The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission from My Vantage Point

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By Dibba Chaku

The commencement of the public hearings of the TRRC marks a watershed in our history as Gambians and the world were eager to know the truth about the plethora of human rights violations that occurred during Yahya Jammeh’s tyrannical rule. The public hearings became the centerpiece of discussions across the length and breadth of the country and in the diaspora. To some, these hearings revealed things they never imagine happened or could have happened in The Gambia. To others, some of the testimonies were confirmations of human rights violations or crimes they have heard about. As we look forward to the submission of the TRRC report and recommendations, I thought I would share with you my take on the TRRC and some of the things that stood out to me.

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We have heard several witnesses narrate their ordeals as unpleasant as this may be, and you wonder if some of them had seen the silhouette of ‘Malak al Maut’ or angel of death in the hands of state agents who should have been their first line of defense under normal circumstances. Their victimization arose from unprofessional conduct by professionals believed to have been acting on orders from the top, high on some intoxicant or abuse of positional power. The only ‘crime’ committed by some of the victims was subscribing to a different political ideology or being on the other side of the political aisle. Others got victimized because of kin punishment, which is the practice of punishing family members of someone accused of a crime, either in place of or in addition to the alleged perpetrator. Those that got victimized because of their involvement in coup d’état or trying to do something about a brutal dictatorship that symbolizes terror were given “VIP treatment” which was nothing but inhumane treatment at the highest level in the nastiest of forms. Despite the state and its apparatus knowing the lawful and right things to do in those circumstances, they chose the ‘keresubang’ route. Unfortunately for some, their victimization stemmed from lies peddled against them, so they suffered for things not of their own making. Others got victimized because they put their faith and trust in a leader and a system that would turn out to be their worst nightmare. Nonetheless, the victims must be commended for narrating their unpleasant ordeals. It is important to mention that not everything that was narrated at the TRRC represents the truth. There could be misrepresentation of facts at times, mistaken identity, or confusion over the sequence of events. However, that does not negate the existence of human rights violations.

The testimonies of the alleged perpetrators also stood out to me. There were those that spoke the truth and showed remorse for their involvement in the committal of crimes, and thanks to these people, the Commission was able to unearth the truth about some of the rights violations orchestrated clandestinely. Others came to the Commission fully prepared to mislead everybody by trimming, sanitizing and being economical with the truth as if the truth was some scarce resource that needed to be rationed. These witnesses either gave arguments that died on their lips, created alibis that never checked out, or resorted to amnesic syndromes that were never diagnosed. Their goal was to minimize their level of involvement in the perpetration of crimes or extricate themselves from responsibility. To these people, all efforts must be made to keep that skeleton in the cupboard. There were educated elite witnesses who were under the illusion that they are at par with the team of counsels, so they could ‘fiti fiti’ themselves out of that hot seat when beleaguered to cough out the truth or get it elicited from them, reluctantly. These are the ones that would deny something for hours only to turn around and accept it, hence wasting the Commission’s time. We also saw uncooperative witnesses who from the get-go proved to be difficult to guide. They refused to answer questions asked, instead preferred to answer their own questions. The uncooperative conduct and demeanor during their testimonies are clear indications of an intent to hide incriminating information. It was perplexing to watch them try to divert the attention of the Commission to some rare gesture of kindness on their part. They want us to believe that all allegations against them are unfounded, and that their version is veracious. Even when confronted with overwhelming corroborating evidence from multiple victims and witnesses, they still attempted to extricate themselves by cooking up stories that made absolutely no sense, not even to a first grader.

One institution that could be described as The Gambia’s shame is the notorious NIA as it was a major crime scene where lives were treated in a manner that was animalistic. The testimonies of its operatives and directors were startling in the sense that they all had been given a chance to help the TRRC, themselves and the Gambian people uncover the truth about our ugly and shameful past so we could create a roadmap that would prevent us from slipping back into that perilous ravine. Pathetically, the chance had been squandered by many, despite knowing fully well that no NIA operative or torture specialist is waiting to beat the crap out of them or even snuff the life out of them as that was the modus operandi when they were under the illusion that the world was at their feet and that the status quo would continue in perpetuity. Working for the NIA was ‘prestigious’ or ‘ostentatious’ at the time because the society feared them. They were believed to have too much power emanating from the State House, and they could do anything and everything without consequences. They performed their duties with pride, ferocity, and even went above and beyond defined duties at times. But there they were at the TRRC facing a whole nation and reluctant to describe their daily operations. The culpability of the NIA in committing gross human rights violations is unequivocal by all indications. The institution’s current director gave a marathon testimony in which he was very economical with the truth, withheld vital information and even attempted to mislead the Commission. There was a witness that escaped the coils of torture from the NIA and ran naked to the police headquarters. If a fully grown man would prefer running down the streets of Banjul naked to continuing to endure the torture meted out on him, you need not be an expert to imagine the gravity of the ‘keresubang’ act being inflicted on him. Masking the truth about this institution and the nefarious acts of its directors and operatives amounts to nothing but disingenuity.

Kudos to the TRRC for doing a fantastic job of unearthing the truth about our ugly and shameful past. As the saying goes, we cannot change the past, but we can certainly learn from it to shape the future. The naysayers can deny the revelations or call this exercise a witch-hunt, but it is without a jot of doubt that there were serious human rights violations that consumed lives, incapacitated people, ravaged families beyond repairs, severed ties and displaced many. Pregnant women had their husbands snatched away from them for good. Lactating mothers had to fend for their babies alone as their husbands got usurped from them. Able-bodied men got electrocuted, castrated, maimed, strangled, and buried in shallow graves. We had a severely messed up system in which the vaguest suspicion was enough to arrest, abduct, torture, and even kill at times. Let us remind ourselves that these perpetrators did not emanate from planet Mars or descend from the Banjul skies. They are our very own fathers, uncles, nephews, brothers, sons, cousins, or ordinary everyday Gambians. Now whether the report and recommendations will be implemented to the letter, just shelved, or some cherry-picking will happen at the implementation stage is the prerogative of the government of the day.

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