Misplaced priorities: Why is Gambia suing Myanmar?

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Dr Ousman Gajigo

In a strange piece of news, our Attorney General and Justice Minister, Mr. Abubacarr Tambadou, announced last week that The Gambia will file genocide charges against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for their treatment of the Rohingyas. Possibly due to the Edward Singhatey appearance before the TRRC, this announcement has not attracted much scrutiny. But it should.

This announcement has revealed a gross misplacement of priorities in this government. First of all, let’s state the obvious that there is no doubt that the Rohingyas have suffered tremendously. For that matter, there are numerous other regions of the world that are experiencing gross human rights violations and other tremendous hardships. It is unrealistic to think that The Gambia, with its small resources and with the scale of our problems, is in any real position to effectively lead efforts at correcting wrongs far outside of our neighbourhood.

What is more, we have significant and more immediate problems at home that require the attention of our Attorney General and Minister of Justice. We just came out from under 22 years of dictatorship during which the country experienced massive embezzlement of public resources and gross human rights violations. To date, not a single crime committed during this dark period of our history has been successfully prosecuted.

Indeed, we have other major criminal cases worthy of being prosecuted at an international venue such as the International Criminal Court. This would include our former dictator, Yahya Jammeh who is comfortably lounging in a villa in Equatorial Guinea. To date, we have seen no evidence that our Attorney General has even thought of starting a process where Jammeh will be tried for his crimes. So how does he justify finding the time to file charges against Myanmar when Jammeh’s victims are crying out for justice here at home?

As I write, the prosecution of the NIA 8 is grinding its way through our painfully slow court system. It took more than two years for the prosecution to make its case. No one knows how long it will take the defense team to complete their part before the judge would be in a place to render a verdict. Going by the time it took the prosecution, the trial of the NIA 8 may take 5 years. This is not a sign of a legal system where things are going well. One can only imagine how long it will take for the murder trial of Yankuba Touray to be concluded.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with The Gambia fighting for justice in far-flung places. But our ability to be effective abroad on any range of issues depends on addressing basic problems at home. In fact, they are intimately linked. The more successful we are at home in implementing reforms and effecting real changes, the more we can influence events abroad either through direct intervention or through demonstration.

Currently we have a Ministry of Justice that is bleeding staff since Mr. Tambadou took over. And positions of key senior prosecutors in the Ministry remain vacant. The Ministry is also highly under-equipped when it comes to expertise in terms of performing legal due diligence for commercial contracts between the government and private parties. Mr. Tambadou himself has admitted that the Ministry of Justice has been losing staff and that the country does not have much resources and capacities to prosecute individuals known to have committed murder and human rights violations during the Jammeh regime.

A Ministry of Justice that is under-staffed, ill-equipped and under-resourced, partly due to mismanagement and administrative incompetence should not be filing charges against another country when we have so many unresolved legal issues at home. The priorities of the Ministry of Justice of The Gambia should be on addressing problems at home and implementing judicial and legal reforms that are so badly needed at this point in time. Any time spent on the Myanmar case is less time spent on our pressing needs given all our limitations.

Ousman Gajigo is an economist. He has held positions with the African Development Bank, the UN, the World Bank and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in development economics. He is currently an international consultant and also runs a farm in The Gambia.