Gambia Says it Will Prosecute Former President for Murder

BANJUL, Gambia — Many of the Gambian citizens who testified in recent years that their former president was 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 plans to prosecute Yahya Jammeh, who for 22 years ruled over and often terrorized the citizens of his small nation on the coast of West Africa.

The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, created to uncover human rights violations, from 2018 to 2021 streamed the testimonies of victims and the confessions of alleged perpetrators live into the nation’s living rooms.

The witnesses included members of the former president’s hit squad, known as the junglers. But many more of the witnesses were citizens who recounted being victimized, such as Toufah Jallow, who accused the former president of raping her when she was 18, just after she had won the nation’s top talent show.

“It’s a huge relief off my shoulders,” Ms. Jallow said in an interview of the government’s decision on Wednesday. “We lost hope at some point.”

But of finally reaching this point, she said: “It’s very empowering for a lot of victims.”

In a televised address, Dawda Jallow, the minister of justice, presented the government’s response to the truth commission, accepting its recommendations, which included the prosecution of the former president.

“President Jammeh will face justice for the atrocities that he committed in this country,” Mr. Jallow said.

But while some victims and civil society leaders welcomed it as a huge step, others expressed doubts that the government would follow its 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 Enforced Disappearances. But, she added, “whether they prosecute or not is another question.”

The truth commission documented 122 cases of torture, more than 230 people killed and many raped by Mr. Jammeh’s operatives, the majority of them on the former president’s orders. Mr. Jammeh jailed his critics, branded citizens as witches and forced people with AIDS to swap their medications for bogus herbal treatments that he had invented, according to human rights advocates.

After losing an election and trying to cling 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, were greeted as heroes.

But politics soon took precedence over justice. Last year, with another election approaching, President Barrow turned for support to his predecessor, Mr. Jammeh. Mr. Jammeh is living in exile in Equatorial Guinea, but still, despite a split in his party, enjoys considerable support in Gambia, particularly in his home region of Foni, where in last year’s election his faction won all five parliamentary seats.

Some victims said Mr. Barrow could not be serious about prosecuting Mr. Jammeh while at the same time seeking his political backing.

Mr. Barrow succeeded in winning the support of part of Mr. Jammeh’s former party, and it was enough to return Mr. Barrow to power. But Mr. Jammeh himself refused to endorse Mr. Barrow — at one point even calling him a “donkey.” By spurning Mr. Barrow, Mr. Jammeh made it politically feasible for the current president to pursue the prosecution of his predecessor, analysts said.

“What actually saved us right now,” said Ms. Ndow, “is Yahya Jammeh’s madness. His madness actually came in handy this time, because he shot himself in the foot.”

Ms. Ndow’s father was forcibly disappeared under Mr. Jammeh’s direct orders and is presumed to have been killed. Together with many other victims, she turned a personal tragedy into a dogged campaign to bring perpetrators to account.

But, she said, every step has been a fight, with the government failing to investigate what appeared to be clear cases of abuse, and allowing confessed murderers to continue their employment in the armed forces and releasing them from custody into close-knit Gambian society. Sometimes, they bumped into relatives of their victims.

And even after the Barrow-Jammeh alliance failed to materialize, Mr. Barrow appointed two of his predecessor’s highest-ranking officials as speaker and deputy speaker of Gambia’s House of Assembly.

Madi Jobarteh, a Gambian human rights activist who was recently the subject of a personal attack by President Barrow, said that the government’s response on Wednesday, coincidentally Mr. Jammeh’s 57th birthday, was encouraging overall.

“It appears the government has now mustered courage,” and begun addressing justice issues, he said, after a “disappointing start over the years.”

And Fatou Baldeh, who wrote a report documenting sexual violence during the Jammeh era, said that the official statement “lays the foundation for justice and reparations.”

But the government has not detailed how it will undertake any prosecutions, or on what timeline.

Several senior figures in Mr. Jammeh’s government applied for amnesty and were denied it. One recommendation of the truth commission was not accepted: to bar from office the chief of the National Intelligence Agency who, after Mr. Barrow became president, had renovated the cells where torture victims were held, destroying vital evidence like graffiti and bloodstains. He remains in his position.

For Ms. Ndow, it was clear that though the struggle had been long, it would have to continue.

“It took five years of barking, but clearly you’re listening,” she said, referring to the government. “And we’re not going anywhere.”

“Hopefully other Gambians don’t have to go through what I’ve gone through,” she added.

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