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TRRC Year One: Some successes and challenges

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One year into operations, the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission’s executive secretary faces media. Below is the statement made by Dr Baba Galleh Jallow.

Dr Baba Galleh Jallow, the executive secretary of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission

Finally, the TRRC hearings are close to clocking one year and our outreach activities a little over a year. The Commission started operations shortly after the appointment of the Executive Secretary in February 2018. Several outreach activities were conducted between that period and the beginning of staff recruitment and the nomination and selection of commissioners towards the middle of the year. By October 2018 when the 11 Commissioners were sworn in, the TRRC was still grappling with some teething challenges but more or less ready to start holding public hearings as it did on January 7, 2019. We are happy to report that despite some challenges here and there, both the hearings and the outreach activities of the TRRC have registered remarkable success in the Commission’s first year of operations.

On Thursday, December 5, 2019, the TRRC concluded its 10th three-week session of public hearings since January 7, 2019. During that session, which focused on former president Jammeh’s witch hunts and aw the Commission’s first set of regional hearings conducted in the Greater Banjul Area, Jambur, Sibanor and Essau, 37 witnesses appeared before the Commission, bringing the total number of witnesses appearing before the Commission so far to 188, including 51 women, 35 perpetrators, alleged perpetrators and adversely mentioned persons, and 23 Gambian Diaspora witnesses who testified via video link. One closed hearing and two protected witness hearings were held during this period. The 11th session of hearings and the first for 2020 is scheduled to begin on Monday, January 20 and will focus on the former president’s alternative treatment programme during which the rights of several patients were violated.

Over the past twelve months the TRRC has covered a number of important themes on its work plan. These include circumstances surrounding the July 22, 1994 coup and its immediate aftermath, the November 11, 1994 incident, the January 1995 arrest and detention of former AFPRC members Sanna Sabally and Sadibou Haidara, the June 1995 murder of former finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay, the 1996 incident involving supporters of the opposition United Democratic Party and security forces at Denton Bridge, crack down on the media and violations of human rights against journalists, the activities of The Junglers, some cases of sexual and gender-based violence against women, the April 2000 student demonstrations, arbitrary arrests, detentions and tortures, and the 2009 presidential witch hunts in which hundreds of people were forced to drink dangerous concoctions.

Over the coming year, the Commission will hold hearings on the former president’s fake alternative treatment programme, enforced disappearances, the case of the 44 Ghanaians and other West African migrants who were killed in The Gambia in July 2005, and the April 2016 incidents involving the NIA and resulting in the death in custody of UDP member Solo Sandeng. The Commission will also hold institutional hearings on the National Intelligence Agency (NIA, now State Intelligence Services), the Judiciary, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), and the prisons. Other cases of human rights violations including some from past themes will continue to be investigated and witnesses heard as necessary.

The evidence that has come out of witness testimonies since January 7, 2019 shows that there were widespread human rights violations in The Gambia under the Jammeh regime. From both victims and perpetrators, we have learnt of arbitrary arrests, detentions, horrible prison conditions, tortures, killings, sexual abuses, and the incomprehensible practice of accusing innocent people of witch craft, subjecting them to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, forcing them to drink health-destroying concoctions, and subjecting them and their families to a life of stigma and public ridicule. The extent of the human rights violations that occurred in this country defy comprehension and, we are confident, has cemented a determination in Gambians to never again allow their rights and dignities to be trampled with impunity by the state. In that regard, we are glad to note that our Never Again campaign has registered noticeable impact on The Gambia’s national consciousness, however modest.

From the very start, the TRRC has operated on the principle that the ultimate rationale for its establishment and the establishment of all truth commissions is to prevent a recurrence of human rights violations that happened in the past. The TRRC also operated on the conviction, based on verifiable evidence, that truth commission reports and recommendations alone do not necessarily prevent recurrence. For that reason, the TRRC adopted an operational strategy that allowed the commission to investigate the past and create an impartial historical record of human rights violations with a view to making recommendations to the government at the end of its mandate, while at the same time conducting outreach activities that address those causes and enablers of dictatorship and political impunity that lie outside of any institutional, administrative and legal reforms that the Commission may recommend in its final report. So that while the Commission’s public hearings were ongoing, various units of the TRRC secretariat were engaged in outreach activities across the country that sought to involve everyone in a national conversation on the causes of dictatorship and how best to prevent recurrence through a proper understanding of the proper relationship between state and society.

In line with our dual process approach to the work of truth commissions with hearings on one hand and outreach activities on the other, TRRC units have conducted close to one hundred town hall meetings, village dialogues, women’s and men’s listening circles, and school visits across the country since October 2018. In essence, the TRRC has consistently worked as a Janus-faced commission that, while investigating and recording past human rights violations, has its sights firmly set on helping build a Gambia in which citizens are empowered enough to hold their government responsible and to say no to any signs of dictatorship or human rights violations.

