BANJUL, Gambia – Many of the Gambian citizens who have tested their former president in recent years to be responsible for a wide range of atrocities never thought they would one day see him tried in a courtroom.
But that prospect became more real on Wednesday after the current government said it wanted to prosecute Yahya Jammeh, who ruled and often terrorized the citizens of his small West African coast nation for 22 years.
The Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations, created to uncover human rights violations, 2018-2021 streamed the testimonies of the victims and the confessions of the alleged perpetrators live in the salons of the nation.
Witnesses included members of the former president’s strike team, known as the jungles. But many other witnesses were citizens who said they were victims, such as Toufah Jallow, who accused the former president of raping her when he was 18, right after winning the best talent show in the nation.
“It’s a huge relief for my shoulders,” Ms. Jallow said in an interview on the government’s decision Wednesday. “We lost hope at some point.”
But to finally reach this point, he said: “It is very powerful for many victims.”
In a televised speech, Dawda Jallow, the minister of justice, presented the government’s response to the truth commission, accepting his recommendationswhich included the former president’s indictment.
“President Jammeh will face justice for the atrocities he has committed in this country,” Jallow said.
But while some victims and civil society leaders have welcomed it as a big step, others have expressed doubts that the government will follow his words with concrete action.
“I think Adama Barrow and his government realize they have no choice but to accept these recommendations,” said Nana-Jo Ndow, founder of the African Network Against Extrajudicial Killings and Forced Disappearances. But, she added, “whether or not they prosecute is another question”.
The Truth Commission documented 122 cases of torture, more than 230 people killed and many raped by Mr. Jammeh’s agents, most on the orders of the former president. Mr. Jammeh jailed critics of him, they branded the citizens as witches and forced people with AIDS to trade their medications for bogus herbal treatments he had invented, according to human rights defenders.
After losing the election and trying to hold on to power, Mr. Jammeh finally went into exile in 2017. A new coalition government and its new president, a former real estate agent named Adama Barrow, have been hailed as heroes.
But politics soon took precedence over justice. Last year, with another election approaching, President Barrow asked for support from his predecessor, Mr. Jammeh. Mr. Jammeh lives in exile in Equatorial Guinea, but, despite a split in his party, he still enjoys considerable support in The Gambia, particularly in his home region of Foni, where in last year’s elections his faction won everyone and five parliamentary seats.
Some victims claimed that Mr. Barrow could not be serious in pursuing Mr. Jammeh while at the same time seeking his political support.
Mr. Barrow managed to get some support from Mr. Jammeh’s former party, and that was enough to bring Mr. Barrow back to power. But Mr. Jammeh himself refused to endorse Mr. Barrow, at one point even calling him a “donkey”. By rejecting Mr. Barrow, Mr. Jammeh made it politically feasible for the current president to pursue his predecessor, analysts said.
“What actually saved us right now,” said Ms. Ndow, “is Yahya Jammeh’s madness. His madness about him actually helped this time, because he shot himself in the foot. “
Ms. Ndow’s father forcibly disappeared under the direct orders of Mr. Jammeh and presumed to have been killed. Along with many other victims, he has turned a personal tragedy into a stubborn campaign to hold the perpetrators accountable.
But, he said, every step was a struggle, with the government failing to investigate what appeared to be clear cases of abuse and allowing the confessed killers to continue their employment in the military and released them from custody in Gambian society. close-knit. Sometimes they ran into the relatives of their victims.
And even after the Barrow-Jammeh alliance failed to materialize, Mr. Barrow appointed two of his predecessor’s highest officials as speakers and vice-presidents of the Gambia House of Assembly.
Madi Jobarteh, a Gambian human rights activist who was recently the subject of a personal attack by President Barrowhe said the government’s response Wednesday, coincidentally with Mr. Jammeh’s 57th birthday, was overall encouraging.
“It looks like the government has now mustered up the courage” and started addressing issues of justice, he said, after a “disappointing start over the years”.
And Fatou Baldeh, who wrote a report documenting sexual violence during the Jammeh era, said the official statement “sets the stage for justice and reparations.”
But the government has not explained in detail how it will undertake any criminal proceedings, or in what timing.
Several prominent figures in Jammeh’s government asked for an amnesty and was denied. A recommendation from the truth commission was not accepted: to exclude from the office the head of the National Intelligence Agency who, after Mr. Barrow became president, had refurbished the cells where torture victims were held, destroying vital evidence such as graffiti and bloodstains. He stays in his place.
For Ms. Ndow, it was clear that although the fight had been long, it would have to continue.
“It took five years to bark, but you are clearly listening,” he said, referring to the government. “And we’re not going anywhere.”
“Let’s hope other Gambians don’t have to go through what I went through,” he added.