Opinion: The unusual, unethical, potentially luring and corruption-inducing gifting of a plot of land to a witness by the TRRC’s Lead Counsel, Mr. Essa M. Faal

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By Dr. Omar Janneh

What kind of witness must one be at The Gambia’s TRRC to deserve being gifted a plot of land by the Lead Counsel, Mr. Essa M. Faal? Will Mr. Sanna B. Sabally (- the apparently brave and honest son whose testimonies (for a preview, click here, here, here, here, and here) seemed to have adequately hypnotised and won the hearts and minds of many gullible Gambians to the extent that some are making the noise that Mr. Sabally should form a political party) also receive a plot of land from Mr. Faal?

Like many Gambians, Mr. Mafugie Sonko (– who was alleged to have taken part in the November 11, 1994 attempted coup for which he was imprisoned for some 9 years) needed a piece of land to build on for himself and his family. The plot of land he received from Mr. Faal and the money he also received from a very successful crowd funding campaign conducted by Mr. Yunus Hydara would now enable Mr. Sonko to begin to realise his dreams of owning a home. Yes, some dreams do come true!

Mr. Faal may say that he has no regrets in giving his plot of land to Mr. Sonko – after all, it is his property, but it seems very wrong to me that, given Mr. Faal’s position, he chose to do what he did during the TRRC hearings; he has not yet returned his instructions. It appears to me that Mr. Faal allowed his emotions, his humanity to overtake him and cloud his judgement and having done what he did, he has contributed to compounding the conflictual nature of The Gambia’s TRRC. To my mind, there is an unwritten, yet clearly spoken expectation that Mr. Faal – a leading, respected and a less-conflicted custodian of leadership within the TRRC- would be someone who would set the standards for others to follow, but his premature and unethical gift, when he has not yet returned his instructions, seems not to be in conformity with the code of conduct of the bar standards board. In a serious setting – and ours is by no means a serious one, what Mr. Faal did was sufficiently wrong enough for him to consider returning his instructions. But the TRRC is a vanity project, a money-making venture and a joke! Let me be very clear, what Mr. Faal did for Mr. Sonko and his family was undoubtedly good and thankful, but it was very unethical, unprofessional and the timing was awful. Is Mr. Faal deliberately trying to lure and possibly corrupt other victims to come forward and testify at the Commission? In the unlikely event that these are the reasons, how many plots of land does Mr. Faal have to give away? But then, if the anecdotal evidence that it usually takes some 3 or more years for most gainfully-employed Gambians to build and move into their property is correct, could Mr. Faal not have waited until the conclusion of the TRRC to make the gift to Mr. Sonko and other worthy victims? And could there be other victims and dare I say, perpetrators/victims, e.g. Mr. Sabally, who may also be deserving of a plot of land? In the event that Mr. Faal’s unethical and potentially corruption- and gullibility-inducing gift to a witness aim to appeal to other individuals adversely mentioned in the Commission to come forward and testify, time will tell if it would work. I cannot help but wonder if this is what we mean when it is said that our TRRC is very Gambian, that it consists of alarming levels of conflicted individuals, high levels of unprofessionalism, unethical conduct, and clumsy and clan-based ways of doing things. [I have observed that when we live and work abroad, we work very hard and do crazy hours to develop states, countries and institutions – we work together to achieve, but some of our character seems to change for the worse when it is time to develop our own country/institutions. Perhaps I need to start looking in the right places, but it seems challenging to find the critical mass that is ready, enthusiastic, passionately committed enough about their legacy, and integrity to want to work and drive up performance. In general, we seem to be more exploitative than constructive.]

