The Gambian TRRC: Objectives, lessons learned and the future of truth commissions Paper presented at the 3rd Continental Forum on the State of Transitional Justice in Africa. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 24 – 26 September, 2019


By Baba G. Jallow
Executive Secretary, TRRC

The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) was established by an Act of the National Assembly in December 2017.

It is authorized to operate for a period of two years, with the possibility of extension.


The objectives of the TRRC are “to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights from July 1994 to January 2017, in order to promote healing and reconciliation, respond to the needs of the victims, address impunity, prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered by making recommendations for the establishment of appropriate preventive mechanisms including institutional and legal reforms, establish and make known the fate or whereabouts of disappeared victims, provide victims an opportunity to relate their own accounts of the violations and abuses suffered, and grant reparations to victims in appropriate cases.” (TRRC Act)

The TRRC started operations with the appointment of the Executive Secretary in late January 2018. The Commission itself was launched in October 2018 and is composed of 11-members representative of The Gambia’s regional, religious, ethnic, and gender diversity.

All commissioners were nominated by the people and had to go through a very rigorous public and civil society vetting process before their final appointment by the president.

The Commission has set up five specialized committees to oversee different aspects of its mandate.

These are the Human rights committee, the Amnesty Committee, the Reparations Committee, the Child and Gender Violations Committee, and the Reconciliation Committee.

The Secretariat has several specialized units conducting research and investigations, catering to the needs of victims and other witnesses, and engaged in community outreach activities.

These include the Research and Investigations Unit, the Victim Support Unit, the Women’s Affairs Unit, the Reconciliation Unit, the Youth and Children’s Network Unit and the Communications and Outreach Unit.

Interim and Final Reports
After one year of operations, the TRRC is required to submit an interim report to the Government detailing its activities so far.

At the end of its mandate the Commission will submit to the Government “a comprehensive report which sets out its activities and findings based on factual and objective information and evidence collected, received by it or placed at its disposal; and make recommendations to the President with regard to the creation of institutions conducive to the development of a stable and democratic society as well as the institutional, administrative and legislative measures which should be taken in order to prevent the commission of violations and abuses of human rights.”

Operational Strategy
The TRRC believes that the ultimate rationale for its creation and by extension the creation of all truth commissions and other transitional justice mechanisms is to help prevent a recurrence of past human rights violations and/or dictatorship.

The TRRC also believes that while recommending institutional, administrative, and legislative reforms may be key to preventing recurrence, there are some causes and enablers of dictatorship in Gambian society that fall outside of these domains and that must be specifically addressed in order to guarantee non-recurrence.

The key non-institutional enabler of dictatorship in The Gambia is the country’s political culture, which must be transformed to prevent recurrence, but which cannot be adequately addressed through institutional, administrative and legal reforms alone.

The TRRC thus adopts a strategy that allows it to operate both as a quasi-judicial truth-seeking mechanism and as an institution for civic education and popular empowerment.

In line with this strategy, the TRRC’s work is conducted via two parallel processes: Hearings and outreach activities. While the Commission’s hearings are ongoing, various units of the Secretariat are engaged in outreach activities across the country with a view to involving all Gambians in the Commission’s work through a national conversation on the country’s past, its political culture, what happened, why it happened, and how best to prevent recurrence in a post-transitional Gambia.

The TRRC held its first public hearing on January 7, 2019. On October 4, 2019, the Commission will conclude its eighth three-week session of hearings.

So far, 114 witnesses have testified before the Commission, including members of the Gambian Diaspora testifying by video link.

Of these witnesses, 30 are perpetrators and alleged perpetrators who willingly came forward to testify.

The majority of the other witnesses are victims, and two or three are what we might call professional witnesses who testify because they know something about the event or issue under investigation.

Only 18 of our witnesses so far are women, one of them an alleged perpetrator.

With the exception of one closed session, all the commission’s hearings are streamed live on television, radio and various social media outlets including YouTube and Facebook.

Attendance of the hearings is open to the public. For these reasons, the TRRC has been described as the most accessible truth commission in history.

Themes covered so far
Themes covered in the hearings so far include the July 22nd, 1994 coup, the November 11, 1994 incident in which a number of soldiers lost their lives, the January 1995 arrest and incarceration of the two members of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council, the June 2005 murder of former Finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay, the 1996 Denton Bridge incident involving security forces and members of the opposition United Democratic Party, violations of press freedom and the rights of journalists, and the activities of the former president’s death squad, The Junglers. As we speak, the Commission is holding hearings on the April 10 / 11, 2000 student demonstrations during which security forces shot and killed over 14 school children and one Red Cross volunteer, and wounded several others.

Upcoming themes
Over the next several months, the TRRC expects to conduct hearings on sexual and gender-based violations allegedly involving the former president and some of his close associates, the 2009 presidential witch hunts in which hundreds of peasants were forced to drink hallucinatory concoctions, the presidential AIDS treatment program, the 2005 murder of at least 56 West African nationals, including 44 Ghanaians, the Judiciary, the State Intelligence Services (formerly NIA), enforced disappearances, and the April 2014 incident during which several people were arrested and tortured, resulting in at least one death. The Commission also hopes to hear testimony from more Junglers in the near future.

