One of the most irksome comments some of us read on Gambian social media circles is the refrain, “never again is forever again.” Variations of the refrain include “never again is all over again” and “never again is a joke.” Some of those who proclaim this refrain seem to find particular pleasure in announcing the uselessness of “never again” because they have been opposed to the whole idea of the TRRC from the very beginning and still insist, in spite of mountains of universally acknowledged evidence to the contrary, that the TRRC was a failure and a waste of time and resources. Their motivation is obvious. And it does not bother us. But some who like to say “never again is forever again” or “never again is all over again” simply do not understand the idea behind the mantra. They think, wrongly, that never again is some kind of government undertaking or promise never to repeat the wrongs of the past. And because some of the wrongs of the past are being repeated by the present government, they are calling never again a joke.
While it is true that President Barrow has repeatedly promised that his government will ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law, never again was never his or his government’s promise to the Gambian people. First popularized in the Latin American truth commissions of the early 1980s, never again was introduced into Gambia’s transitional justice process and discourse by former staff of the TRRC, most notably this author. Following my appointment as Executive Secretary of the TRRC in February 2018, nine months before the commission itself was sworn in, we took every opportunity to repeat to the Gambian people, through the media, that the TRRC’s main reason for being was to help ensure never again. The TRRC secretariat launched the countrywide never again campaign as soon as its various units were created and staff recruited and trained on the basics of truth commission work. The campaign was rolled out through outreach activities to schools and communities across the country by the TRRC secretariat’s Youth and Children’s Network Unit, the Women’s Affairs Unit, the Reconciliation Unit and the Communications Unit. And when the commission was inaugurated and the hearings finally got underway in January 2019, the commission adopted never again as its mantra and slogan. Work on actualizing it through civic education and popular engagement and empowerment in schools and communities across the country continued unabated until the end of the commission’s mandate in early 2022.
Thus, never again was not a government initiative. On the contrary, it was an initiative designed to hold government accountable. The idea behind it is to empower the Gambian people and enable them to hold their government accountable. Ultimately, it is a project designed to continue the very reason for the launching of the Gambian transitional justice process, and in particular the TRRC. Namely, to ensure that never again shall we have a dictatorship or rampant human rights violations in this country and to help promote national unity, social cohesion and a culture of mutual respect and tolerance in The Gambia. As of now, the Never Again Network is continuing that campaign, engaging mainly young people but also addressing the government and general public as necessary.
This article suggests that the Government of The Gambia should adopt never again as a state policy, either de facto or de jure. Even if no legislation is enacted to make it a de jure policy of the government, a commitment and determination, backed by concrete actions should be adopted by the government to make never again state policy in this country. There is no better way to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law, promote peace, stability, healing, reconciliation, social cohesion and national unity and to prevent dictatorship and human rights violations than by adopting never again as a state policy. We hope the government of President Adama Barrow will seriously consider this proposal, especially in the light of creating a National Peace Commission as per the recommendations of the TRRC.
A fact that seems to be perpetually lost to many governments in Africa and across the world is that human rights violations are extremely subversive of government authority. The more a government violates the rights of its citizens, the more it subverts its own authority, the more it erodes its own legitimacy, and the more it destroys the foundations upon which it is built. A government that violates the rights if its citizens is a government that progressively alienates the people, a government that creates more enemies for itself, a government that grows increasingly unpopular, and a government that, sooner or later, shall be considered unfit to govern and therefore kicked out of power either through elections, or through an illegal seizure of power by the military.
When Yahya Jammeh and his government started violating the rights of Gambians in the aftermath of the July 22, 1994 coup, some of us repeatedly warned him of these same dangers. We warned him that if he continued violating the rights of the Gambian people, he shall pay a heavy price in the end. But intoxicated with the wine of power and blinded by hubris, he refused to listen. We all know what happened to him eventually. He became increasingly feared and hated by the people, several attempts were made to violently topple his government, and he was eventually unceremoniously voted out of power. Today, he lives in exile in a foreign land, abandoned by his former blind loyalists, a fugitive from international law, wanted for crimes against humanity. Even though he is yet to face charges in a competent court of law, Yahya Jammeh will never be a free man again. Make no mistake about it: a similar or worse fate awaits any head of state whose government keeps violating the rights of its citizens. Sooner or later, the violations will catch up with that head of state and those who aid and abet him in committing human rights violations. History is replete with examples.
In his 2023 New Year address, President Adama Barrow called on all Gambians to respect the rule of law and help prevent crime in the country. That is indeed how it should be. What is often lost or overlooked by many heads of state and government authorities is that disrespecting the rule of law and committing crimes is not the exclusive preserve of citizens. In fact, as the TRRC finding and recommendations reveal, governments are often most responsible for disregarding the rule of law and committing the most serious crimes in society. Governments often disrespect the rule of law that they are meant to preserve and commit crimes against citizens. Governments often do this because they hold a monopoly on the ownership and use of legitimate force, and because they are so engrossed in protecting their power that they lose sight of the need for care and moderation in dealing with critics and perceived opponents. Yes, citizens commit crimes and they must not be allowed to do so with impunity. But governments commit crimes too, and they must not be allowed and must not allow themselves to do so, especially since they are the ultimate custodians of law and order in the country. As the law makers and law enforcers of society, governments should never be law breakers. Whatever violates the constitution and laws of the land should be taboo to the government of the day as it is to the ordinary citizen. The rule of law must be respected by both citizens and governments.
The rule of law embodies respect for due process. According to Gambian law, when a suspect is arrested, they need to be charged with a crime within 72 hours or released. Except in exceptional circumstances, holding a suspect without charges for over 72 hours violates the rule of law. Due process further demands that once a suspect is charged, they should be arraigned before a court of law, tried and if found guilty, convicted or if found innocent, acquitted and discharged. This process embodies the notion of innocent until proven guilty. And as this process unfolds, the practice of elders begging the president to forgive a person yet to be charged, tried and declared guilty of a crime breaches the rule of law. Since a person is innocent until proven guilty, having the president forgive a suspect even before they are charged, or even after they are charged but not yet tried is a breach of the rule of law. The president cannot forgive an innocent suspect since they are yet to be found guilty of a crime. The president may use his prerogative of mercy only after a suspect is found guilty and sentenced. Begging the president to forgive a mere suspect and having the suspect forgiven presupposes that the president owns the law and can forgive people suspected of committing a crime. That practice started during the dictatorship and is among those things the Gambian people are saying never again to.
We believe that adopting never again as state policy will not only ensure that the government does not violate the rights of the people or take ownership of the law; it would also enable the government to focus on strategizing upon how to prevent the violation of the rights of citizens by citizens that today plagues our society. Human rights violations are mostly ascribed to governments. But a lot of human rights of citizens are violated by their fellow citizens. You only need to drive on our roads to observe how the legacy of indiscipline and mean-spiritedness left by the dictatorship is manifesting as all kinds of violations perpetrated by Gambians against Gambians. The concept of never again goes beyond the prevention of human rights violations by the state to include the reduction of public meanness, cruelty and indiscipline in our society, and the promotion of peace, love, mutual tolerance and respect for diversity in Gambian society. If the government adopts never again as a state policy, it would enable them to sit down and think of the many areas they can work on to help create a just and peaceful society in this country. We hope they would give this idea some thought.