Adama Barrow was declared this week the winner of The Gambia’s closely watched presidential election, securing a second five-year term in office.
The vote was seen as a test of democratic stability for the small country, five years after a regional peacekeeping mission forced longtime ruler Yahya Jammeh out of The Gambia after he refused to concede defeat to Barrow.
But the incumbent’s new mandate also comes with a renewed responsibility to the victims of human rights violations committed during his predecessor’s 22 years in office. The election took place just days before a highly anticipated report recommended the government prosecute a number of officials for crimes allegedly committed during Jammeh’s era.
“One thing we want to assure, there will be justice and reconciliation, reparation – it will all happen but we have to be patient,” Barrow said in his first news conference after Saturday’s election.
In 2017, Barrow had established the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) for that purpose. In the years that followed, the TRRC heard harrowing testimonies from hundreds of witnesses, including former officials of the Jammeh administration as well as victims and their relatives.
The commission said up to 250 people had died in state-sanctioned abuse, while the use of death squads, rape and torture as punishment was rampant.
In late November, the TRRC’s report was delivered to Barrow, who now has six months to decide whether to act on it. Neither the 14,000-page document, nor the names of the alleged perpetrators, have been made public.
To “forgive and forget with impunity the violations and abuses … would not only undermine reconciliation but would also constitute a massive and egregious cover-up of the crimes committed,” the commission said in a statement.
Global rights watchdog Amnesty International has also called for “an unequivocal commitment from the Gambian authorities that justice and reparations will finally be delivered” to the victims of Jammeh’s era. The former president, who is in exile in Equatorial Guinea, has previously denied allegations of wrongdoing.
Since the commission’s inception, a debate has begun on the presence of political willpower to implement the report’s recommendations. Concerns among victims and rights campaigners grew earlier this year after Barrow formed a coalition alliance with Jammeh’s old party – the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) to help him secure a second term.
Experts also warn that besides the long and complicated process of handing over the report to parliament and publishing a white paper, several other limitations could ensure that this is a long walk to justice.
“Do we have the money?” asked Gaye Sowe, the executive director of Banjul-based Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA).
“Such prosecutions are expensive. Do we have enough trained prosecutors and judges? How safe is it to prosecute Jammeh even if that is recommended by the TRRC? He still has significant support [within The Gambia].”
Beyond the cost of legal prosecutions, there are concerns that The Gambia, one of the world’s poorest countries, may not be able to afford reparations and rehabilitation for the victims despite reportedly allocating 150 million Gambian dalasi ($2.8m) for that purpose in the 2022 budget.
Jeggan Johnson, of the Open Society Foundation’s Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project, said the organisation has submitted a set of recommendations to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, asking it, among others, to urge The Gambia to introduce witness protection.
“The people that testified against the Jammeh regime are actually being threatened by certain members of the APRC, which is his former party,” said Jeggan. “This was confirmed by the TRRC secretariat in a meeting I had with them about two weeks before the release of the report to Barrow.”
There are also concerns about issues of privacy and dignity whenever the information becomes public. The Jammeh government reportedly used rape as a weapon of torture and intimidation, on both men and women, as well as children. Given that the country remains a relatively conservative society with strict anti-LGBTQ laws, there could be an accompanying stigma, Johnson said.
“There are women that are now married and don’t want to make that public … and the guys that are family heads and have got children, so how do we protect their integrity?” he said. “How do we protect their shame? These are very sensitive things that I believe we’re gonna grapple with for a while to come … How do we archive those testimonies and who will be the custodian of that data?”
In a country of only an estimated 2.5 million people, the lines have also been blurred at times between victims and perpetrators of crimes committed during different periods of the Jammeh era – and that has increasingly led to declining public sympathy.
That change in perception could make an already tense situation even more delicate for the Gambian government and further complicate the path to justice and healing.
“Anything can happen and nothing can happen,” said Johnson.