Yahya Jammeh
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, and Mrs. Zineb Jammeh, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Nine months into the sittings of the commission investigating human rights violations during former President Yahya Jammeh’s regime, Gambians are still divided over his record, the Executive Secretary of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), Baba Jallow, has said.

“Transitional justice scholarship suggests that one of the biggest challenges of transitional justice commissions is to reconcile the competing narratives that emerge in transitional societies,” he pointed out in a paper he presented at the Third Continental Forum on the State of Transitional Justice in Africa in Addis Ababa.

“In The Gambia, the dominant narrative emerging from the TRRC hearings is that Yahya Jammeh was a brutal dictator under whose orders many innocent people were arrested, extra judicially detained, tortured, disappeared or killed.

“There is however a counter narrative coming from the remnants of his support base: namely, that Yahya Jammeh was a great leader who did great things for the country and who is innocent of the crimes he is being accused of.

“As a neutral and independent commission embodying both the nation and the state, the TRRC faces the challenge of reconciling these competing narratives in Gambian society,” Mr Jallow added.

Another challenge was managing expectations regarding reparations, he said.

“Closely related to the controversy over justice versus reconciliation is the difficult question of reparations.

“Especially where a truth commission has the word in its name, such as in the Gambian TRRC, reparations evoke high expectations of monetary compensation in transitional societies,” Mr Jallow said.

“As most victims of atrocity are poor, expectations of monetary reward offer an opportunity for relief, however temporary, from the biting pains of persistent poverty.

“Experience shows that some victims come forward to testify not only because they want retributive justice for perpetrators, but also because they expect some form of monetary compensation for the wrongs they suffered.

“Truth commissions are therefore faced with an abiding challenge to manage these expectations,” he added.

Mr Jallow said that recommendations in final reports of truth commissions were not enough because they “are not always implemented by governments”

It was for this reason that0 the TRRC had devised an operational strategy that would ensure that by the end of its two-year mandate, a national conversation would have been generated and a critical mass of citizens empowered to make sure that no government could morph into dictatorship in the country again.

He said such commissions were not useless or money-wasting endeavours, adding, truth commissions engendered narratives that helped societies to come to terms with their painful past and cement their determination to build a better future.

“Truth commissions are valuable avenues for healing and closure for victims and their loved ones.

“Whether perpetrators are prosecuted or not, victims benefit from an opportunity to confront their painful past, address their tormentors, know the fate of their loved ones or get some form of acknowledgment and compensation.

“They therefore remain a viable option for societies in transition from conflict or dictatorship,” Mr Jallow added.

He also touched on culture when dealing with transitional justice in Africa and said “…while transitional justice must seek solutions to conflict in traditional cultural norms and values, we must also interrogate our traditional norms and values for those aspects that enable dictatorship and tolerate human rights abuses by African governments.

“Both the African Union’s Transitional Justice Policy and the ‘Study on Transitional Justice and Human and People’s Rights in Africa’ make reference to the need to address the destructive legacy of colonial authoritarianism and repression in post-colonial Africa.

“This is very significant,” Mr Jallow stated.

Transitional justice must also look at some vestiges of pre-colonial African cultures, especially as they relate to the nature of governance and are not in line with the dictates of constitutionalism.

“What this means within the African context is that a truth commission process must go beyond hearings, reports and recommendations to include robust civic engagement and popular empowerment designed to reduce, if not remove the repression from the culture. “Dictatorship thrives and human rights violations are committed with impunity in Africa largely because the great majority of Africans are not empowered enough to stand up to their governments.”

Mr Jallow added that “a politically empowered citizenry is the best guarantee against oppression and political impunity, and therefore the best guarantee of non-recurrence which, we argue, is the ultimate rationale for the creation of transitional justice commissions”.

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