A Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the Gambia

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.

Senegal, Niger, and West African Democracy

I’m up to Global Observatory today with a post discussing two legal battles I have blogged about separately here – the trial of Hama Amadou in Niger, and the proceedings against Khalifa Sall in Senegal. My post at GO compares the two situations and assesses the implications for democracy in West Africa.

Senegal: The Arrest of Dakar Mayor Khalifa Sall and Its Effects

Khalifa Sall is the mayor of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. He is also a key opponent of Senegal’s President Macky Sall, and a prominent member of the Socialist Party. On March 7, the Dakar High Court indicted and detained Khalifa Sall on charges of embezzlement. Today, he is supposed to appear for a new hearing (French).

The mayor’s defenders see the case as politically motivated – as a way for Macky Sall to attempt to shape the coming legislative elections in July and to neutralize a potential challenger for the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2019.

Politically, the short-term impact seems to have been to raise Khalifa Sall’s profile even further, especially among the opposition (French). He is now, Le Monde says, “the man to beat” in the legislative elections, in which he plans to run his own slate of candidates. Jeune Afrique (French) says that the situation has “galvanized the opposition.”

The case is having noticeable effects not just on the political sphere, but also on the religious plane. Interestingly, the Sy family of Tivaouane, one of the most prominent Sufi families in the country (they are leaders within the Tijaniyya order), is intervening on Khalifa Sall’s behalf. If this source (French) can be trusted, the new head (khalifa) of the family has telephoned Macky Sall to ask for Khalifa Sall’s release. The khalifa invoked the Sy family’s ties to Khalifa Sall by marriage as the reason for his intervention. A younger but quite prominent member of the Sy family, Mansour Sy, was even more outspoken in his support (French) for the Dakar mayor, pledging that he would go to prison with him if he is convicted. How much the entreaties and threats from Tivaouane matter to Macky Sall will be interesting to see.

Senegal: A New Khalifa for the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane

Within Senegal’s Sufi orders, the Sy family of Tivaouane is one of the most important (usually observers consider the Tijaniyya of Tivaouane, the Mouridiyya of Touba, and the Tijaniyya of Kaolack to be the most important Sufi communities in the country). The family recently had a change of leadership with the passing of Cheikh Ahmed Tidiane Sy Al Maktoum and the succession of Abdoul Aziz Sy Al Amine. The position is known as Khalifa, but means “successor” rather than “caliph,” or at least it means something different from the connotation that “caliph” has taken on in English.

A brief biography of the new khalifa, who was born in 1928, can be found here (French). He is the sixth khalifa of the Sy family, and is the son of Serigne Babacar Sy (1885-1957), the first khalifa, and is the grandson of Al-Hajj Malik Sy (1855-1922), the founder of the family and of this branch of the Tijaniyya. The new khalifa has been a longtime counselor to past leaders of the community.

The Situation in Gambia on Inauguration Eve

Tomorrow is the Gambia’s inauguration day, and it is clear that incumbent President Yahya Jammeh has no plans to step down. Jammeh initially recognized the results of the December 1 election and conceded to opposition candidate Adama Barrow, but then reversed himself, generating the present crisis.

Barrow remains in Senegal under official protection from the national gendarmerie (French). Plans to inaugurate Barrow are proceeding, but the inauguration may take place at a Gambian embassy (likely the one in Senegal), which is technically Gambian territory. Here is Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama explaining:

An embassy is a territory of a particular country that that embassy represents. The constitution provides for a swearing-in by a judge of a superior court and there are a number of those that are available.

The inauguration will, in the eyes of other West African leaders, the African Union, and most of the international community, make Barrow the recognized president of the Gambia. Enforcing that recognition is another matter. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is openly talking about a military intervention in the Gambia to remove Jammeh, but it is unclear how seriously and quickly West African leaders would move to launch such an intervention. Nigeria’s decision to send a warship to the Gambia could be one sign of seriousness.

Meanwhile, ECOWAS continues to urge Jammeh to step down peacefully and accept asylum in the region, possibly in Nigeria.

Inside the Gambia, Jammeh is attempting to forcefully assert his rule, notably by declaring a 90-day state of emergency on January 17. Jammeh has already begun to clamp down on dissent, shutting down radio stations and harassing Barrow’s supporters – one of whom, the mayor of the capital Banjul, has fled to Senegal.

