Truth First, Reconciliation Later

After decades of dictatorship, Gambia has launched a truth commission. But in a country where some victims were also perpetrators, delivering justice to all won’t be easy.

Demonstrators during a march commemorating victims of Gambia's former regime, in Serekunda, on April 10, 2017.
Demonstrators during a march commemorating victims of Gambia's former regime, in Serekunda, on April 10, 2017. (SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

BANJUL, Gambia—Everyone in the room was patient. Many had waited two decades for a meeting like this. So they sat, quiet, even as monologues meandered and temperatures rose. The seven panelists stood, one after the other and spoke about the end of the old Gambia and the beginning of the new. For 22 years, this country had been in the clutches of a dictator as capricious as he was cruel. No longer, the justice minister said. Tall, dressed in an off-white robe, and with a bump on his forehead in the spot where it touches a prayer mat five times a day, he told the hundred-odd people gathered in August 2017 that each of them had a role to play in the building of their new nation. And that day, their role was to help build a truth and reconciliation commission.

The audience obliged. A man in a periwinkle robe stood. He operated the only Gambian mental health clinic and said the traumatized should receive counseling. One woman spoke of the need for reparations, lamenting that her friend, a torture victim, died destitute after his injuries left him unable to work.

These insights, offered by regular citizens, have been folded into Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which held its first trial this week. For the next two years (a tenure the government can extend), the 11 commissioners—apolitical individuals, “of high moral character” from diverse backgrounds—will oversee the televised trials and establish an impartial narrative of what happened in the violent shadows of former President Yahya Jammeh’s regime. They’ll also, more tangibly, produce a report with recommendations on what the government should do on reparations, amnesty, and prosecution—including, potentially, the prosecution of Jammeh himself.

Prosecution tends to be the most important objective for victims. The government’s emphasis, meanwhile, is often on reconciliation. And this isn’t the only fault line—there is also the question of defining victimhood. So far, the word has been used liberally, even to describe those who suffered “pecuniary loss” at the hands of the former regime. But in a country whose poverty was deepened by Jammeh’s avarice, who hasn’t suffered financial loss by his hand? There’s also the challenge of what to do about the victims who, prior to their suffering, were themselves perpetrators.

After seizing the presidency in 1994, Jammeh and his allies consolidated their power through intimidation, disappearances, and torture. Finally, in December 2016, the unexpected happened: Jammeh lost re-election to a newly formed coalition and fled into exile. On the campaign trail, the coalition promised a truth commission, and it quickly got to work after taking office, going on a nationwide tour to get public input on the commission and drafting the bill that established the TRRC.

Historically, according to the Canadian author and politician Michael Ignatieff, commissions such as this strive to lay out two types of truth: factual truth (establishing what happened) and moral truth (establishing why those things happened and who did them). In places like Chile and Argentina, he argues, the commissions laid out the former while falling short on the latter.

One of the reasons is that, in the pursuit of stability, amnesties were granted widely. And this is a central question all commissions have to grapple with: How much accountability is appropriate? Too much, and it’s a witch hunt threatening the broader political transition that’s taking place; not enough, and there’s no substantive transition to speak of. In Latin America, some of this balance was achieved through reparations to victims. But in South Africa, where there was also broad amnesty, the reparations were disappointing, fostering lingering resentment and structural inequality.

Officials in Gambia have brought in international experts and met with the architects of other commissions, hoping to avoid mistakes made elsewhere. Still, there are tensions. For victims who are also perpetrators, there’s a need for justice, compassion, and deliberation on the question of reparations. More broadly, there’s a need for wariness when it comes to the role of politics in the process, especially as victims agitate for justice and officials set their sights on reconciliation.

On Thursday, April 14, 2016, eight months before Jammeh’s defeat, Fatoumatta Sandeng woke early to pray with her father. She then got ready for work, he to lead a protest. Before they parted, her father, Solo Sandeng, a leader within Gambia’s largest opposition party, urged her to keep the rest of the family safe. “The day of the protest, he knew something was going to happen to him,” Fatoumatta said as we sat in her living room. “I knew personally he was going to be arrested, but I didn’t expect he was going to be killed.” Sandeng was detained by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and, within a day, tortured to death.

“You can’t just kill my dad today, and then the next day, I see you passing,” she said. “It can prompt me to do something. … Because there is something that needs to be cooled, like there is some fire in you that needs to be cooled off. There needs to be justice. Let them face it.”

In fact, Sandeng’s killers are the first to face the prospect of justice for Jammeh-era abuses. They’ve been on trial for more than a year, and their case offers a glimpse into the future truth commission, highlighting the problems that arise when proceedings are politicized.