Outreach Activities
The TRRC’s outreach activities are conducted by several units of the Secretariat, including Research and Investigations, Reconciliation, Women’s Affairs, Victim Support, Youth and Chidlren’s Network, and Communications and Outreach.

Together and individually, these units have conducted over 100 outreach activities across the country since September 2018. These included visits to over 55 schools across the country, at least 10 town hall meetings, 12 women’s listening circles, and several community or village dialogues on social cohesion, including dialogues with Church and

Mosque communities. Over 100 young people, both inside and outside the formal school system have attended our public hearings at the invitation and sponsorship of the TRRC.

The TRRC’s outreach activities have several interrelated objectives including sensitizing the public on the mandate and work of the Commission, promoting social cohesion, reconciliation and healing, encouraging women and young people to participate in the transitional justice process, encouraging and empowering all witnesses – male and female, victims and alleged perpetrators – to come forward and give statements or testify, engaging Gambian society in conversation over the causes of dictatorship and how best to reconcile the widespread perception of our constitutional government as an all-powerful monarchy and the reality of our government as a constitutional state deriving its authority from and subject to the will of the people, and promoting our Never Again Campaign to help prevent recurrence of dictatorship and gross human rights violations in the country

Some successes
So far, it is fair to say that the TRRC is well on the way to achieving its objectives.
v Through the TRRC’s interim reparations program, over 33 victims have received or are receiving medical attention from the Medical Board set up by the Ministry of Health as well as psychosocial support from our Victim Support Unit.

At least nine victims are currently being considered for treatment in Turkey due to initiatives by the TRRC, with the support of the Ministry of Health and the Turkish Embassy. The TRRC secured five passports for victims who did not have travel documents to facilitate their travel.

v At least two young victims have secured full scholarships to continue their education through the work of the TRRC. Efforts are underway to secure more scholarships for young victims interested in pursuing further education.

v At least three direct victims are employed full time in the TRRC’s Victim Support Unit
v The TRRC’s accessible public hearings have generated a rich fund of historical knowledge about human rights violations that occurred between July 22nd 1994 and January 2017.

The data gathered so far is helping actualize the Commission’s mandate to produce a true historical record of human rights violations under the Jammeh dictatorship.

v Most of what was invisible during the previous regime in terms of arbitrary arrests, detentions, tortures, and murders is being made visible through witness testimonies. For the first time, Gambians have access to the details of how some people were arrested and what was done to them after arrest. Details on the nocturnal activities of the former president’s death squad, the Junglers, have transfixed the Gambian nation.

v The public hearings have admittedly reopened old wounds, re-traumatized victims, traumatized the entire nation, but at the end of the day, they are facilitating the national conversation that needs to happen in order for healing and reconciliation to take place at both the individual and national levels, and in order to prevent recurrence.

v The TRRC’s outreach activities are fast entrenching the letter and spirit of Never Again in Gambian society. Increasingly, as a direct result of the TRRC’s work, more and more Gambians are getting more determined that never again shall they allow a government to violate their rights with impunity or impose a dictatorship on them.

If this spirit of empowerment persists and grows, the core of the TRRC mandate – the prevention of recurrence – would have been successfully accomplished.

v The TRRC continues to receive widespread international recognition. A recent New York Times article reported that some transitional justice experts describe the TRRC as “the most accessible truth commission in history”

Lessons learned and the future of truth commissions
Truth commissions are hard to sell: In spite of their vast potential as vehicles for positive social transformation, truth commissions are extremely contentious institutions.

Their very existence is often mired in controversy.

They never manage to mobilize national consensus on their rationale for existence. There are always segments of public opinion suggesting that truth commissions are just another ploy by the state to detract public attention from more urgent social questions and challenges, or to deny victims the justice they deserve.

Some see them as money-making paper tiger institutions whose recommendations will never be implemented. And generally, supporters of the regime under investigation – especially in post dictatorial societies like The Gambia – see the truth commission as a deliberate witch hunt against perceived opponents in the political arena.

The abiding controversy: Justice versus Reconciliation: Truth commission processes are inevitably marked by controversy over the alleged primacy of justice over reconciliation.

There is always the persuasive refrain, no reconciliation without justice. Or, we want justice, not reconciliation.

The two concepts are juxtaposed as mutually exclusive. It is either justice or reconciliation with reconciliation largely understood as injustice, and justice largely understood as the criminal prosecution of perpetrators.

It is assumed that reconciliation is an obstacle to justice and a smokescreen behind which truth commissions and governments hide to deny victims their right to justice.

Managing expectations around reparations: Closely related to the controversy over justice versus reconciliation is the difficult question of reparations. Especially where a truth commission has the word in its name, such as in the Gambian TRRC, reparations evoke high expectations of monetary compensation in transitional societies. As most victims of atrocity are poor, expectations of monetary reward offer an opportunity for relief, however temporary, from the biting pains of persistent poverty.