Jammeh’s crackdown and refusal to leave power, however, are beginning to produce major dissent from within his own government. At least five ministers – communications, foreign affairs, finance, trade, and environment – have resigned from Jammeh’s cabinet. (You can read the foreign affairs minister’s letter to Jammeh here.) Their departures represent a real loss of confidence in Jammeh, and suggest that many Gambian elites feel he will eventually lose his struggle against Barrow and ECOWAS. Meanwhile, other institutions are also bucking Jammeh’s authority – the head of the Independent Electoral Commission remains outside the country, and the Supreme Court is refusing to hear Jammeh’s petition to overturn the election results. In a sense, the Court’s decision gives Jammeh a pretext for staying in power – he says that he must wait until the Court rules, which might not be until May – but in another sense the Court’s posture shows that it is unwilling to help him in any legal maneuvering.

The crackdown is making ordinary Gambians fearful, and many are reportedly fleeing for Senegal.

Tomorrow, then, may bring Barrow’s inauguration abroad, and Jammeh’s refusal to step down. It will be ECOWAS’ move then.

Senegal: Conflict Inside the Socialist Party

Senegal’s Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) was in power from 1960-2000 and remains one the country’s major political parties. It helped current President Macky Sall win the second round of the 2012 elections, but a Jeune Afrique article (French) this week gives some insight into the party’s internal divisions. These divisions partly concern the 2019 elections and whether the party should back Sall or run its own candidate.

Highlighting these divisions, as the article shows, is the aftermath of clashes at the party’s headquarters in Dakar, the capital, last March 5. The clashes (French) were between supporters of longtime party leader Ousmane Tanor Dieng and Dakar’s Mayor Khalifa Sall. At stake last March was the party’s decision regarding a referendum on changes to the structure of Senegal’s presidency – Dieng supported the “yes” vote (and thereby supported Macky Sall’s camp) while Khalifa Sall supported the “no” camp. In the referendum, the “yes” camp won heavily. Khalifa Sall, I’ve been told by journalists in Dakar, is perhaps the politician whom Macky Sall fears the most.

Going back to the Jeune Afrique article, some of Khalifa Sall’s supporters were recently jailed. The group includes some local politicians and other party officials, including Bamba Fall, the mayor of a major neighborhood in Dakar called Medina. Jeune Afrique writes that the jailing has evoked bitterness among Khalifa Sall’s supporters, who are gearing up for a broader intra-party conflict over the 2019 elections. While Dieng and his camp appear likely to support the incumbent president, Khalifa Sall’s camp leans toward running an independent socialist candidate.

Another opposition newspaper (French) complains that different instances of political violence in Senegal are being treated differently – in other words, that the powers that be are using the courts to suppress political dissent. Senegal is not a major theatre of political violence, but the legal battles, intra-party struggles, and occasional clashes now all offer insights into how the 2019 campaign is already beginning.

 

The Islamic State in Libya and Sahelian Recruitment

In late May, the Islamic State’s Wilayat Tarabulus (Tripolitania Province, i.e. northwestern Libya) released a video aimed at recruiting West African Muslims. Entitled “From Humiliation to Glory,” the video’s core argument is that Muslims will face damnation if they do not journey to what the Islamic State considers the land of true Islam.

The titular “humiliation” refers to the idea that West African Muslims live in societies marked by unbelief – societies where Islam has been stripped of “jihad, shari’a, and the Caliphate.” The opening sequence of the video shows pictures of Muslim heads of state like Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, and Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, and denounces these rulers as puppets of “Crusaders” (i.e., the West – Jammeh, for example, is shown standing next to U.S. President Barack Obama). Western African Muslims, the video argues, should leave the land of de facto unbelief for the Islamic State’s territory in Libya, depicted as a land of both military glory and material prosperity and security.

Scripturally, this argument rests on verses such as Qur’an 9:38-39 – verses that the Islamic State reads, without applying any historical context, as speaking directly to West African Muslim today. The video repeatedly invokes the idea of punishment in Hell for allegedly lax Muslims.

The bulk of the video features five West African speakers – a Malian, a Nigerian, a Ghanaian, a Senegalese, and an English-speaking “immigrant” with no identified nationality. The video makes liberal use of West African languages: Hausa from the Nigerian and Wolof from the Senegalese, and two other languages I can’t identify (readers, feel free to comment if you can identify these languages). The Nigerian and the Ghanaian also speak in English. Interestingly, the video makes little use of French.

Will the video be effective at recruitment? Perhaps, in the hands of the right recruiter and the right combination of circumstances and social networks. The video is slickly produced, and the young speakers seem charming, calm, and dedicated. Perhaps some young men (and women) could be lured by the religious argument, the overall vibe, the appeal of participating in a revolutionary lifestyle, and/or the negative characterization of leaders like Issoufou and Jammeh. Certainly there is some discontent in West Africa with such leaders, especially with an autocrat such as Jammeh, and there is also some discontent with secularism itself.

