Not All Wounds Heal with Time: Why the Gambia Needs Transitional Justice

By Shaina Salman

It happened quickly. Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia’s twenty-two-year de facto dictator, boarded a plane to Equatorial-Guinea accompanied by Alpha Condé, Guinea’s president, and most of his fleet of luxury cars. It was almost as if Jammeh’s departure suddenly ripped a band-aid from The Gambia exposing its deep wound to the world- a wound many accuse Jammeh himself of inflicting. Many now think it is time to move on. With Jammeh gone and Adama Barrow having been democratically elected President of The Gambia, many think it is now time to forget about the past and forge a new path.  Unfortunately, as we have learned from countries that have dealt with conflict, dictatorships, and civil war, time alone does not heal all wounds. Sometimes, wounds need to be treated, disinfected, and nursed back to health and the same can be said for societies that have been marred by regimes of terror. These societies need to deal with the sources of its pain, understand past transgressions in order to avoid further damage in the future. The Gambia needs transitional justice – it needs mechanisms that deal with all the open questions left to be answered -it needs to do so on its own and it needs to do so by establishing equitable processes that allow people to find peace in the truth and to repair the years of damage as best as possible.

The Gambia, the smallest country on the African mainland was once known for being the longest electoral democracy in Africa. Every five years since its independence in 1970, the Gambia held elections and reelected Sir Dawda K. Jawara as President. In 1994, Sir Jawara was ousted and a bloodless coup installed a then twenty-nine-year-old Lieutenant Yahya Jammeh temporary President of The Gambia. Initially, Jammeh proclaimed that he and others who led the coup were not there to perpetuate themselves but rather, “[they would] return to the barracks ‘as soon as [they] have set things right’.” In 1996, a multiparty coalition promulgated a new constitution and political elections were held, despite three of the major political parties barred from participating. Yahyah Jammeh was elected as the second president of The Gambia. Jammeh was again reelected in 2001, 2006 and in 2011.

Jammeh’s regime was the source of great (often strange) controversy and was repeatedly accused of inflicting grave human rights abuses on Gambian citizens. The eccentric dictator, who was officially referred to as His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh Babili Mansa, allegedly created a police unit known as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to use as a strong arm of the state. The NIA has been accused of conducting arbitrary arrests, tortures, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings on the Gambian population.

Jammeh allegedly used the NIA to inspire fear. His secret police used to disguise as everything from gigolos to prostitutes and would arrest people for reacting indifferently when his presidential convoy passed. According to Human Rights Watch, the Jungulers, an unofficial unit of up to 40 personnel consisting primarily of Presidential Guard members, were most frequently implicated in serious abuses, carrying out the most egregious crimes.  As the years passed, the abuses became more grave and more public. For example, in June of 2016, Ebrima Solo Sandeng, a Gambian opposition activist was arrested and after just 24 hours in police custody was reported dead. The media became emboldened and often reported on the abuses inflicted. Jammeh’s regime then attacked the opposition through the media. His regime largely did not respect freedom of speech or the press as members of the media who criticized Jammeh were often arrested and subjected to torture or worse – they were killed.

Aside from the human rights violations, Jammeh’s regime had another lasting impact on The Gambia – it created a deep chasm marked by ethnic division and underlying rivalry between the minority Jola people and the majority Mandinka. The Gambia has known years of what appears to be a superficial peace. Many Gambians perceive Jammeh to have favored his own ethnic group, the Jola, over the Mandinka and Fula. Others observed that Jolas were given positions of power simply because they were Jola, regardless of their qualifications. Furthermore, many accuse Jammeh of enacting several decrees to favor Jolas. For example, Jammeh decreed very stringent work week requirements. The business work week was limited to four days a week and by law, people in government institutions had to stop working by 6pm each day.

Traditionally, Jolas in The Gambia have worked the most menial positions and are often servants and laborers, although certainly many are not. Thus, many perceived the decrees as a specifically benefiting the Jola. Therefore, when Jammeh was ousted in December, many Gambians saw it as a defeat of the Jola and an instance of returning the Jola to their previous position.

The ethnic division worsened over the years and with Jammeh now gone, Gambians have a fresh opportunity to redefine their identity – to present themselves first as Gambians then as their ethnic identity. But, this cannot be done without an honest look in the mirror. The Gambian government has to avail itself to a mechanism (or several mechanisms) that will allow victims to come forward and to have their story told as it happened. The government, unfortunately has to be the “bigger person” and has to accept responsibility for the failings of the previous regime. The government has to root out the violations that have been committed and allow the justice system to assign culpability where it is due. Those who committed crimes in the name of Jammeh must answer for them because after all, good and bad are universal principles discernable to humanity. And as such, crimes that inflict harm cannot be ignored because we, as a society and as a world, have decided against impunity.

Transitional justice, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), “[r]efers to the ways countries emerging from periods of conflict and repression address large scale or systematic human rights violations so numerous and so serious that the normal justice system will not be able to provide an adequate response.” Transitional justice mechanisms can take many forms: from truth seeking, as was used in South Africa after Apartheid; or criminal justice, as was done in Bosnia after the Bosnian war ; or reparations as is currently being used in Cote d’Ivoire following their post-electoral crisis; and  through reforms as is the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they’ve engaged in a number of legislative reforms targeting institutions that have been involved in their long-standing conflict.

In order to be successful, the Gambia may need a combination of these mechanisms. The country should use truth-seeking to deal with crimes like forced disappearances, and allow victims to come forward and put faces to the unknown. Criminal justice, which is already underway, can be useful in satisfying those who believe in retributive justice. Finally, The Gambia can use reforms to eradicate traces of dictatorship from institutions in the country and can even further use these reforms to promote reconciliation where there have been divides.

Transitional justice is not just for some – it is for all. It is a process that will allow Gambians to heal. Internal wounds are no less wounds because they are not visible. On the contrary, sometimes these wounds need even more attention and care. Sometimes, healing starts from the inside to manifest on the outside. Similarly, The Gambia’s wounds are deep and are often not visible to the naked eye. But, a closer look yields a society that needs care in order for its healing to manifest in other aspects of Gambian society. This healing starts with a government willing to employ transitional justice mechanisms for the betterment of its people.

* The front picture is from Ex-President Yahya Jammeh leaves the Gambia after losing election, BBC NEWS, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38706426. (The Editorial Board)
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Shaina Salman is a J. William Fulbright – Hillary R. Clinton Public Policy Fellow in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. She is completing her fellowship research component with the International Center for Transitional Justice where she recently had the opportunity to go on a mission to The Gambia. Ms. Salman’s opinions are her own and do not reflect the position or the endorsement of the State Department, The Fulbright Program, the United States government, or the International Center for Transitional Justice.