By Alieu Famara Sagnia
A day’s public forum held last Wednesday at the Sir Dawda Jawara International Conference Center in Bijilo deliberated on the topic: “From Truth to Justice – The Implementation of TRRC Recommendations on Prosecutions”.
Also called an “international conference”, the organizers said it was held “to discuss the importance of accountability for the crimes committed during the 1994-2017 period, as well as how and where such prosecutions could be carried out.”
The Gambia Bar Association, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA) the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) organized the day-long forum.
“With the impending release of the TRRC report,” it was meant to lay the groundwork on why it is important to have accountability.
The forum brought together in-person and virtual participants, from local and international organizations.
As part of the forum, there was a “Session on Lessons from Africa”, to learn from other countries such as Liberia.
Thus, Tiawan Gongloe, president of the Liberia National Bar Association, attended the conference, and shared his experience.
He said Charles Taylor came to Liberia as a liberator, but was even worse than Samuel Doe.
Gongloe worked as executive assistant to Amos Sawyer, head of the interim government in Liberia, and saw Yahya Jammeh working in Monrovia for the Ecomog peacekeeping mission in Liberia.
He linked the 1994 coup led by Yahya Jammeh in Gambia and the coup by Captain Valentine Strasser in Sierra Leone to events in Liberia, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and said it all started in Liberia. “All these things started in Liberia”.
Gongloe is a former solicitor general in Liberia, and a human rights lawyer who represented journalists, among others; and was himself a victim.
He was imprisoned and tortured until he had to be admitted in hospital, by the government of Charles Taylor, and shared the “Liberians’ experience”.
He said the man he identified as the one who arrested him, denied ever doing so; and he now lives in the US. Perpetrators never admit their wrongdoing, and usually are dishonest people, he added.
He said that there has to be accountability for what happened, and that there cannot be any excuse for lack of accountability.
Perpetrators must be held to account; they must be brought to justice, otherwise crimes will be repeated; and, posterity will hold Gambian society, as well as blame their parents as co-conspirators of the perpetrators by letting them get away with it.
He said Sierra Leone had a truth commission, which brought closure and that there has since been sustainable peace in the West African country.
Gongloe said talk of letting bygones be bygones is not acceptable, and the plight of victims must be taken into consideration at all times, since they are the people who are living with the scars.
Forgiveness is the prerogative of the victims, and to ask them to forgive is to suggest that you are with the perpetrators; that one is in
sympathy is with the perpetrators.
He said in Liberia, a lack of political will under President Ellen Johnson Sir-leaf, even though herself a victim, was a hindrance.
Ellen Johnson Sir-leaf did not muster the political will to bring perpetrators to justice, and should have resigned, according to the Liberian lawyer.
Gongloe addded that George Weah in opposition made noises about setting up a war crimes tribunal, but once in government, President Weah changed his tune.
Weah said that was not a priority, and that they were now preoccupied with national development, according to Gongloe.
He warned that justice should not be expected to happen automatically, and that in Gambia and in Liberia, the people should demand political will by using different strategies.
With the presidential election now in Gambia, civil society should demand that political parties declare implementation of the TRRC recommendations as part of their governance agenda; so that, after the election, they could in future be monitored and held accountable for their promises to the electorate.
It is important to find ways of making those who get voted into power commit themselves to serve the Gambian people with accountability, he continued.
They must be asked to make clear declarations that they will be committed to accountability. Otherwise, the politicians will never muster the will to do what is required, and will engage in making compromises, he went on.
“We cannot run away from accountability, and how we treat the TRRC report will show,” said Gaye Sowe, the conference moderator.
It is not about outsiders coming to tell us what Gambians must do; they are just sharing thoughts, making suggestions, he said.
Gaye Sowe added: “Now, we all agree to hold people accountable. But what kind of accountability mechanism are we asking for?
“Will it be the international process which culminated in the trial and conviction of Hissene Habre, the Special Court for Sierra Leone or prosecution at local level?”
Under the “Lessons from Africa” session, the conference also heard a video message from Clement Abaifouta, president of the association of victims of the crimes of the Hissene Habre regime in Chad.
He said after Habre was overthrown, they began the struggle for justice, and it was not easy; since they faced many obstacles from the politicians. At one time, their lawyer was almost killed in an assassination attempt.
So, he said, it will not be easy for the victims in The Gambia. In Chad, they had to solicit and rely on outside help and support.
Finally, after nearly 25 years, a court set up in Senegal convicted Habre and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
He was convinced that just as Habre was convicted, so also will Yahya Jammeh one day be brought to justice.
He said victims must claim justice because it is a right. Chadians, he added, feel that they are in order to support Gambians as they wish to build an Africa without impunity and dictators, as well as corruption.
Abaifouta declared: “We are together; let justice reign in Africa!”
Another video seen by forum participants was on “Truth and Justice in The Gambia”, which highlighted the 22 years of terror in the Gambia under Yahya Jammeh.
The forum heard that the TRRC public testimonies clearly implicated Yahya Jammeh.
Gaye Sowe, Executive Director of the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), spoke in the video about The Gambia going through a transitional justice process, and held the truth-seeking stage.
He asked: “After that what do we do about “persons who bear the most responsibility”?
Sowe in his capacity as chairman of the forum was also the moderator of the event. Speaking as a participant, he described the forum as “timely”.
He noted that there is talk of reconciliation in the Gambia, and asked: “Would it mean reconciliation without accountability and justice?”