At the same time, however, the video’s argument about damnation will not be new to many listeners. There are many Muslim clerics across West Africa working hard to rebut that argument, and to insist that conducting moral reform at home is better than fighting for a dubious cause abroad. Moreover, the levels of political discontent and identity crisis also seem to be far lower in much of West Africa than in, say, Tunisia, which has supplied a strikingly high number of fighters for the Islamic State.

In a way, it was most jarring to see the Senegalese speaker. I’ve grown a bit cynical about Senegalese exceptionalism – the idea that Senegal’s history, religious landscape, and/or national character make it immune to “extremism” – but I’m not immune to the pull of that notion. Seeing a Wolof speaker promoting the Islamic State seemed bizarre. (Even though I should have been prepared for it; there have already been reports of isolated Senegalese heading to Libya.)

Will facts on the ground undermine the video’s appeal? Quite possibly. Presumably any aspiring jihadist in West Africa, especially one with access to radio or television, would conclude that now is a bad time to head to the Libyan city of Sirte, which was until recently the Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya and is now under heavy attack by forces loyal to Libya’s unity government. The speakers in the video were keen to contradict “Western media” portrayals of Libya, but June’s events are making May’s propaganda seem far-fetched.

Implications for Boko Haram?

It is telling that the video made no reference to Boko Haram. The Nigerian speaker urges West African Muslims to come to Sirte – and not to Nigeria, or to other countries around Lake Chad. How should one interpret this silence? On the one hand, the video’s message provides more evidence of the mobility and adaptability of jihadists in the region; if Boko Haram’s fortunes flag in Nigeria, jihadists can shift their attention and their rhetoric to Libya. On the other hand, the video’s silence about Boko Haram suggests a kind of competition between the Islamic State’s Libyan and West African affiliates. If, as I suspect, there is a fairly limited pool of West African Muslims ready to participate in armed jihad far from their homes, then the competition becomes almost zero-sum: fighters cannot go to both Libya and Nigeria.

Interestingly, the video appeared as a debate is playing out in the media about Boko Haram and its relationship with the Islamic State. This debate seems to reflect an analytical disagreement within the United States government: we hear some U.S. officials saying that cooperation between Boko Haram and the Islamic State (especially its Libyan affiliate) is growing,  and others saying that “there is no meaningful connection between [the Islamic State] and Boko [Haram].” The tone and message of Tripolitania Province’s video gives support to the latter view. Although Boko Haram is a formal “province” of the Islam State, the leaders in Libya appear to writing Boko Haram off – to the extent that the video features a Nigerian asking Nigerians to come to Libya.

No doubt the terror-ologists will insist that this is all evidence of Boko Haram’s master plan to take over Africa, and/or that Boko Haram will cleverly regroup inside Libya before re-emerging later. I think that kind of perspective ignores how logistically difficult much of this kind of movement and fighting must be. For West Africans to cross the Sahara, find their way to whatever (southern?) Libyan holdout the Islamic State is groping for now, and then to spend months or possibly years on the run, has got to be an unpleasant and dangerous undertaking. Even the jihadists who have unusual tenacity and luck at the game of strike-and-run in northwest Africa, such as al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar, are (a) rare and (b) probably more often hiding and running than actively attacking or even plotting. How many West African Muslims are really going to sign up for that life? I don’t think Boko Haram should be written off (witness the recent attacks in southeastern Niger), but neither do I think that fears of African jihadist super-groups, or some kind of trans-Saharan empire connecting Libya to Nigeria, are well-founded.

The video, for all that it is slickly produced, could even be read as evincing a kind of desperation on the Islamic State’s part – which makes sense. For now, at least, the Islamic State in Libya seems to be on the decline. Attracting a small Libyan support base, an (admittedly sizable) contingent of Tunisians, and a (much smaller) number of sub-Saharan African fighters was enough to allow the Islamic State to cause severe disruption in Libya, but it was not enough to build an enduring political and territorial unit in the face of better-armed and better-funded competitors. If the Islamic State can regroup in southern Libya or elsewhere, perhaps the recruitment of West Africans will continue apace or even increase; but such a regrouping would presumably take months, and would inevitably run into the same problems the Islamic State faced in Sirte (and before that, Derna).

So it will be interesting to see how the Islamic State’s recruitment of West Africans fares now that Sirte seems to be falling. And it will also be consequential how West African governments respond to those fighters who do go, and then return; even if I am right and the flow is just a trickle, how that trickle is handled will matter a great deal (see Afghanistan, aftermath of).