There is growing concern that the momentum gathered by Gambia’s reconciliation and reparations commission, TRRC, may be lost to the indefinite suspension of its most visible activity, public hearings, because of the coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
But in an interview with Justiceinfo, the Commission’s executive secretary Dr Baba Galleh Jallow said though the TRRC has already lost over a month of public hearings, the commission has kept working, including collecting witness statements and writing its final report, and that it is only the public hearings that have been suspended.
According to Justiceninfo, on August 31, the Truth Commission endorsed the policy that is to guide its issuance of reparations to victims which was validated with the participation of victims and civil society organisations. However, it avoided the complex issue of what amount to pay for victimization, as well as what would become of perpetrators-turned victims and whether they should be paid reparations or not. “The Commission does not have a fixed amount of money to dish out. The policy is just a framework that can guide their work. So, in terms of managing the reparation process, I think they have done the first step designing a policy,” said Sait Matty Jaw, a Gambian researcher and academic who lectures at the University of The Gambia.
Justiceinfo further reported that the TRRC has simultaneously started issuing interim reparations in the form of school fees to children of victims and medical treatment of direct victims. Through the support of a United Nations Development Programme, the Commission has also started preparing a list of victims who are to have a Covid-19 food relief in the coming days.
But the time loss is of concern to Sheriff Kijera, the chairperson of the Victims Centre, a civil society organization that stands for the rights of the victims under Jammeh. He told JusticeInfo that: “The pause has created a lot of uncertainty,” said Kijera who suggests the TRRC should look at alternatives to complete suspension. “They could still maintain the social and physical distancing and put some restriction on people coming to the hearings. We are losing more time and resources,” he lamented. Sait Jaw said the suspension “didn’t only affect the hearing process but also some of the ongoing initiatives by the various communities that could have informed the final report”. The Truth Commission does a number of community outreach programmes to encourage mass involvement in their process. However, with a ban on large gatherings, the TRRC has had to rely more on community radios for its outreach activities, explained the Commission’s director of communications, Essa Jallow.
“We certainly will need an extension beyond the two years” mandate that started in January 2019, Baba Galleh Jallow told Justice Info. “For how long, we can’t determine yet.”
Since it began public hearings on January 7, 2019, 219 witnesses have testified before the TRRC, including 54 women, 40 perpetrators, alleged perpetrators and adversely mentioned persons, 25 Gambians from the diaspora, and a few expert witnesses. At the time of the latest suspension of its public hearings, the Commission was probing the fake alternative treatment program that Gambia’s former eccentric ruler claimed could cure Aids, asthma, and infertility, among others. Some key alleged perpetrators, mostly doctors who helped Jammeh in his propaganda, are still expected to appear before the Commission.
Thirteen themes have so far been covered, including the activities of Jammeh’s hitmen called the Junglers. According to the Commission, the Junglers should be called back to talk about killings. Also expected are probes into enforced disappearances, the case of 44 Ghanaians and other West African migrants who were killed in The Gambia in July 2005, and the April 2016 incidents involving the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) which resulted in the death in custody of opposition party UDP member Solo Sandeng. Institutional hearings on the NIA, the judiciary, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) are also part of the workplan.
“For the issue of budgetary implications [of the delay], if there is need to extend the work of the TRRC because of the impact of Covid-19, it will be considered,” Gambia’s Communications minister, Ebrima Sillah, told Justice Info. But according to Justice info, money may not be the only issue. With an extension of the Commission’s mandate, its activities or its final report would come up in a very turbulent political climate. This September 14, lawmakers will debate on a draft constitution. If it gets a pass, it goes into a referendum in June. Presidential elections are to be held in December 2021.
For Minister Sillah, “there is a strong commitment from the Executive to see that TRRC continues to function effectively”. But for Sait Jaw, things could go badly. “The commission is existing on an already fragile political landscape characterized by growing partisanship,” the scholar said. “So, the delay may further find the Commission and its activity into a political climate that has little meaning to the reasons why the commission was established in the first place.” In other words, politicians may have a different agenda than the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission. “I am not seeing the Commission or its recommendations being a priority as all political leaders will likely focus on election,” said Jaw.
In the Gambia, the TRRC has enjoyed sustained public interest since it began public hearings in January 2019. For Kijera, that momentum is not lost. On September 4, the new minister of Justice Dawda Jallow, his adviser Hussein Thomasi and Solicitor General Cherno Marenah visited the Victims Center. It was Jallow’s first sit-down with the victims since he succeeded the charismatic and influential Abubacarr Tambadou, who had been a staunch supporter of the TRRC. “[Dauda Jallow] came to assure us that there will be continuity from where his predecessor had left and that he will work closely with the victims,” Kijera told Justice Info.