Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Gambia begins era of transitional justice

Rights violations under former president Yehia Gameh will be subject to public scrutiny, Gambia’s justice minister announces. But will reconciliation follow

Gambia begins era of transitional justice
Gambia begins era of transitional justice

New Justice Minister Abubacarr Tambadou has announced Gambia’s its intention to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate rights violations under former president Yehia Gameh, currently in exile in Equatorial Guinea, who ruled for 22 years. Tambadou said the commission will also investigate Gameh’s wealth, especially after news that $11 million disappeared from state coffers as the former president left the country to go into voluntary exile.

He added that the commission will encourage admissions of crimes committed under Gameh and will offer compensation to victims. Speaking to local news outlets, Tambadou said: “Preparations for the TRC will be complete in six months, and it should begin hearing sessions by the end of this year.”

Gameh came to power in a military coup in 1994 when he was an army lieutenant. Over the next two decades several presidential elections were held and he won them all, amid suspicions that voting was rigged. In December 2016, Gameh lost to Adama Barrow, a contractor and real estate developer. Although Gameh admitted defeat in the beginning, he changed his mind later and accused Barrow of voter fraud.

Eventually, Gameh was forced to leave power and settle in Equatorial Guinea, as troops from West Africa states arrived to force him to comply with the results of the elections.

The new government arrested Gameh’s Chief of Intelligence Yankuba Badjie in January, who is the first former official to be taken into custody, but so far he has not been officially charged with any crimes.

The BBC reported there are five cases the TRC is expected to look into, including the death of opposition politician Solo Sandeng who was beaten to death while in detention in 2016. Also, former army commander Ndure Cham, who is believed to have dug his own grave before being shot, based on accusations he prepared for a coup against Gameh in 2013.

There are also three journalists, including Alagie Abdoulie Ceesay who was beaten until he lost consciousness during detention in 2015; Ebrima Manneh who disappeared after leaving his newspaper in 2006; and most famously the chief editor of The Point newspaper Deyda Hydara who was shot in his car in 2004 after publishing a series of articles against the corruption of Gameh’s regime. The PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award honoured him posthumously for his courage in 2005, and he also received the Hero of African Journalism Award in 2010 given by the African Union.

Gambia’s Justice Ministry announced it is looking at TRCs in several countries, such as South Africa that formed a similar commission in 1994 at the end of apartheid rule. Various African countries created TRCs, such as after genocide in Burundi and the civil war in Liberia.

TRCs bring those accused of human rights violations (including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity) to testify in front of the commission on incidents under investigation (whether torture, extrajudicial executions, illegal confiscation of funds, etc). Testimony is given in front of the victims or their relatives, who can then choose to either grant them amnesty or prosecute them. Reconciliation is the product of justice, either through amnesty or prosecution.

TRCs exist in countries where those accused — whether dictatorship regimes or civil war perpetrators — have many supporters. A dictator, for example, could have strong support from his tribe or ethnic group or religious sect, which makes it all but impossible for the democratic regime that succeeds him to hold trials accusing all such supporters, since this could mean a return to civil war or a collapse of societal peace.

Several African and non-African countries failed to reconcile via transitional justice mechanisms, including TRCs. According to the TRC Burundi Website, “many citizens, especially victims and their families, complained about the slow procedures of these commissions, which creates a sense of frustration in the country.”

Sometimes the accused are not in the country, either because they fled to neighbouring states or were killed or could not be found. Thus, some crimes remain unresolved, as stated in the final report of the TRC for Liberia.

The same is true of victims of dictatorship since many are forced to flee overseas and live in difficult conditions, such as Chadian refugees in neighbouring countries, who were not included as plaintiffs against former dictator Hissene Habre during his trial in the Senegalese capital.

Even in countries that created such commissions and issued final reports, some did not produce genuine reconciliation, such as in Burundi. “The ghosts of civil war still hover over Burundi, even though nearly one quarter of a century has passed since the end of genocide 23 years ago,” according to Bashir Abdel-Hamid, professor of political science at Cairo University’s Institute of African Research and Studies. “This is clearly evident in mediation by east central African countries to end the crisis that was triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s amendment of the constitution so he can run for a third term. This shows that social peace remains fragile and can collapse at the first sign of trouble.”

Abdel-Hamid adds: “This does not, however, negate the fact there has been continuous peace since 1995 until today.”

Al-Hag Warrag, chief editor of Hurriyat Sudan (Sudan Freedoms) newspaper, believes the reason behind the failure of transitional justice in many cases is because the overthrow of a dictatorship did not produce a new democracy, but another dictatorship.

“In Democratic Congo, for example, Mobutu Sese Seko was overthrown in an armed revolution that created a regime that was no less of a dictatorship than its predecessor,” said Warrag. “That is why it is impossible to believe the new regime is serious in prosecuting a former dictator, except for revenge rather than championing human rights.”

Millions of people were killed in the civil war in Democratic Congo, and several African countries participated in the war, which undermined any genuine efforts to achieve transitional justice. President Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu, handed over power to his son Joseph who has ruled the country since his father’s assassination in 2001 and recently tried to amend the constitution and extend his reign. However, strong opposition prevented him and Congolese parties – under the auspices of the influential Catholic Church – agreed he will step down at the end of the year.

“Even democracies in Africa do not usually have the cadres or legal system capable of putting dictators on trial, as we saw in Sudan,” stated Warrag. “The trial of Jaafar Numeiri (1969-1985) and figures in his regime lasted more than four years – the duration of the third democracy before the coup by Omar Al-Bashir (1989).”

It is evident that Gambia needs help once again, but this time not only from its neighbours in West Africa but also the global community, to overcome the challenges of applying a mechanism of transitional justice.

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