The one-day conference held a session on “The importance of accountability in The Gambia”.
The panelists were a senior Gambian legal practitioner, Neneh MC Cham, who is a human rights lawyer; and, Fatou Jagne Senghore, Executive Director Article 19 West Africa.
Neneh Cham spoke on the importance of accountability, which she said simply means bringing people to account; holding people to account. She added that as Salieu Taal said: “After the truth – then what next?”
Cham defined accountability as taking suspects through the procedures of accounting for their actions.
She said the UN has recommended that the state has a responsibility to: a) bring the perpetrators to account; b) the accused have to answer to allegations; c) and court judgments must be enforced.
Cham reminded participants that for 22 years there was a brutal regime which committed crimes against the Gambian people, ranging from torture to murder.
Victims were left traumatized and expecting justice and reparations. Hopefully, after the submission of the TRRC report, there will be justice, she added.
The Gambian human rights lawyer believes there will be prosecution of perpetrators, when the TRRC recommendations come out.
She recalled that more than 300 testimonies were heard by the TRRC, and the victims want justice after they suffered. They do not understand why it has taken so long; they want justice done and seen to be done, she added.
According to the human rights lawyer, the laws of The Gambia all prohibit the crimes committed, and it is the duty of the state to prosecute crimes where there is evidence.
Also, international law, international and regional instruments all require that violations be recognized as crimes and punished.
Moreover, it is important to have accountability for crimes and human rights violations, so as to prevent revenge crimes in society if victims are denied justice.
She also said that whether or not victims reconcile with the perpetrators should not stop the course of justice – that when crimes are committed against the state, it has a duty to do something.
There is need to send a strong message that impunity is no longer the order of the day, she went on.
Neneh Cham pointed out that the international community is a stakeholder, and is watching – and the message is: “No to impunity for crimes, particularly serious crimes!”
She went on to quote from a statement by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to buttress her assertions.
She noted that not everybody will be prosecuted, only those who bear the greatest responsibility.
Holding perpetrators to account will give confidence to the victims in the justice system. She added that there is nothing new in prosecuting these crimes; that the state “does it all the time”.
She said we will need the goodwill of the government to deliver justice. When s crime is committed or a right is violated, there is s duty on the state to pursue the perpetrator, and reconciliation cannot change that!
Fatou Jagne Senghore spoke of “coming together and talking, so that we realize that what happened was not normal, and that the call for “Never Again” is achieved.
She said a post-Jammeh government was to have openness and accountability. The human rights activist spoke of the right to truth; and that if the whole truth is not told and known, it will be difficult to get full accountability.
She spoke of the right to truth, and the right to remedy, among others.
She also mentioned the importance of getting the full picture, so as to ensure that the persons responsible are prosecuted in a fair manner.
Letting people walk free will create room for thoughts of revenge, as people remain traumatized, she pointed out.
“There is a need to stick to our principles, and in the longer term will get justice for the victims, who must be the center of everything,” she went on.
She also emphasized the importance of having in place a proper accountability mechanism through the Judiciary.
Earlier, in delivering the welcome remarks,
Salieu Taal, president of the Gambia Bar Asssociation, co-organizers of the forum, said they convened to discuss “a very important topic”.
He said people have queried about speaking of a report not yet out, but they are anticipating that the report will recommend action against perpetrators, as required by the TRRC Act, 2017.
Taal believes that prosecution “is a foregone conclusion, without preempting the report”. The forum, he said, is to talk about how important it is to have accountability; that the focus of the conference is: After the TRRC report, what next?
Accountability is beyond victims; it is about society. And the slogan “Never Again” is to ensure that the culture of impunity will never again find a home in The Gambia.
According to Taal, they have engaged in discussions on how to help the Gambia government to have a roadmap on what follows from the submission of the TRRC report.
Tall quoted Gongloe, the Liberian participant, as describing Liberia as the “grandfather” of Sierra Leone and Gambia as the “grandchildren”, going by the sequence of crises witnessed in the three countries.
A session was held under the title: “What kind of accountability mechanism is best-suited to the Gambia situation?”
The forum heard from Howard Varney, a senior program advisor for the International Center for Transitionsl Justice, ICTJ, who presented a paper via video link.
In it, Varney among other things spoke of their experience in South Africa. He took the opportunity to announce that in December, his organization will release a study on how the South African government could pursue Apartheid-era crimes which have been neglected.
He started by asserting that “despite all the appalling happenings in the world, most perpetrators do not face justice.”
Varney went on to spell out mechanisms that could be applied, and suggested that for The Gambia, the creation of a dedicated specialized unit with well-trained prosecutors and investigators could be the way forward.
Salieu Taal, Reed Brody, among others, were also scheduled to share their thoughts at the forum on what type of mechanism to apply in Gambia, in handling the matter of prosecuting perpetrators.
A media advisory stated that in addition to national experts and victims, and international presenters from South Africa, Nigeria, Liberia and the United States, the featured speakers include:
Reed Brody of the International Commission of Jurists, Stephen Rapp – former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues; and the former prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The conference was also to hear a message from Adama Dieng – Special Adviser to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (via video link); and a message from Luciano Hazan, member of he UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances.
The conference held a session on “The Voices of Victims” and Ayesha’s Jammeh, program officer, Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations; and Sira Ndow country coordinator ANEKED, were listed to make presentations.
A session on the Government and Implementation of the TRRC Recommendations was scheduled to hear from Emmanuel Joof, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC.