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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Gambia’s TRRC: Reckless failures of intelligent leadership led to the deliberate destruction of evidence at the notorious NIA

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By Dr Omar Janneh

Most adult Gambians know that atrocious human rights abuses occurred at the NIA (now SIS) and elsewhere in the 22 years of Jammeh’s brutal regime which need to be preserved for later generations.
President Barrow’s government thought that these human rights abuses were of sufficient gravity that they warranted the setting up of the truth, reconciliation and reparations commission (TRRC) to accurately record what happened so that we can learn from the past and never allow it to be repeated.

Thus we know that heinous rights abuses were committed by individuals and they occurred at locations which would/should be of interest to the TRRC staff who we assume to be sufficiently hardworking and committed to their work that they would leave no stone unturned in carrying out their duties. But in order that the TRRC can function properly, one would have expected the government to work to protect the crime scenes; purge individuals implicated in wrongdoing rather than sleep with them; and carry out reforms of institutions associated with rights abuses, without destroying evidence. Tragically, many of these issues are yet to be taken seriously by the Barrow government, which also contribute to the factors that will contribute to the failure of the TRRC.

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I think many of the staff at the TRRC have either 1) some idea of what happened at the NIA or 2) were victims of the Jammeh regime and so may have been, at least once, held at the NIA. Thus I think it is a dereliction of duty and mark of ineptitude of the highest order on the part of 1) the government and 2) the TRRC staff that the evidence at the NIA was and is being systematically destroyed in a manner that seems deliberate.
I hereby put 90% of this blame on the useless government of President Barrow. I am not advocating that staff at the TRRC become security guards at the NIA or other sites of interests –and there are many, but they too could have used everything they have got, including their pens, to pressurise the hopeless Barrow government to protect the crime scenes.

We know they did not apply any pressure, because if they did, we would have known about it. They have decided to carry on regardless, because they seem to be more interested in recording some sort of evidence than preserving evidence – is this in the name of expediency of sorts? If they are interested in doing the TRRC well, they could have protested and or resigned, if the government failed to act on their advice. But resigning on the basis of taking a principled stand seems to be a very uncharacteristic Gambian character. Could it be that the staff are more interested in the salaries and benefits their job offers than doing the job properly? Is it not the case that crime scenes must always be protected, especially if one intends to investigate that crime? The lack of relevant expertise, intuition and shoddy attitude to investigative work is making the Gambia’s TRRC one of the worst in the world.

This is a national shame!
If we go on memory lane, we may recall that the then Legal Officer at the NIA, Mr Abubacarr AMO Badjie advised Mr Ousman Sowe (NIA Director General), President Barrow and the Inspector General of Police about some serious issues at the NIA that, one would have thought, needed urgent attention. At the time, it was reported that Mr. Badjie’s office “stores between three to five thousand executive directives from former President Yahya Jammeh’s office from 1994 to 2016, investigations and panel reports, budget estimates of the agency, correspondences with other government departments, documentations regarding external cooperation with other agencies, and detainee lists, all covering same period” – 1994 to 2016.”

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As there appears to be no reason to doubt that Mr. Badjie’s office was home to some 10,000 important documents which may be of interest to the TRRC, then it was reasonable and proper for Mr. Badjie to offer the advice he did. Mr. Badjie’s advice was apparently subsequently leaked to the press which may have led to his arrest and he was later instructed to hand over his office keys to Mr. Sowe. Most commentators on social media appeared to use the benefits Mr. Badjie supposedly received from Jammeh or Jammeh’s government to criticise him for speaking out.

I think such criticisms are shallow and do not perhaps deserve a mention here, but what seemed missing in the criticisms is a sense of balance – e.g., a critical appraisal of whether he deserved to be arrested for the advice he offered – an advice which is in the national interest. Knowing the types of documents stored in Mr. Badjie’s office and now that we also know the destruction that occurred and is probably ongoing at the NIA under Mr. Sowe’s reckless leadership, it is not unreasonable to assume that much of the vital evidence in, what was, Mr. Badjie’s office may have by now been destroyed or gone missing.
Perhaps the lack of situational intelligence hampered the leaderships’ ability to connect the dots because if it is not read in books/journals or taught in schools, colleges and universities, it cannot be applied; shame on them! We must not forget that the unlawful arrest of Mr. Badjie occurred in June 2017 after Jammeh left and when the TRRC was being set up. Those interested should read the article by Mr. Lamin J Darbo, counsel for Mr Badjie which outlined the scandalous total disregard for due process upon Mr. Badjie’s unlawful arrest and detention by the Police.

