Letter from Gambia: After 22-year regime, ‘We need the truth’

Why We Wrote This

To chart a new path forward, Gambia is taking a clear look back. Testimonies of the former regime’s abuses are unraveling myths of the past – but also bringing complicated emotions to the surface.

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters/File
Supporters of President-elect Adama Barrow celebrate his election victory in Banjul, Gambia, on Dec. 2, 2016. Mr. Barrow's win brought an end to the 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh. The Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission is investigating abuses during the era.

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As a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal between 2013 and 2016, I used to travel through Gambia: a finger-shaped country of 2 million that cuts right through Senegal’s middle. Once, while crossing the Gambia River, I too loudly (and stupidly) called the then-president, the erratic and oppressive Yahya Jammeh, a kangaado – a crazy person. My Gambian travel partner quickly shushed me, and I resolved to never discuss politics in Gambia again.

Just a few years later, when I returned as a journalist, it was as if a veil had been lifted. Mr. Jammeh had lost an election and fled the country, and Gambians were reveling in their new freedom to say whatever they pleased. But many people, including myself, remained unaware of the breadth of the violence and repression. 

No more. From the back of share taxis, to the offices of government officials, to vendors in the market, the country is saturated in testimony from the new Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission. The TRRC has the nation’s full attention, especially the disturbing testimonies of hit men known as “the junglers.”

“We always heard the rumors of one or two disappearances here and there,” says Awa Kasama, a housecleaner. “But when you put it all together, you see how terrible [Mr. Jammeh’s] government was.”

In the bright, sterile lobby of a former hotel, I sat with a group of widows, journalists, and other Gambians. Ahead of us two men – one in military camouflage, the other in a grand, silver boubou robe – stared at each other across a makeshift courtroom.

“You used to eat at his house?” lead counsel Essa Faal asked, referring to a man named Haruna Jammeh, who disappeared in July 2005.

“Yes, counsel,” replied Sgt. Omar Jallow in his characteristic deadpan.

“You were friends with him?”

“Yes, counsel.”

“He helped you?”

“Yes, counsel.”

“You executed him in cold blood?”

“Yes, counsel.”

It was a scene I could hardly have imagined the first time I came to Gambia, in 2014, when then-President Yahya Jammeh’s face stared at you from billboards and people avoided discussing presidential politics in public. Now, a quarter century after the coup that brought Mr. Jammeh to power, here was one of the ex-president’s most feared hit men spilling his secrets to the entire nation.

It has been 2 1/2 years since Mr. Jammeh lost an election and fled to Equatorial Guinea, ending his 22 years of eccentric, oppressive rule. And the way to build a more just future, the new government has decided, is to establish a record of the truth – following in the footsteps of dozens of other countries emerging from trauma. The Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) began broadcasting testimonies in January, and Gambia has been riveted ever since.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Kolda, Senegal, between 2013 and 2016, I used to travel through Gambia – a finger-shaped country of 2 million that cuts right through Senegal’s middle – on my way back and forth from the Senegalese capital, Dakar. Once, while crossing the Gambia River, I too loudly (and stupidly) called the then-president a kangaado – a crazy person in the Fula language. My Gambian travel partner quickly shushed me, telling me we did not know who else was on the ferry. Embarrassed, I resolved to never discuss politics in Gambia again. 

When I returned as a journalist in 2017, soon after Mr. Jammeh fled, it was as if a veil was lifted. People were reveling in their new freedom to say whatever they pleased. But at the same time, expressions of nostalgia for the Jammeh era were also common, especially amid paralyzing water and electricity cuts. Many people, including myself, remained unaware of the breadth of the violence and repression used to maintain Mr. Jammeh’s power.

And now, the atmosphere has drastically changed yet again.

From the back of share taxis, to the offices of government officials, to vendors in the market, the country is saturated in testimony. The broadcasts have the names of the TRRC lawyers, victims, and most of all, the perpetrators on everyone’s tongue.

