Dr. Omar Janneh (PhD)
Yes, we need justice and we need it NOW, but critical analysis of the events over many months suggests that in seeking to document, address through reparations the heinous rights abuses of some 22 years of brutality under Jammeh, we must proceed with caution. We must be confident that we can address potential security, and apparent capacity (e.g., competency issues) challenges before we embark on a process as complex as the TRRC.
When the reports of the continuous injustice – unlawful arrests, beatings, violations of human rights, land disputes, and unjustified use of lethal weapons on unarmed civilians by the security services (who we cannot yet trust) and with some instances of civilians taking the law into their own hands with bloody consequences are put into context, the conclusion I reach time and again is that we are not yet ready to embark on the TRRC. Indeed, one would be justified in asking if this government has the moral authority to preside over such an exercise, given that these events are happening under its watch and or elements within it may be complicit in these crimes. In other words, as time goes by, we see apparent signs that some individuals who may well have some questions to answer for the wrong doings of the former regime have reconciled with this government or vice versa. Is this not a mockery of the work of the Commission? This tells me we are yet to have individual(s) with the correct educational qualifications and skills and with limited or no conflict of interest to oversee the work of the Commission.
A poorly managed TRRC could create far more social unrest than we already have. The reason is that this government is not yet able to recognise and deal with the most basic of issues, i.e., security, affecting its own existence never mind preside over such a complex matter. This begs the question, is the copycat state truly at it again? Further, the manner in which it goes about appointing individuals to the Commission are non-competitive, in cases where it should have been (TRRC Act, sections 22(7) and 24(1) or do not follow the spirit of the TRRC Act, 2017; section 24(4)(b). If we cannot even follow these very basic processes properly, is there any chance that the TRRC can be successfully executed to deliver restorative justice?
Indeed, I wonder if we have the capacity to support the victims and their families (TRRC Act, 2017; sections 34-35). For example, can we do enough to adequately provide psychotherapy and psychosocial support for the victims, protect the perpetrators, informants and witnesses (TRRC Act, 2017; sections 34(3)(a) &(b); section 35), etc.? It is my view that verification of the many and potentially varied rights abuses would require experts that may not be easily sourced and composed (TRRC Act, 2017; section 20(1). This work needs much more than listening to the victims’ claims of rights abuses and taking notes. Needless to say, it also needs victim-centred counselling for the rights abuses which may need to be addressed in a tribe-centric manner; what if children dragged into the Commission’s work [TRRC Act, 2017; sections 34(3)(a) & (b) and 35(3)]? In order to do some of that work more effectively, it is important to recruit highly-skilled personnel – it may well be necessary for such individuals to speak the language of the affected individuals, rather than rely on (untrained) interpreters and unskilled personnel. It is my hunch that without adequate safeguards, the process could be ugly and crude: a victim recounts his/her (horrific) story, notes are taken/recorded, etc. and s/he is left unsupported or with minimal support for days and weeks. It is a sad fact that our attitude to the urgency of time needs a radical calibration.
It is my view that unless we can have confidence in the security services, embarking on the TRRC will be a big mistake. Of course I get it that the victims of Jammeh’s 22 years of tyranny want to see justice served and justifiably want to see it served now. However, what this government must do is to make sure that it meets the expectations of the people by doing the right thing in the right manner. As I see it, we do not yet have the capacity to embark on the TRRC. The security concerns make it a particularly toxic and risky exercise to embark on.
Further, I worry and wonder in equal measure if we have sufficient attitudinal transformation in the country to allow democracy and the rule of law to prevail. This may be alarmist, but please allow me to explore this scenario with you: Given the security challenges we have had for some time which shows little or no sign of easing, I wonder what would be one’s reaction if it became apparent during the TRRC, for the first time, that a family member did not only endure beatings, but was subjected to other serious (and perhaps repeated rights abuses) than was previously known to the family – you are at liberty to allow your imagination to take you places or not (TRRC Act, 2017; section 15(4)(b). As the current climate appears to tolerate individuals taking the law into one’s hands, how would affected individuals or their families react if they could come in contact with the perpetrator(s) of that crime – having just recounted the wrong doing? Among the many issues this government inherited which required urgent attention, stabilising our security challenges should have been at the top of its list of things to do, before touching such a complex and potentially toxic project we have no capacity to deal with. Of course, stabilising our security challenges is a massive task, which will take time to address. And understandably many affected individuals do not have the appetite to wait and allow the security issues to be addressed before the TRRC can begin its work and offer reparations/justice to the victims, which may hopefully offer the nation the opportunity to heal, and say never again.
And when I hear of exhumations, I shudder and also wonder if we have the necessary resources, expertise and support for the individual(s) involved in such exercises. Do/will the staff involved in such difficult work have the necessary training and professionalism to painstakingly look for and document the evidence in detail [TRRC Act, 2017; section 14(1)(a-e)]? Will they ensure that the remains of the victims are given the dignity they deserve pre and post investigations? In fact, are any of the suspected burial sites/crime scenes (being) protected [TRRC Act, 2017; sections 14(1)(f) & 15]? Forgive me for repeating: The work of the Commission cannot be considered professional if the appointments to the Commission do not follow the spirit of the TRRC Act, 2017. There is much to be desired in the appointments made so far (TRRC Act, 2017; consider sections 22 and 24(1) & (2). If we embark on the TRRC without the necessary safeguards in place, and it goes wrong as it is very likely to, it may tear apart the very fabric of the foundation of our new democracy or be a total waste of public funds which could be spent elsewhere. Without adequately addressing the security challenges and increasing our capacity to do this complex work well, embarking on the TRRC now will be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse with potentially explosive consequences. Is it worth the risk? Are there other sound and legal instruments that can be used to try the rights abuses – do we not know many of the victims, the perpetrators of the crimes and those who aided and abetted in the crimes? If we must do the TRRC, it is not too late to rethink the timing of it so that we can do it well.