The TRRC is lucky to be one of very few truth commissions in the world to be given the power to grant reparations to victims. Most truth commissions can only recommend reparations; and because truth commission recommendations especially on reparations are generally not famous for being implemented, victims in many countries do not often get reparations long after their truth commission processes end. The Gambia’s TRRC is proving an exception to that rule. The fact that the TRRC Act grants the Commission power to grant reparations meant that we could institute an interim reparations program through which a growing number of victims are getting access to medical attention as well as employment and educational opportunities, and some livelihood support. Early this week, Yusupha Mbye, Oumie Jagne and Abdou Karim Jammeh – three victims of the April 2000 student demonstrations – and Nogoi Njie – a victim of the April 2016 incident travelled to Turkey for free medical treatment. They are accompanied by two TRRC staff and a volunteer. The escorts are Victim Support Officer Alieu Senghore, himself a victim of the April 2000 student demonstrations, Assistant Victim Support Coordinator Samba Touray, and Jula Sonko, a volunteer escort for the female victims. This is the TRRC’s first major breakthrough in facilitating access to overseas medical treatment for victims since the Ministry of Health established a medical board at the Commission’s request back in November 2018. As of December 2019, the medical board has seen 50 victims referred to them by the TRRC. Meanwhile, the TRRC’s Victim Support Unit continues to offer medical assistance and psychosocial support to several victims in The Gambia. So far, the Victim Support Unit has registered 941 victims of various kinds of human rights violations. It is anticipated that more victims will benefit from both local and overseas medical treatment in the coming year.

The road to December 2019 was not free of challenges for the TRRC. Yes, the work has progressed smoothly and we certainly have registered a number of admittedly significant successes. Overall, the TRRC has emerged as a new model of truth commissions that other countries are likely to emulate now and in the future. That said, the Commission has had to grapple with many challenges, including the difficulty of convincing some witnesses, especially female victims, to come forward and give statements or testify. In some cases, people are yet to understand that giving statements does not necessarily mean they have to testify, or that they could always testify behind closed doors, or as protected witnesses whose identities will not be made public. Fear of retaliation, stigma, ridicule or ethnic and family pressure has kept witnesses from coming forward, and this is a challenge that the TRRC is resolved to continue working on in the New Year. As is probably common knowledge by now, there are segments of Gambian society that are still reluctant to participate in the TRRC process for any number of reasons. The Commission will continue engaging all Gambians with a view to solicit their participation in this collective national conversation and healing process.

The TRRC is also having to deal with the challenge of female witness shaming and threatening. Some women who have publicly testified before the Commission have been objects of ridicule, insults and even threats from some members of the public. This unfortunate situation has the effect of discouraging all but the most courageous female victims from coming forward and sharing their stories with the Gambian public or even submitting statements to the Commission. This is an area in which the support of the media and civil society organizations is highly welcome. Civil society organizations with capacity in the areas of social work are also welcome to reach out and help our Victim Support Unit in managing the large number of victims they already cater for.

While the Gambia Government has contributed D50 million to the TRRC’s reparations fund, this is far from enough to cover the Commission’s reparations obligations. Individual Gambians, civil society organizations and members of the International Community are therefore encouraged to explore ways and means of supporting the TRRC’s fund raising efforts in order to complement Government and the public’s contributions to provide reparations to hundreds of victims of human rights violations. We are hopeful that the Government will fulfil its promise to make further contributions to the TRRC reparations fund in 2020.

At this point, we wish to take this opportunity to thank the Gambian people for their support of and their engagement with the TRRC’s hearings and outreach activities. While some of the testimonies are hard to watch, they have offered Gambians an opportunity to see what went wrong in the past and to discuss ways and means of making sure that it never happens again. We call on all Gambians to continue following our proceedings and contributing to both the national conversations and to the welfare of the victims as they have done this past year.

We also wish to express our gratitude to the Ministry of Justice for their unflinching support for the TRRC. Justice minister Ba Tambadou has consistently shown genuine interest in our work and has done all he can to ensure that we get the funds needed to run this institution. Thanks too to the Ministry of Health, and Dr. Lamin Samateh himself for their support of our work at all times. This ministry has been instrumental in facilitating our interactions with the Turkish Embassy here and the eventual travel to Turkey of four victims for medical treatment.

In that same vein, we are most grateful to Dr. Charles Roberts and members of the Medical Board for their continued diligent service to the victims. We also take this opportunity to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for facilitating all of the TRRC’s international activities. Gambians embassies have supported the Commission’s Diaspora engagements in Europe and the United States, and have transmitted notices of adverse mention to alleged perpetrators living in various countries around the world. The Gambian embassy staff in Turkey received the victims who just travelled to that country, helped them settle down, and facilitated their access to the hospitals in which they are to be treated.

Finally, we wish to express our gratitude to the international community for their unflinching support to the TRRC. Many foreign missions in The Gambia have offered various forms of support to the Commission since its inception and to them we say, thank you. We are particularly grateful for the support of the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office, the UN system in the country, and the UNDP Gambia office. We can safely say that without the support of the PBSO and the UNDP transitional justice project in The Gambia, it would have been impossible to register the kind of success that the TRRC has registered so far. Staff of the UNDP transitional justice project in the persons of Julien Attakla, Awa Peters, Ida Persson, Angelic Mendy and others have consistently gone above and beyond to support the work of the TRRC. To all of them we say thank you.

Last but by no means the least, we want to register our profound gratitude to the media and all journalists who have covered aspects of the TRRC’s work from the beginning. Our media partners QTV, GRTS, EyeAfrica TV and all other national and international media and journalists have rendered the Gambian people tremendous service by their consistent and professional coverage of our hearings and outreach activities. We are gratified that so far, we have not had cause to complain about the nature of the coverage from journalists. We feel that journalists have more or less displayed a high level of professionalism in covering the TRRC and we say a big thank you to all of you.

Thank you all for your kind attention.

 

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