The Gambia’s TRRC, should we expect better from the subsequent sessions?

Dr. Omar Janneh

Call it I’m/material, but I think it is quite something that some witnesses at The Gambia’s TRRC are believed to have given some unreliable testimonies under oath, necessitating them to be described as “dirtying the pages of history”. I wonder if the inclusion of the second “R, reparations” in the TRRC is the problem. I also wonder if we should prepare for some more so-called unreliable stories, especially if some or none of the witness statements will be scrutinised or can be challenged, either because, e.g., some named individuals are no longer with us to do so or that their family members are unwilling to testify.

Now, would the so-called “break” taken by the TRRC due to reasons beyond its control allow some reflection so that it can sharpen its capacity to critically appraise/scrutinise some of the evidence? I think it is important for the TRRC to address this issue because in the absence of scrutinising the evidence before it, the TRRC may have to use a crude formula to determine the level of damages to pay to the victims, which could be source of discontent. But it seems apparent that the TRRC has absolutely little or no capacity to (forensically) scrutinise evidence.

Before seemingly bidding farewell to the first session, I think the TRRC should have tried to do a good job of it by completing it instead of moving on to hear about the events of November 11, 1994. Did the TRRC come across some intractable challenges in the witness statements during the first session? When the TRRC says There was no TRRC sitting yesterday Tuesday January 29th, and there will be no sitting today Wednesday January 30th as well. We are still not sure if there will be any sitting on Thursday, January 31 either for reasons beyond our control”, they know more than they are prepared to share with the public. In the absence of any coherent communication from them to start with, it is only understandable that in about 24hrs, speculation filled social media circles. If the word play in this piece is designed to clear the air, it may have done the opposite. But time will tell if the TRRC will remain true to the contents of its media advisory and muster the courage and call some of those named in its first session, including Fatou Bom Bensousa to come and testify before the Commission at some stage. If they do not do that, one would be justified to be on their case. Again, could calling some of those named individuals, some of whom are believed to be in active service, to the Commission be the insurmountable challenge the TRRC has just encountered? Once again, time will tell if named individuals such as Fatou Bom Bensouda will be called to testify before the Commission or if she would soon be rewarded instead. Wouldn’t the latter be an own goal for the TRRC?

An objective observation of one of the hearings in the first session of the TRRC would reveal that one of the witnesses seemed to inadvertently or deliberately embellish their statement so as to appear larger than Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, of blessed memory. Again, could the inclusion of the second “R” be one of the TRRC’s problems? I wonder if there could be a heightened state of our capacity to buy into one side of most stories.  If there is, then I invite anyone to embark on a crusade to inhibit or suppress the gullibility gene in me. In essence, why do I/we have to– based on one evidence- swallow whatever is thrown at me/us whether I/we like it or not? Clearly some evidence may be irrefutable, but is it not the case that if we are to make sense of some evidence, it must withstand scrutiny? Perhaps we are more interested in witnesses telling us their version of the truth, but that we care little about the effects of that on the troublesome “R, reconciliation” in the TRRC. Yes, the TRRC is not a court, but it must seek to establish the truth, that is why it is called the TRRC. Although some of the offenders and victims are dead, it is my view that in establishing the truth, wherever possible, the other side must be heard. Again, before the TRRC can honestly deal with the troublesome second “R”, I think it must know how reliable the evidence before it is. Furthermore, as part of its outreach activities, is it not obvious to the TRRC that some victims want to hear from the perpetrators in order to reconcile?

I find it extraordinary that the Prosecutor would allow a witness to talk evil and pass ungracious comments about the army, comrades (some of whom have now passed on) and intellectuals, thereby seemingly dignifying the same unwise remarks President Barrow made some time ago. In my view, the TRRC has enough problems to deal with, so I would have thought that it had enough expertise to ensure that procedures are tightened to safeguard against ungracious utterances for such statements may not help any reconciliation efforts.

If Never Again is not just hot air, we need to hear from the offenders and I think if substantive evidence is found against them, they must pay for their crimes. But let us unpick that for a moment. What I am about to say is not speculation; it happens time and time again. The problem we may have is that the offenders and their lawyers are likely to claim that the evidence against them is prejudiced because conflicted individuals lined up some of the witnesses and investigated them. They could even claim that some of the evidence against them had been massaged or tampered with. Of course I do understand the position of some who do not see this as a problem; who knows, the gullibility gene could be at play. The truth is that we must be in no doubt that the other side will try their hand at anything to avoid being punished and the longer they can put up the fight, the better for them. In general, as long as our clan-based way of doing things is fulfilled, we have a proclivity to not be concerned about the issues we should be worried about. It seems likely that to an ordinary lay person, the time taken to deliver justice may not matter, but to the victims, the sooner justice can be seen to be served, the better. However, prosecutions against perpetrators are likely to be long drawn-out processes and that should concern all of us. Any half-baked lawyer can frustrate the life out of any prosecutions, which is likely to cost The Gambia a lot of money; money which would otherwise be spent to provide regular water and electricity in the Greater Banjul Area.

In general, it seems that we have little inclination to do things better and save time and money. Thus the recommendations of the TRRC may not be quite worth the paper it is written on, but would have served the pockets of the staff employed on it. Along the way, victims (TRRC staff and the public) may be left more traumatised than ever before and will be offered nothing but “ndeysan”. It remains my strong view that we are yet to have a competent government that is able to oversee the work of the TRRC and implement its recommendations. Let no one fool us, they appear to lack the expertise to look after traumatised victims or any one of us who may be affected by what we may have heard or seen during the hearings. Such a provision may not even have crossed their minds. Indeed no one would have so far heard the TRRC announce that if anyone is affected by what they heard or seen in the session(s), they should call a number or go to a named place to speak to or see a specialist or trained counsellor. What that tells us is that the country does not seem ready for the TRRC and the TRRC itself, with the conflictions within it aside, is not ready. Is that not obvious from this line in their recent announcement? “At this time, all persons who were victims of human rights violations associated with the November 11 incident are encouraged to please come to the TRRC headquarters at Dunes Resort or call any of the following numbers to give their statements: 9348929 / 2949170 / 2590391 / 5086200. Victims and witnesses traveling from the regions to give statements or testify, will receive modest reimbursements. Relatives of all who lost their lives or disappeared as a result of the November 11 incident, are kindly encouraged to come forward and help us get to the truth of what happened, when hearings resume on February 11th 2019.” If they nominated the Commissioners “from the different parts” of the country, should they not have the names of the victims and perpetrators from the different regions of the country and the diaspora – or was there another rationale for seeking to nominate the Commissioners from the different parts of the country? Should it not be the case that the Victim Centre should have by now got an accurate record of all of the names of the victims (and alleged perpetrators) and that working in partnership with the TRRC, they can reach the victims at short notice? If it were sufficiently ready, I do not think it is in any way much to expect the TRRC to have by now done sufficient work to have all of the witnesses and alleged perpetrators lined up for any hearings and to be able to reach them at quite short notice. And on the issue of reimbursements, what does a modest reimbursement look like when some TRRC staff is receiving seemingly unreasonable salaries, benefits and per diems? Is the TRRC telling us that it is struggling financially? Is there another costly mode of transport in The Gambia besides cheap private taxis, public transport (gelleh gelleh) – costing about £5 per trip; motor bikes; pedal cycles; donkey carts, and travelling on foot? Would expenses incurred by witnesses travelling from the diaspora to testify at the Commission be considered unreasonable and therefore they will not be reimbursed and that they should stay put unless they are prepared to foot their own bills? If that is the case, will the TRRC be amenable to having part of its hearings take place in the diaspora?

Time will tell how many of the perpetrators and victims, especially those in the diaspora, the TRRC can get to testify before the Commission. Wherever possible, establishing the “truth” is not about listening to one side of the story, as so far evidenced in the first session of the TRRC. We remain hopeful that that will not continue to be approach in The Gambia’s TRRC. In the unlikely event that it is, then it may explain the reason why we have heard and read many times that The Gambia’s TRRC would be different from other truth commissions in the world- that it may compare to no other in that it will be an absolute farce like no other. We wait in anticipation if time will be given to the other side. That is, will the other side be invited or will anyone in the know be invited to establish their version of the story/truth so that we can have a truly accurate historical record?

The visit to the Mile 2 Prison by the TRRC revealed the appalling conditions the inmates have to endure during their sentences. It is most likely that the conditions were much worse during the Jammeh years. We cannot wait for the recommendations of this seemingly farcical commission before we can demand and effect prison reforms. As a matter of urgency, I call on IHRDA to redouble its efforts in the work it is doing in The Gambia’s prison service and to ensure that the conditions are brought to acceptable standards.

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