Abdourahman Bah sells electronics with his father in the bustling Serekunda market, a few miles south of the capital. He says that since the testimonies began, they’ve seen a small uptick in radio sales. “Come back on Monday,” he tells me on a weekend afternoon. “You’ll see, the whole market will be listening.”

Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters/File
Gambia's former President Yahya Jammeh, who fled the country in January 2017 after losing a presidential election, smiles during a rally in Banjul, Gambia, Nov. 29, 2016.

He’s not exaggerating. The TRRC has the nation’s full attention, especially the disturbing testimonies of Mr. Jammeh’s squad of hit men known as “the junglers.”

“It’s just too much,” a young woman told me at a party. When her co-workers turn it on, she puts on headphones to block the noise. “Sometimes I start crying when I hear about the horrible things that happened to people.”

The commission is not a court; it is an investigatory body given two years to probe human rights abuses and advise on reforms and prosecutions. Perpetrators may hope that detailing their crimes will bring amnesty. And perhaps some “just want to pour out their heart and see where their fate lies,” says Mariama Singhateh, a co-counsel at the TRRC. 

That sentiment is mirrored in other conversations I have around town. “When you do something bad, you must get the weight off your chest,” Mamadou Jawo, a vendor who sells trinkets near the TRRC, told me after a particularly brutal testimony.

Others see more cynical ploys.

At the bus station, waiting for the seven-seater van to fill up, I struck up a chat with vendor Lamin Cisse. Conversation turned to the TRRC, and Mr. Lamin – still a fan of the former president – claimed that the junglers must be lying. 

“They have been in prison since 2017,” he said incredulously. “Of course, they will say whatever lies they tell them to go free.”

After testifying, a number of the junglers have been released from detention, where they had been held without charge since 2017. The attorney general was quick to stress that the junglers have not been given amnesty, and would be called to testify in future criminal proceedings. However, the families of victims felt betrayed.

When I first met Ayeshah Jammeh in 2017, she told me the first step toward any kind of personal reconciliation would be learning the truth of what happened to her father, Haruna Jammeh – the former president’s cousin. All she knew for sure was that one day, 14 years ago, he did not come home from work.

Hearing Omar Jallow testify about murdering her father brought some relief, she told me, but has also dredged up painful memories. His release was “an insult,” she said. “There can never be reconciliation until these killers are brought to justice.”

Beyond those most affected by the regime, nostalgia is fading, and giving way to anger. 

I happened to be getting out of a share taxi as demonstrators gathered around a police station, hurling insults and stones over the wall. Inside the station was Yankuba Touray, one of Mr. Jammeh’s right-hand men, who had refused to testify and was promptly arrested. Police eventually fired tear gas to disperse the crowd – which pelted the van with Mr. Touray in it with stones – in order to exit the station and transfer him. Just before the van surged out of the compound, the crowd began chanting the motto of the TRRC: “Never again. Never again.”

The TRRC is a mirror for Gambian society, executive secretary Baba Galleh Jallow tells me, finishing his breakfast sandwich and sweeping the crumbs off his desk. In addition to reconciliation between individuals, “there is also need for reconciliation between political perception and political reality.”

It’s that reconciliation I’ve had the privilege of watching, in many small ways. “Could Gambians really do this?” Awa Kasama, a cleaner who works at my neighbor’s house, asked me back in May. Before the junglers testified at the TRRC in July and August, many still believed that the worst of the crimes were committed by foreign hit men. 

Afterward, I visited Ms. Kasama at her house and turned her question back on her. 

“Yes, there were some wicked, wicked Gambians who did these terrible things,” she replied. “We always heard the rumors of one or two disappearances here and there. ... But when you put it all together, you see how terrible [Mr. Jammeh’s] government was.”

That bigger picture is where co-counsel Singhateh puts her trust as well.

“We need the truth,” she says. “The truth is what will bring healing to this country.” 

James Courtright, a master’s candidate studying human rights and policy at Columbia University, worked in Gambia this summer as an intern with the #Jammeh2Justice coalition, a group of nongovernmental organizations working to bring Mr. Jammeh before a court of law. The coalition is not affiliated with the TRRC.

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