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The Gambia may not be ready yet. But it’s only a matter of time until the conditions are right to prosecute former president Jammeh.

The Gambia's former president Yahya Jammeh. Credit: UN Photo/Erin Siegal.

The Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh. Credit: UN Photo/Erin Siegal.

If The Gambia’s former president Yahya Jammeh thought he could escape to a quiet exile in Equatorial Guinea, he may have underestimated the determination of his compatriots.

His 22-year rule was marked by alleged disappearances, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detention. And since early-2017, when Adama Barrow took over as president, there have been public calls for senior figures in the previous government to be prosecuted. Although it has only been 18 months since Jammeh was forced to step down after losing elections, there have already been two serious attempts to seek justice.

On 31 May, three victims of Jammeh’s bogus HIV/AIDS cure filed a legal action in the High Court of Gambia. Fatou Jatta, Ousman Sowe, and Lamin “Moko” Ceesay are suing the former president for financial damages for harm suffered when they became members of his AIDS treatment programme. In 2007, Jammeh made the outlandish claim that he had found a cure for the virus. Forced to live in a state facility along with other patients, the three plaintiffs were told to stop taking anti-retroviral drugs and replace them with Jammeh’s “miracle cure”, a worthless herbal concoction which made them ill.

This civil action is the first time the former president is being sued in the domestic courts. The case is being supported by the international advocacy organisation AIDS-Free World in partnership with the Gambian-based Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA).

“We’re hoping that the victims will obtain a declaration from the court that their human rights were violated, and that they will be awarded compensation for their suffering,” says Saramba Kandeh from Aids Free World.

The second attempt to seek justice relates to more than fifty people from West Africa allegedly murdered by Jammeh’s paramilitary unit known as ‘The Junglers’ in 2005. Interviews with 30 former Gambian officials who have spoken out since Jammeh was removed reveal that the victims were arrested on suspicion of being mercenaries plotting a coup.

Supported by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Martin Kyere, the sole known survivor of this massacre, has asked the Gambian government to investigate this new evidence and potentially seek Jammeh’s extradition and prosecution in Ghana.

Too much too soon?

For now, the prospects for a criminal prosecution of Jammeh in the Gambia look somewhat distant. In October 2017, Gambian and international rights groups, including HRW and TRIAL International, launched the #Jammeh2Justice campaign. But these groups are treading cautiously. Some have expressed fears that a trial so quickly after the changeover in power could be destabilising, while there are also questions about Gambia’s current capacity to deal with historical abuses. Although there are many highly-trained lawyers in the country, many state institutions were neglected for 22 years under Jammeh.

“For both institutional and political security reasons, it is widely acknowledged that the country is not yet prepared to see…Jammeh extradited,” says a recent report written by the Wayamo Foundation and the Africa Group for Justice and Accountability.

Indeed, while the new government has expressed an interest in taking the former president to trial, it is currently focusing on the creation of a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). The commission is due to start work in summer 2018 and, somewhat unusually, will also be responsible for awarding reparations.

A matter of time

Even if it is likely to be a while before serious attempts to haul Jammeh before a Gambian court, the days of deposed dictators disappearing into protected exile are long gone. Just two years ago, Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habre was finally jailed for widespread human rights abuses committed in the 1980s.

Habre’s trial before the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), an ad hoc hybrid trial set up by the African Union within the existing Senegalese justice system, was the first time a former African head of state was judged before the courts of another African country. The EAC achieved a verdict in ten months at a cost of just $9 million. The trial was praised for having an all-African bench and court officials, and Chadian victims played a vocal role with many of them attending the trial in Dakar.

As I argue in my new book, the Habre trial has enormous political and symbolic significance because it shows that Africa can be serious about tackling historical cases of human rights abuses. It also sends a clear message – that victims can keep fighting for justice for 25 years and eventually bring a dictator to justice. The same could prove true again in the case of The Gambia.

“Slowly, but surely, The Gambia will reign in the rope on Jammeh. It won’t be today and it may not be next year or even the year after that. But one day, the political and legal conditions for justice for Jammeh will be met,” says Mark Kersten, editor of the Justice in Conflict blog.

“Jammeh will have over-stayed his welcome in Equatorial Guinea, he won’t have enough money to buy more time, and The Gambia will enjoy the stability and have the capacity to put him on trial before the eyes of Jammeh’s victims. It will take a lot of work to make that day happen, but there’s no shortage of effort and energy in The Gambia to realise justice for Jammeh’s crimes.”


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