The TRRC’s visit to the NIA revealed what can only be described as deliberate and systematic destruction of vital evidence which may have been financed by the Barrow government. This is because as far as we know, the NIA is under the office of the President. So if any individual has the powers to securely close the NIA and move its utterly useless services elsewhere; protect the premises ahead of the planned TRRC; and then possibly turn it into a museum for the #Neveragain project so that future generations can learn about the terrible things that happened there, that individual is President Barrow.
It is a catastrophic failure of his leadership that vital evidence was allowed to be deliberately tampered with and irretrievably destroyed in the name of so-called “transformation”. Who are they trying to mislead? And by the way, a name change of a notorious institution such as the NIA without institutional reforms, the purging of bad apples and intelligent attitudinal changes of the workforce is meaningless – that place needs a root and branch change. Demolishing and transforming buildings do not change anything.

We need new people with new ways of thinking and recalibrated attitudes to public service – in its truest sense – to make that Agency fit for purpose. We are an intelligent people and do not need to wait for some lousy commission’s findings to tell us that crimes were committed at the NIA and that the evidence therein needed protecting before we seek to protect the premises for the sake of posterity – we learn from history, we do not wipe it out! These guys are hopelessly ineffectual and do not deserve the fat salaries and benefits they enjoy while the victims continue to suffer.

The NIA could have been the Gambia’s version of Robben Island, but not anymore because the Barrow government and the TRRC failed us abysmally. They cannot tell us otherwise because that will simply lay bare what I have said in this article. Indeed, it should not take a rocket scientist to get clues from Mr. Badjie’s advice; and others wrote about it too (refer to the third paragraph from the bottom of this article) and act intelligently.

It is my view that no matter how well one writes about what happened at the NIA, much of it will remain totally inaccessible to a good percentage of the Gambian public. Indeed I very much doubt that many generations down the road will read the TRRC’s report to find out what happened. In fact it is rather sad that some of the statements coming from the hearings appear to be claims and counter claims, which may have been the reason for the reduced trust the public has in the TRRC even before it started: 34% trust it a lot; 12% trust it somewhat, and 13% trust it a little. We may blame this on the second “R” of the TRRC, which was over-played/over-egged on many media houses.

I think that there are not many things that are more powerful than evidence that can be seen, smelt and possibly touched. Under the very ineffectual leadership of President Barrow, and what seemed to be Mr. Sowe’s continued desire to cover-up evidence, I think the TRRC has lost and is losing some vital evidence for their #Neveragain project. For the NIA to take selected foolish photos, supposedly before the works started is nothing but an absurdity, which was deliberately designed to act as a smokescreen for the wrongdoing that occurred at the Agency.

The destruction of evidence by an Agency that is supposed to have the intuition and the situational intelligence to know what state evidence needs protecting can only be described as a criminal act. Mr. Sowe seemed to have presided over the systematic and deliberate destruction of evidence that is vital to the nation’s healing; jeopardised the #Neveragain project which could have been used to send messages to future generations; messages words cannot express – that we cannot afford to descend as low as we did. Mr. Sowe has brought shame upon the country.

We heard from Mr. Sowe that funds were sought for the works which may still be ongoing – listen to the exchanges between him and Counsel, Mr. Essa Faal towards the end of the visit to the NIA. I think the public deserves to know who funded and authorised the renovation work at the NIA. Which contractor(s) did or is doing the works? Did the contractor(s) take their own photos before carrying out the works? Who gave the orders to carry out the demolition work and to erect/upgrade the mosque? Did they or are there plans to also build a prayer/quiet room for NIA staff of other faiths? Why did Mr. Sowe and the President ignore the advice of Mr. Badjie? If the government funded the works at the NIA, then President Barrow or someone from his office as well as Mr. Sowe should testify before the Commission.

