CSVR | CENTRE FOR THE STUDY OF VIOLENCE AND RECONCILIATION
Background

The Gambia became independent from Britain in 1965, with Dawda Jawara at the helm as prime minister. Jawara was elected as president in 1970, when the Gambia officially became a republic. In 1981, an attempted coup was suppressed with help from Senegal, ultimately causing the deaths of 500 people. In 1994, a successful coup resulted in Yahya Jammeh seizing power from President Jawara. Jammeh was elected as the country’s president after the three major political parties were banned from taking part in elections. President Jammeh’s four terms in office constituted one of the bleakest chapters in Gambian history.

Torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances, among other atrocities, were the hallmarks of President Jammeh’s two-decade rule. In 2001 the government passed laws designed to control and subdue the independent press. In 2007 the United Nations development envoy was expelled for criticizing the president’s claim that he could cure AIDS. In 2008 the president threatened violence against LGBTQI+ Gambians. In 2009 Amnesty International exposed a government campaign against Gambians practicing “witchcraft,” which resulted in the kidnapping of hundreds of innocent people. Also in 2009 President Jammeh threatened to kill human rights workers, and in 2010 the government passed a law that instituted the death penalty for cocaine possession. President Jammeh won a fourth term in 2011 in what many considered an unfair election.

In 2015 soldiers and civilians were arrested following a failed coup against the president, resulting in a government clampdown on political opponents. Finally, in 2017 President Jammeh was exiled after losing an election to opposition leader Adama Barrow, when neighboring countries threatened military intervention if he refused to accept defeat.

Transitional Justice Mechanisms

After President Barrow, who made transitional justice part of his election manifesto, was instated, the transitional justice process began in earnest in the Gambia. In 2017, the Jammeh Economic Commission was established, and the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) Act was passed. The TRRC began its work in January 2019, establishing a Reparations Committee and starting public hearings focused on the coup that brought President Jammeh to power in 1994. The TRRC has 11 commissioners. The final report of the commission is yet to be released, but is expected to be finalized in 2020. In the meantime, the commission released a 2018–2019 interim report detailing some of the progress made in implementing its mandate.

The TRRC’s mandate includes addressing issues of state corruption under the regime of President Jammeh. Additionally, the country has created a national Constitutional Review Commission and a permanent Human Rights Commission to address human rights violations. The TRRC established a Reconciliation Unit as well, but it has not begun participating meaningfully in the transitional justice process, and does not hold hearings outside of Banjul, the capital city. 

The government’s implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in the Gambia has been a slow process. There are a number of specifics that remain unclear, including the search for missing persons; prosecutions of perpetrators; witness protection; and reparations. Broadly, the public and civil society are apprehensive about the efficacy of government-led transitional justice, largely due to the decades of suppression and targeting of civil society organizations and activists by the Jammeh regime. Distrust is also stoked by the apparent lack of consensus from key actors regarding support for the transitional justice process, and political maneuvering by the current president that many see as an offer of leniency in exchange for political backing from Jammeh supporters. Finally, the limited inclusion of the public in the TRRC itself, particularly vulnerable groups outside of Banjul, contributes to the sense of public distrust in the process as a whole. To combat this, the TRRC launched a campaign called #NeverAgain in order to draw the public into the process. However, the campaign is geographically limited and has largely failed to include public participation outside of developed areas of the country.

Gender

The Jammeh regime used sexual and gender-based violence as a tool to obtain information and to torture and punish those who opposed the president. Women and men were subject to rape and other sexual violations, and men were frequently subjected to castration during torture. The Jammeh regime was also characterized by discrimination against women in many forms: matrimonial rights, property ownership, and inheritance rights, as well as widespread sexual harassment. Fear of authorities and reputational damage were and continue to be obstacles that contribute to the culture of silence for victims of sexual violence. Among other acts, the Jammeh regime held “scholarship pageants” where girls would be selected and given scholarships, provided they would serve as sex slaves. Gambian women also experienced sexual violence during witch hunts ordered by President Jammeh in 2009. The former president’s security forces abducted men and women accused of sorcery, took them to the president’s farm and subjected them to torture and abuse. The abuse of women was sexual, and also involved the rubbing of an herbal hallucinogenic potion into their eyes and genitals. The LGBTQI+ community was also specifically targeted; many were tortured, imprisoned for life, and/or forced to leave the country.

Victims of sexual and gender-based violence have not been adequately included in the Gambian transitional justice process. This stems from a number of reasons, including the limited geographic scope of the commission and its units and sub-commissions. Women in rural communities in particular have been left out of the process. Furthermore, the TRRC’s hearings were formatted as criminal proceedings, rather than victim-supporting processes, which deterred many vulnerable victims from testifying. Although this was recognized by the Ministry of Justice and the Secretariat, the countermeasures that were implemented, such as the establishment of specialized units and targeted engagement, fell short of creating the inclusivity necessary to reach victims. Input from Gambian women is also lacking in government policy and decision-making processes, as they are underrepresented in the political sphere, resulting in technical obstacles to their participation in the transitional justice process. Notably, as of January 2019, there were still no sexual or gender-based violence cases in the Gambian court system, nor was there a single registered victim. The Gambia Victims Center is a state-sponsored organization tasked with documenting and registering victims, but it has yet to fully mobilize. Other groups have mobilized to fill the gaps left by the TRRC, creating women-only meeting spaces in an effort to make their voices heard.

Role of International Actors

There are a number of international actors involved in the transitional justice process in the Gambia. Nongovernmental organizations are providing advice, technical assistance, and outreach. The United Nations compiles reports on the progress of the TRRC, chiefly regarding the lack of vetting of current government officials accused of human rights violations, and the investigation and identification of remains of victims of enforced disappearances. Additionally, the African Union is supporting the TRRC and the Gambian government as a whole through its African Union Technical Support to The Gambia (AUTSTG), which advises on the rule of law, transitional justice, and other key elements of state building. The AUTSTG military experts have been participating in security sector reform, and its human rights expert is providing support to the newly established Human Rights Commission.

Other governments are also playing a role in the accountability of perpetrators of human rights violations in the Gambia. On 11 June 2020, the United States indicted a death squad member, Michael Sang Correa, for torture in the District Court of Colorado, based on evidence from the TRRC.

Sources

Human Rights Watch, ‘Gambia: US Charges Alleged “Death Squad” Member with Torture,’ 12 June 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/06/12/gambia-us-charges-alleged-death-squad-member-torture.

International Center for Transitional Justice, ‘Women’s Experiences of Dictatorship in the Gambia: A Submission by Women from Sintet, Janjabureg, and Basse to the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission,’ December 2019, https://www.ictj.org/sites/default/files/ICTJ_WomenExperiencesGambia%20FINAL%5B5140%5D.pdf.

International Coalition of Sites of Conscience: Global Initiative for Justice, Truth & Reconciliation, Gambia Needs Assessment Report (2019). 

Mutangadura, Chido, ‘Will The Gambia Be a Turning Point for AU Peace Efforts?’ Institute for Security Studies, 13 May 2019, https://issafrica.org/iss-today/will-the-gambia-be-a-turning-point-for-au-peace-efforts.

Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission Act (2017), https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a7c2ca18a02c7a46149331c/t/5a8451b4e4966bfad91329e9/1518621128178/truth%2C+reconcilation+and+reparations+commission+act%2C+2017.pdf.

Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, “Interim Report 2018-2019,” https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a7c2ca18a02c7a46149331c/t/5eab360f11f74c62aa3b849f/1588278803832/TRRC-INTERIM-REPORT-Logo-Final.pdf