Gambia: Barrow puts political power before justice in Gambia

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The president’s new alliance will make it difficult to keep electoral promises of justice for the violations of the Jammeh era.

In a shocking political turnaround, Gambian President Adama Barrow joined forces with the country’s former ruling party ahead of the December 2021 elections. Barrow’s surprising new ally – the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) – was led by former President Yahya Jammeh until his exile in 2017. Jammeh had refused to accept Barrow’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections which ended his 22-year reign.

The alliance angered survivors of human rights violations committed while Jammeh was in power. In 2017 Wheelbarrow installation the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate these atrocities, promote national reconciliation and advise the government on prosecution, amnesty or reparations for the accused.

Instead of honoring the process he launched, Barrow’s latest political maneuver comes just weeks before the third attempt to submit his final report to him. Many hoped that the commission’s task of compiling 16 volumes of reports dating back to 1994 would be the first step in ending impunity by prosecuting crimes committed under the previous government.

Can Barrow juggle the New Alliance and still deliver on his election promise to see justice for the violations of the Jammeh era? His political balance comes after fallout with the allies who helped him achieve his historic victory over Jammeh in 2016. The United Democratic Party (UDP) had backed Barrow’s campaign as part of the Coalition 2016 (with six other parties). Barrow vowed sweeping reforms would follow, including justice for the victims of his predecessor.

Barrow’s political balance comes after fallout with allies who helped him defeat Jammeh

Divides within the coalition quickly emerged when it became clear that Barrow would not keep his election promise to serve only a three-year “transitional” term. The collapse of the alliance became imminent in 2019 when Barrow sacked prominent members of the government coalition, including UDP leader and vice-president Ousainou Darboe. In January 2020, Barrow formed his own party, the National People’s Party (NPP), severing ties with the UDP.

Since then, the president has faced growing resistance in the form of popular dissent. The Three Years Jotna lobby group emerged in 2019 to protest Barrow’s decision to serve a five-year term. In response, the government banned the movement, labeling as “subversive, violent and illegal”.

Gambians are also unhappy with the prosecution presence regional forces in the country. Troops provided by the Economic Community of West African States Mission to The Gambia and Senegal were deployed in December 2016 to pressure Jammeh to concede electoral defeat. Despite efforts to reform the country’s security sector, Barrow’s strained relationship with his security chiefs forced him to use regional forces as a presidential guard.

After severing ties with the UDP, Barrow became an increasingly isolated leader, struggling to gain a sufficient base of support for the NPP. Then, in September 2020, APRC MPs allied with Barrow’s camp to block passage of the draft constitution, which included a two-term limit. This motivated the president to bet on a formal alliance with the APRC.

Barrow became an isolated leader, struggling to gain a sufficient base of support for the nuclear power plant.

While the finer details of the NPP-APRC alliance remain vague, questions arise as to how it will affect the country’s transitional justice efforts. Will Jammeh return from exile in The Gambia? He fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 under regional and international pressure to admit his electoral defeat.

During the TRRC’s public hearings, several witnesses directly implicated Jammeh in atrocities. Former members of Jammeh’s infamous “death squad”, known as Junglers, said he ordered the murders newspaper editor Deyda Hydara in 2004 and two Gambian-American businessmen in 2013. Three members of Junglers testified that Jammeh ordained the 2005 mass murder of 50 migrants, mostly from Ghana, and the cover-up that followed. The TRRC also heard testimony from beauty queen Fatou Jallow about how Jammeh sexually assaulted her.

Still, Jammeh seems determined to return home, where he commands a loyal political audience. Initially, the official government position was hostile to Jammeh’s plans, threatening to arrest him if he entered the country. However, speculation surrounding the secret negotiations between the government and the former president has persisted since 2019.

APRC officials may have given credit to this speculation by confirming that their deal with the nuclear power plant included a clause allowing Jammeh’s return. The contradictions in the government’s response are a worrying sign that for Barrow political expediency trumps reform.

Since the alliance, APRC members have called for reparations and reconciliation rather than prosecution

It is also unclear whether Jammeh would face prosecution if he returned. If the former leader is immune from trial or granted an amnesty, it will raise questions as to whether other APRC officials would be similarly protected.

Earlier this year, The Gambia’s Supreme Court unanimously denied Jammeh’s ally Yankuba Touray immunity from prosecution for crimes committed under the previous government. Touray was tried and sentenced to death for the murder of former finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay. This raised hopes that more court cases would follow after the TRRC’s final report to the President.

While it remains to be seen what the TRRC will recommend, the new political alliance potentially pours cold water on the prospect of further lawsuits. Survivors of the abuses of the previous regime may never see the perpetrators brought to justice. Indeed, since the alliance’s announcement, senior APRC officials have called on the TRRC to focus on reparations and reconciliation rather than criminal prosecution.

This is worrying. Barrow’s story of reconsidering his decisions on the length of his presidential term and seemingly returning Jammeh does not inspire confidence that he will push for lawsuits at the expense of his new allies.

Chido Mutangadura, Consultant, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

This ISS Today is published as part of the Training for Peace (TfP) program, funded by the Norwegian government.


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