Overall, the Barrow government’s cluelessness has undermined part of the second session of the TRRC’s “public court” hearings, which is littered with claims and counter claims (-dubbed oscillations between unambiguous and fabricated truths), which may undermine any future prosecutions. Interestingly, 68% of the 1200 adult Gambians surveyed want to see prosecutions, yet much of the TRRC’s outreach activities seem unbalanced. Thus far, the outreach activities seem to be reconciliation-leaning. Are they trying to appease President Barrow whose government and other institutions are full of individuals who can best be described as Jammeh apologists? It is a catastrophic failure of leadership that the impact of the works at the NIA on the TRRC’s supposed truth-seeking exercise was not intelligently assessed before the funds were released. It suggests that no committee member from the donor side had the mental agility to think beyond their nose.

Why was it not logical for anyone to know that the NIA may be a place of interest for the TRRC’s work?
In fact for a country and a city so very small, I do not understand how so much activity could have gone on at the NIA without it being stopped very early on. Why was the TRRC staff totally oblivious to what was ongoing at the NIA? If this is not ineffectual and reckless leadership, then I do not know what is. Is the TRRC staff looking for ways to write a damning report about the failures of the Barrow’s government when they too could have shown the government the way, e.g. demanded that the NIA be secured for the TRRC to do its work well or for the renovation work to stop immediately and for the premises to be protected? And if Mr. Sowe does not know that the destruction of evidence at the NIA would compromise the work of the TRRC, it seriously underscores his total ineptitude to lead a national intelligence agency. Thus the salaries and ongoing works are a total waste of public funds and there is serious need for very urgent root and branch change of the Agency.

On July 31, 2017, I wrote “And when I hear of exhumations, I shudder and also wonder if we have the necessary resources, expertise and support for the individual(s) involved in such exercises. Do/will the staff involved in such difficult work have the necessary training and professionalism to painstakingly look for and document the evidence in detail [TRRC Act, 2017; section 14(1)(a-e)]? Will they ensure that the remains of the victims are given the dignity they deserve pre and post investigations? In fact, are any of the suspected burial sites/crime scenes (being) protected [TRRC Act, 2017; sections 14(1)(f) & 15]?” The apparent continued failure of this ineffectual government to act decisively in supporting the work of the TRRC will adversely affect its work and may have actually rendered the #Neveragain campaign a failure; not purging the bad apples from Jammeh’s brutal regime is harming President Barrow and the TRRC.

It remains my view that ultimately, the government’s ultimate incapacity to implement the recommendations of the TRRC may play in the hands of political opportunists and there are many – watch this space. There may be individuals waiting to ride on the failures of the TRRC project. If the TRRC is to have any semblance of success, it must insist that any remaining crime scenes and areas of interests be protected. In his closing remarks, Dr Binneh Minteh tasked the TRRC to try and identify the burial sites of the victims. It will surprise me if this request will ever be acted upon just as noyed here– our dispositions are generally not amenable to acting on what may be sensible ideas and or accepting constructive criticisms.

It is unclear if consent is sought from victims (including victims’ families if the victim has passed on) before some evidence becomes public knowledge. The TRRC must also watch out for signs of post-traumatic stress disorders (aka PTSD). Some of the symptoms displayed by some of the witnesses are worrying and deserve to be treated with utmost sensitivity and not to be laughed at.

Therefore, the TRRC must not forget that body language is important; the camera may be on them. And by the way, Mr. Sowe did not give a performance that should earn him to be patted on his shoulders. It is still a mystery to most objectively-minded Gambians why individuals who unleased the worst atrocities on their fellow Gambians and played a role in squandering the nation’s resources continue to serve in the Barrow government and in other institutions, living the life of Riley while many victims and innocent citizens continue to live in utter misery. President Barrow is an unprofessional, reckless and clueless leader and we must come together and hold him to the Coalition agreement of three years before he plunges the country into more chaos and shame. I welcome the NAMs for taking the lead and nullifying the unconstitutional sacking of Ya Kumba Jaiteh as NAM.

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