With the benefit of reflection, I find it somewhat deceitful that instead of dealing with the substantive issue of acting prematurely and unethically by giving his plot of land to Mr. Sonko during the TRRC hearings, Mr. Faal wasted time, by acting like a hopeless politician, to unnecessarily and deliberately talk about sections of the TRRC Act, 2017 that have absolutely no basis to support his actions – please see the write-up in The Point. Look, not even section 35 of the TRRC Act, 2017 (Protection of witnesses) which Mr. Faal deliberately ignored, grants TRRC staff to offer gifts to witnesses. Of the sections of the TRRC Act, 2017 cited in the write-up, I take special issue with the reference made to section 19 of the TRRC Act, 2017. Section 19 of the TRRC Act, 2017 grants that the Commission may recommend amnesty on the application by a person who makes full disclosure of his or her involvement in rights abuses and expresses remorse of his or her conduct. However, it must be emphasised that there is nothing, absolutely nothing in section 19 or the TRRC Act, 2017 that recommends that gifts can be given by (and for the purpose of clarity, exchanged/received from) the Counsel or any other individual employed by the TRRC during its hearings on the basis of the witness’s testimony. Clearly it would be self-evident that such an act has the potential to turn the TRRC processes into a far more hopeless exercise than it is already. It may become even more complicated to separate the wheat from the chaff. Finally, I wonder if Mr. Faal discussed with the Chairman of the Commission (Dr. Lamin J. Sise), any of the Commissioners or any TRRC staff his intention to give away his plot of land to Mr. Sonko [– team work and seeking other colleague’s counsel on matters like this can be useful]. If Mr. Faal did consult his colleagues on the matter, it would have been good to have read that in the piece. One can only suppose that, even if consulted on the matter, some TRRC staff may have had their hearts in the wrong place. That some may be justifiably busy arranging/taking each other out on dinner/coffee dates so that they could tie the knot before the team takes their long, unjustified and undeserved “break”. Really, love can be found anywhere, and perhaps we should hope and expect the solemnisation of other unions during the TRRC hearings. And may the union(s) pave the way for the reconciliation efforts that seem to be subtly pedalled- during the hearings- by the Counsels, the Attorney General (Mr. Abubacarr Tambadou) and vigorously displayed/supported by the hopeless and clueless President. By the way, my take on the piece is that Mr. Tambadou is subtly preparing Gambians to not expect much/anything from the TRRC, because if the government cannot figure out what to do with the junglers who he alleged-without trial- had committed serious rights abuses, is there any hope at all that the government can address the recommendations of the TRRC? And I also cannot help but wonder if the unusual and unethical display of kindness by Mr. Faal is something he may have witnessed, engaged in during other (similar) assignments, learnt during law school or from law journals and that if such tactics had been found to produce desirable outcomes. However, unless the data on such unethical actions are yet unclear in some quarters, one thing that is certain is that what Mr. Faal did is against the bar standards board.

While I commend the work of Mr. Hydara in raising D175000 for Mr. Sonko, which was presented to him at the Dunes Resort, I think part of this very worthy cause was executed hastily and in a very clumsy manner. The venue for the presentation of the gift was inappropriate, the timing of the gift could have been better, and the gift sent the wrong message to other victims who may perceive that they are also worthy of such a support. It seems to me that the funds were disbursed prematurely. I think it would have been much better for a Victims’ Support Trust Fund (VSTF) to be set up, with well-meaning and uncompromised Trustees placed in charge of the funds. Individuals, institutions, etc. can donate to the trust fund; and would it not be a good idea if people continue to donate to the trust fund (e.g. individuals can be encouraged to donate their zakat to the trust fund) to help its sustainability (help finance section 29 (3a-c), TRRC Act, 2017) and to also support the #Neveragain campaign? [I think we have to find imaginative ways to solve the problems we have created; may be that may teach us a lesson.] At the conclusion of the TRRC’s work, when a clearer picture of the number of individuals needing support is established, the Trustees can apply clearly articulated formulae of how they would disburse the funds to the victims.

Again, I think one cannot help but think that there may be other victims out there who are also worthy of receiving similar support to that received by Mr. Sonko. Is it fair to say to those victims: tough luck, it is first come, first served? Essentially, could there ever arise the need to raise funds for other victims too? Perhaps yes. Unfortunately, the more frequent one puts out the begging bowl, the greater the risk of colliding with donor fatigue. This makes it more likely that the amount of support received by subsequent victims may become considerably less and less. With so much knowledge at our fingertips, we should aspire to do better than that. Going forward, I think Mr. Hydara should seek to establish a VSTF, work with like-minded individuals and assign credible, and responsible Trustees to the VSTF so that the funds can be disbursed to those that need support in an organised fashion.

Should we expect better from the subsequent sessions of the TRRC? The jury is still out on that, but it would help if 1) the Counsel/Commissioners can continue to maintain their composure upon hearing testimonies from witnesses and 2) if there can be sustained consistency in the manner in which witnesses are led through their testimonies. Since the Counsel is probably among the first to receive the written testimonies of witnesses which may contain varying degrees of ghastly rights abuses, he/they should be able to comport himself/themselves and lead the witnesses. Finally, it would be wrong for the Lead Counsel or anyone in the Commission to offer gifts to witnesses during the hearings. In my view, such actions are totally unethical, unprofessional, has the potential to corrupt the witnesses into telling fabricated narratives which would further make the TRRC another vanity project (Commission) of the Barrow administration which may be a stain on the conscience of all of the staff of the TRRC.

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