has appealed to Gambians to be patient. Many are expecting that the rapid political transformation the country has undergone will lead to equally swift changes in all other walks of life. Reforms cannot be enacted overnight, Tambadou said. Not even in the new Gambia.
The commission has support not just of the president, but of segments of the press and civil society. One interesting argument for the commission appeared earlier this month in The Point. The author suggests that the commission’s importance has to do less with the past than with shaping the future, namely by foreclosing the possibility of Jammeh’s return.
It is hard to contemplate but should by no means be dismissed out of hand that wherever he is, Yahya Jammeh is nursing hopes of making some kind of triumphant return to The Gambia. He must be scheming and plotting and exploring just how he could use whatever financial muscle and local human capital he has to return to Banjul, even to State House so he can teach Gambians a lesson they would never forget. Some of us would think that this is too far-fetched to merit serious consideration. But in my humble opinion, it is not at all farfetched that Jammeh is certainly dreaming of making a return to Banjul sooner rather than later. Whether he does so or not depends on how our political situation evolves over the next three years and the extent to which the real Jammeh is brought out into the open for all to see and recognize.
Making it impossible for Jammeh to come back to The Gambia or the APRC from coming to power ever again requires practical realpolitik from Barrow’s coalition government. Appropriate and rigorous enquiries into the activities of the ousted despot, his enablers and his party must be started immediately, and findings of any and all wrong doing must be vigorously and consistently publicized and discussed on national media. Jammeh’s crimes are so horrendous that when they are exposed and laid bare for all to see, even some of his most die-hard supporters might think twice about ever associating themselves with him or his party. The much touted truth and reconciliation commission needs to be established without delay, its deliberations opened to the public and streamed live on public and social media.
The columnist’s words are not idle. Barrow recently asked neighboring Senegal, a strong backer of his administration, to send more troops to the Gambia. Barrow explained, “Twenty-two years is a long time, [Jammeh] still has influence, he has his friends in Gambia. We need the Senegalese to stabilise that security situation so that we can reform, train our military. This is very important because we cannot do this if the government doesn’t have enough security.” The announcement of the truth and reconciliation commission, then, comes at a time when even the president is worried about what Jammeh’s remaining loyalists might attempt, should the opportunity present itself.