By Foday Samateh
I concede that my dissension constitutes a heresy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that’s about to be empaneled to preside over the unlawful deeds of the ousted regime is popular. What’s more, it’s a key goal of the new administration.
I concede further that when the Commission starts its assignment — the truth part of the equation at least — it will make a keen audience out of the nation. The testimonies of victims will force us to relive once more the evil so many suffered at the hands of the regime. And the Commission will surely receive good coverage from the international media and commendations from international organizations as another example of Africa moving in the right direction. Such organizations may even decide to bankroll the Commission.
So who could be opposed to such a good thing? This is the question the critics of the TRC will be expected to answer. But it’s a flawed question. It presumes the assumption that there are no better ways to find closure to the despotic rule.
The idea of truth and reconciliation had a nice ring to it on the campaign trail. It sent two different messages to two different audiences at the same time. The truth part was for the general public, especially the victims and their families, that the Coalition would investigate the regime. The reconciliation part was for the regime that the Coalition wouldn’t embark on a revenge mission. Given the stakes in challenging an entrenched, paranoid despot in an election, the mixed messages had a clever logic to them.
As a governing choice, however, truth and reconciliation is a confused policy pursued through bureaucratic conceit. Of course, just about everyone who hadn’t played a villain in the regime would love to see the truth come out. But what about the second part of the compound phrase — reconciliation? In theory, reconciliation is appealing. In the context of The Gambian situation, though, who will be reconciling with who? All the three examples — Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and South Africa — the advocates of the TRC advance as models share no resemblance to our experience. There was no civil war in The Gambia as in the case of Sierra Leone. No ethnic genocide as in the case of Rwanda. No tribal government that enforced tribal discrimination in all spheres of society as in the case of racially-segregated South Africa.
What The Gambia experienced was brutal and cruel; and no rationalization must be attempted to mitigate its destructive force and consequences. Still, it was an old-fashioned despotism of a regime preying on its people. No tribal conflict. No regional conflict. No religious conflict. No conflict between the security forces and the civilian population. The despot targeted all elements of society and spared none. The result was a sea of victims who had been killed or violated by a small band of henchmen. The Gambian public, besides the regime’s network of informants, were not complicit in the extra judicial killings, disappearances, tortures, and detentions without trials. All tribes suffered under the regime. And the regime had recruited its gang of killers and torturers from all tribes. The question must be asked again: The TRC will be tasked to reconcile who with who in The Gambia? The gang of killers with their victims’ families? The torturers with the tortured? The rapists with the raped? If the answer is no, then why set up a commission for a purpose it won’t perform?
Some people may argue that the killers and torturers and rapists will come clean before the Commission and still be prosecuted for those crimes. Why will they incriminate themselves? The precondition of their testimony before the TRC will be a bargain: They will give the truth and get immunity. In the absence of such a legally binding guarantee, there is no power the Commission can summon to compel them to confess to their crimes. It is their Constitutional right not to testify against themselves if such evidence may be used against them in a future prosecution. As an aside, it is ironic, isn’t it, that thugs who beat confessions out of their victims will enjoy Constitutional protections against legal jeopardy. And if they are granted immunity for their testimonies, forget reconciliation. They walk. No courts can touch them for anything they admit to before the TRC. Is that what we want?
Lest we forget, both Sierra Leone and Rwanda had set up UN-backed tribunals to prosecute those most responsible for the bloodbaths in the two countries. The truth and reconciliations were for the thousands of ordinary people who had taken part in the civil war and the genocide respectively. To prosecute everyone who had participated in those conflicts would most likely result in the two very broken nations turning on themselves all over again. Thankfully, The Gambia doesn’t have that problem. A very small number of goons were, on the orders of the despot, responsible for most of the crimes. They need to face justice; not a truth and reconciliation commission.
Even the administration or some part of it seems to think so. The police, acting on the directives of the Ministry of Interior, have made some arrests with regard to some high profile murders. They have also gone to court to secure indictments and arrest warrants in other cases, and have applied for extradition of some alleged killers of the regime. All those cases will be tried in the criminal courts. Kudos to these legal remedies! At the same time, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that these actions are taking the wind out of the sail of the TRC.
The president, too, has been saying since the election that there will be truth and reconciliation, but there will be justice also. Whether he gives these assurances because he is aware of the growing demands to prosecute the crimes of the regime is unclear. And neither he nor any relevant official of his administration has given a policy speech to justify the necessity of truth and reconciliation, and clarify what levels of crime will fall under its purview and what will be referred for prosecution. The often repeated “We need to know what happened” is trite. It’s not a clarification or a justification.
The Justice Minister’s argument that we need the TRC to expose the atrocities of the regime for the nation to learn from them and prevent any recurrence of such atrocities in the future is a lame cliché. He’s a minister for justice, not a minister for national therapy. There are many ways we can both punish the crimes of the regime and learn from them without merely imitating what other countries did in their own unique situations. As already pointed out above, what had happened in Sierra Leone and Rwanda were not cognate to what happened in The Gambia. And certainly, what happened in The Gambia was not born of any collective national ignorance. The regime indulged itself in a culture of impunity. And the best antidote to that is to hold its small number of perpetrators accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Charges must be brought in every case that’s provable in court. With that precedence set in our jurisprudence, people will disobey unlawful orders to commit crimes. Reconciliation will more likely incentivize people with the belief that they can commit the unlawful and still be forgiven.
Besides the criminal acts, the regime engaged in a culture of corruption. The nation’s resources were misappropriated with abandon on the despot’s behalf. Should those officials who helped defraud the nation be given a pass by the TRC if they own up their roles? Again, based on the despot’s modus operandi, a very small cadre of top officials could have been involved in these corrupt practices. The book must be thrown at all those who broke the law. It’s as simple as that. The despot had set up commissions of inquiry into his predecessor’s administration in the name of rooting out “rampant corruption.” He and his enablers must be given a taste of his own medicine.
The legal proceedings will reveal the truth about the regime. In addition, the president or the National Assembly can appoint a commission to investigate and issue a comprehensive report on the crimes of the regime. This commission’s work will have no bearing on the criminal prosecutions much less impede them. That way, we can have both wholesale truth about the regime and justice for its crimes or most of its crimes.