Experience shows that some victims come forward to testify not only because they want retributive justice for perpetrators, but also because they expect some form of monetary compensation for the wrongs they suffered.

Truth commissions are therefore faced with an abiding challenge to manage these expectations.

Competing narratives on the past: Transitional justice scholarship suggests that one of the biggest challenges of transitional justice commissions is to reconcile the competing narratives that emerge in transitional societies. In The Gambia, the dominant narrative emerging from the TRRC hearings is that Yahya Jammeh was a brutal dictator under whose orders many innocent people were arrested, extra judicially detained, tortured, disappeared, or killed.

There is however a counter narrative coming from the remnants of his support base: namely, that Yahya Jammeh was a great leader who did great things for the country and who is innocent of the crimes he is being accused of. As a neutral and independent commission embodying both the nation and the state, the TRRC faces the challenge of reconciling these competing narratives in Gambian society.

Recommendations are not enough: The TRRC has learned from the rich body of literature on transitional justice that recommendations contained in the final reports of truth commissions are not always implemented by governments for. For this reason, the TRRC has devised an operational strategy that will ensure that by the end of its mandate, a national conversation would have been generated and a critical mass of citizens empowered to ensure that no government can morph into dictatorship in The Gambia again.

Not useless, money-wasting endeavors: In spite of their very practical limitations and the persistent controversy surrounding their existence and mandates, truth commissions engender narratives that help societies come to terms with their painful past and cement their determination to build a better future. Truth commissions are valuable avenues for healing and closure for victims and their loved ones. Whether perpetrators are prosecuted or not, victims benefit from an opportunity to confront their painful past, address their tormentors, know the fate of their loved ones, or get some form of acknowledgment and compensation. They therefore remain a viable option for societies in transition from conflict or dictatorship.

A question of culture: An important study by transitional justice scholar Nanci Adler has found that “removing the repressor from the society does not remove the repression from the culture.” She therefore suggests that “… fragile societies that are post-conflict, but not post-repressive, require a strategic shift to a model more suited to those challenges.” Thus, while transitional justice must seek solutions to conflict in traditional cultural norms and values, we must also interrogate our traditional norms and values for those aspects that enable dictatorship and tolerate human rights abuses by African governments.

Both the African Union’s Transitional Justice Policy and the “Study on Transitional Justice and Human and People’s Rights in Africa” make reference to the need to address the destructive legacy of colonial authoritarianism and repression in post-colonial Africa. This is very significant.

However, transitional justice must also look at some vestiges of precolonial African cultures, especially as they relate to the nature of governance and are not in line with the dictates of constitutionalism.

Thinking outside the box: In the light of practical context-specific challenges, scholars, policy makers and practitioners of transitional justice must learn to think beyond conventional notions of what a truth commission should look like and what its specific roles should be.

In essence, a truth commission must be thought of as both a quasi-judicial transitional justice mechanism and an institution for civic education and popular empowerment.

What this means within the African context is that a truth commission process must go beyond hearings, reports and recommendations to include robust civic engagement and popular empowerment designed to reduce, if not remove the repression from the culture.

Dictatorship thrives and human rights violations are committed with impunity in Africa largely because the great majority of Africans are not empowered enough to stand up to their governments.

A politically empowered citizenry is the best guarantee against oppression and political impunity, and therefore the best guarantee of non-recurrence which, we argue, is the ultimate rationale for the creation of transitional justice commissions.

A Janus-faced process: Scholars, policy makers and practitioners know that transitional justice programs and mechanisms are generally designed to move a society from a bad past to a better future. To contribute effectively to this difficult challenge as a transitional justice mechanism, a truth commission must be Janus-faced in both theory and practice. Its investigations of past human rights abuses must go side by side with practical efforts at building a better and brighter future in which it would be impossible for such violations to recur.

Comprehensive inclusivity: It is obvious from the above that an effective truth commission must be practically inclusive, both at the level of the commission as an institution and at the national level.

At the institutional level, truth commission secretariats must be adequately equipped both in terms of manpower and resources to be active participants in executing the commission’s mandate, especially through addressing the needs of victims and conducting outreach activities. The commissioners cannot do it alone.

At the national level, as many local actors as possible – religious and secular – artists, women, children, young adults, civil society organizations, traditional social formations and practices, and the media, must consciously be engaged and made partners in the transitional justice process.

In essence, in the conversations over transitional justice, the commission’s mantra should be “no voice left behind.” The TRRC aspires to be an example of such a “comprehensive model” of truth commissions.

Independence and integrity: Finally, a truth commission must jealously guard its independence and integrity. There must be zero tolerance for interference by the state or by external actors wanting to impose their own ideas on how things ought to be done. Indigenous realities and objectives must both shape the commission and determine its strategies of operation.

At the same time, both commissioners and staff of a truth commission must strictly desist from taking partisan political positions as this would compromise the commission’s neutrality and integrity.