“The NIA case is more political. … It’s more of a vendetta,” said Fabakary Ceesay, a wiry, formerly exiled journalist. “Because it involved the death of a senior official of the biggest political party … there was much more anger.” But whether the state will be as supportive of prosecutions in other cases is far less clear, several victims said.

On one day of the trial last year, observers packed the courtroom. The gray-wigged prosecutors showed a key piece of evidence: a video of Sandeng’s interrogation. In it, Sandeng wheezes through answers to questions posed by an off-screen voice, holding up a swollen hand. A woman in the courtroom scurried to the exit, pulling her headscarf over her mouth to hide her sobs. All around the courtroom, people sucked their teeth and shook their heads at the pain that Sandeng had clearly endured—and at the pain that was yet to come.

Even with this seemingly ironclad evidence, the trial is complicated, especially as the justice system recalibrates itself for a post-autocratic era. In July, for example, one of the accused said he was tortured into confessing. This added to concerns that the case was rushed haphazardly, driven by the desire to score a quick political victory.

That came a few months after another major bungle in the case; one prosecutor had to recuse himself after tapes leaked showing he’d secretly met a defendant’s wife. To many Gambians, that was a signal that elites would prioritize one another over justice—a risk in the TRRC proceedings, too.

Such events have contributed to public mistrust of the campaign for justice. Fewer than half of Gambians said they trusted the TRRC “a lot” or “somewhat,” an Afrobarometer survey showed. Indeed, in early, private discussions, senior justice officials were “not really interested” in prosecution, one source close to those talks said, worried that it could be incendiary and conflict with their primary objective of reconciliation. Also at play was elites’ desire to protect their own. This is a big challenge in a country so small, where tiny elite circles are tightknit. This smallness also means many current officials also held power in the former regime and now float through morally gray spaces.

One young woman, introduced to me via a victims’ group, recounted over sobs the story of her father’s disappearance, speaking of her desire for justice and reparations on his behalf. Her father was the former head of the NIA, Daba Marenah.

“His hands are not clean,” Ceesay said of the former spy chief. “May he rest in peace, but … during his days, a lot of people were tortured, and a lot of people were killed.” He is implicated in the 2005 execution of 44 Ghanaians, who were accused of trying to overthrow Jammeh but were actually migrants in transit. Over the past several months, there have been growing calls to prosecute those connected to these killings.

There’s wide agreement that complex victims like Marenah—those wronged wrongdoers—deserve truth and that crimes committed against them should be adjudicated. Several arrest warrants have been issued in connection with his death, including for an ex-minister currently in Swiss custody. But there’s no consensus as to whether a victim like him should get reparations.

“For those people … tell them that the victimization that they’ve been through is the payment for what they did,” said John Njie, the head of a Gambian NGO association, who helped draft the TRRC bill. “Are you going to compensate somebody like that?”

Giving reparations to these complex victims has risks: It could foment resentment, and here, where many victims are elites, it could reinforce suspicions that the system panders to the powerful. Still, there’s a fundamental reason why it should be done: Justice should be equitable. There is room to be creative in how it happens—there could be specialized panels, for example, that have the ability to make innovative recommendations, such as rehabilitation as a form of reparation, as Luke Moffett of Queen’s University Belfast writes.

Any kind of reparation will be difficult to secure, however, if history holds any lessons. It certainly won’t be easy in a country with an annual GDP of less than $1 billion and an ex-president who helped himself to state funds for 22 years. So far, the government has helped some victims get medical care and psychological support, with more initiatives in the pipeline.

“Those who were victims, most of them were breadwinners and left kids behind,” said Awa Sanneh, the widow of a victim. Her husband, Omar Barrow, was a journalist and Red Cross volunteer, who was shot while providing medical assistance to protesters during student demonstrations in 2000. Their first child was 5 months old at the time. “It’s hard to be a single parent,” Sanneh said.

“There was a time when I thought, ‘How can I feed my kids?’” Sunkary Yabo recalled. Her husband, Lt. Basiru Barrow, helped Jammeh stage the bloodless coup that brought him to power but was accused of plotting a countercoup a few months later and executed alongside a dozen others. His killing, one of the Jammeh regime’s earliest crimes, will be among the first heard by the TRRC.

“The truth has to come out first,” said their son Abdul Aziz, too young to have any real memories of his father. “Justice definitely. And then, yes, reconciliation … maybe.”

Ayenat Mersie is a journalist based in Nairobi. Twitter: @ayenatM