BANJUL, Gambia — It’s been a year since voters rejected President Yahya Jammeh after living under his oppressive rule for nearly a quarter century.
Lamin Fatty is one of the thousands of Gambians who fled the country while Mr. Jammeh’s security forces began targeting dissidents, journalists, gays and others. The climate today under President Adama Barrow, the onetime real estate developer whose shock electoral win in December 2016 set into motion the events that brought down Mr. Jammeh, is totally different, he said.
“I can see smiling faces of fellow Gambians interacting freely, not like before when secret agents were suppressing people’s views on politics and even religion,” said Mr. Fatty, who lived in neighboring countries for 10 years. “Freedom is back.”
But Mr. Fatty and others say there is unfinished business from the remarkable turn of events. They are now demanding justice as they ask what might become of Mr. Jammeh and his associates now living in exile in Equatorial Guinea.
The demand for an accounting of Mr. Jammeh’s 23 years in power is a classic illustration of the difficulties many African countries face dealing with atrocities of the past while trying to move beyond their painful memories.
“We want Jammeh to be brought to Banjul,” said Yusupha Mbaye, 36, who has been confined to a wheelchair since police shot him during a student protest in 2000. “Fourteen of my colleagues were killed as well. I want to know why he ordered his boys to shoot and kill my colleagues. Until that is done, our minds will not be at peace. We need justice, and we need it now.”
Mr. Jammeh’s dark legacy is still felt on the streets and in the shops, with the Gambian economy trying to recover from the chaotic events of recent years. The ex-president’s face even remains on the national currency.
Mr. Barrow and lawmakers have set up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to compile the testimonies of those whose rights were violated under Mr. Jammeh and to discuss ways to potentially redress those crimes.
“It is important to have an accurate and impartial historical record of the violations [and] document them for posterity to ensure that never again do we encounter a reoccurrence of such abuses,” the legislation that created the commission stated.
Justice Minister Aboubacarr Tambadou told The Associated Press in an interview late last week that, under Mr. Barrow, “journalists can now freely conduct their work and human rights defenders can carry out their mandate without fearing persecution. The average Gambian is enjoying a lot of fundamental rights and freedoms he couldn’t expect under the previous government.”
But, he acknowledged, “Let us remember that democracy is a continuum. … It will take time to rebuild a country.”
Victims speak out
Human rights activists applauded the move to hold Mr. Jammeh and his allies accountable. “The victims have been patiently waiting for this for long,” said Sabrina Mahtani, an Amnesty International researcher based in West Africa. “It’s a positive step towards ending impunity.”
But Ms. Mahtani and others are concerned that the commission, which should begin work in the coming months, can pardon those found guilty of crimes during Mr. Jammeh’s presidency if they tell the truth about their actions. Ms. Mahtani said murder, rape and torture were too serious to simply be forgotten. The commission cannot pardon crimes against humanity.
American lawyer Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch is working with victims who expect to appear before the commission. He said he was sure he could prove a long list of atrocities during Mr. Jammeh’s reign.
“I am working closely with the victims,” said Mr. Brody, who helped prosecutors present evidence to convict Chadian dictator Hissene Habre of summary execution, rape and torture in 2016. “We are documenting a series of human rights violations perpetrated by the former president and his close aides. This has given us a clear picture of what happened and how we can achieve justice for the victims.”
The process has already started. Last month, the Trump administration froze the assets of Mr. Jammeh and his affiliated company in the U.S., saying Gambian officials had listed $50 million in public funds that the former ruler is believed to have taken with him. In announcing the move, the U.S. Treasury cited a string of human rights abuses, including Mr. Jammeh’s use of his elite force, known as the Junglers, to assassinate enemies and sow terror.
The government has seized tens of millions of dollars in assets tied to the former president and frozen 131 properties and more than 80 bank accounts, the AP reported.
But it’s not clear if Gambians will ever get closer to Mr. Jammeh than his bank accounts.
The president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, is a fellow autocrat who has been in power for 38 years. His country never joined the convention that accepts jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, so he has no obligation to extradite the exiled Gambian leader.
Asked by Radio France whether he would honor an extradition request, Mr. Obiang would promise only to “analyze it with my lawyers.”
Amadou Scatred Janneh, 55, a leading member of the #Jammeh2Justice campaign that advocates for the return of Mr. Jammeh, said he and his supporters would still try to persuade other regional leaders to put pressure on Mr. Obiang to send their former president home.
“Yayah Jammeh must be charged and tried for the gross violations of human rights committed under his direction,” said Mr. Janneh. “We will not rest until Jammeh gets a fair trial, something he denied us, his victims, for 23 years. We will continue to mount both political and legal pressure to see him extradited to face justice. Putting Jammeh on trial is the only way to end impunity in the Gambia and Africa as a whole.”
Mohamed Sandeng, a college student, agreed. His father, political activist Solo Sandeng, died in detention in 2016 after he was arrested at an opposition rally in Banjul.
The family exhumed Solo Sandeng’s body last year, and a medical examiner determined that state officials tortured and killed him.
Mohamed Sandeng believes some of the men who killed his father are now due to appear before the commission.
“My family is still trying to accept the reality of living without the head, my father,” said the 20-year-old student. “[Mr. Jammeh] needs to face justice for the soul of our father to rest in peace.”