Yahya Jammeh was going to be “trouble” for Gambia from the moment he seized power, the first witness to a commission convened to investigate rights abuses under his presidency said on Monday.
The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which opened after repeated delays caused by a lack of funding, is part of a reckoning with a 22-year-long rule marked by extrajudicial killings, torture and forced disappearances.
Testifying about the 1994 coup, police official Ebrima Ismaila Chongan recalled Jammeh, who later declared Gambia an Islamic republic, as a heavy drinker who was often up to no good.
“He used to come to me to beg for money and other things,” said Chongan, who trained Jammeh as a police cadet and later spent two years in the capital Banjul’s notorious Mile 2 Prison for opposing the coup. “When I knew that he was the leader, I knew that Gambia was going to be in trouble.”
The TRRC, an initiative of current President Adama Barrow expected to sit for two years, plans to investigate the coup’s origins and abuses throughout Jammeh’s tenure, which ended in 2017 when he fled to Equatorial Guinea after losing an election.
Atrocities uncovered in the past two years include the execution in 2005 of 52 migrants from neighbouring Senegal whose bodies were dumped down a well.
At least 200 people crowded the exhibition hall of a Banjul hotel for the first day of hearings, with dozens more huddled outside within earshot while others tuned in across the country to live radio and television broadcasts.
“Today is the day, and we want to hear from every single witness and victim,” said Baba Jallow, the commission’s executive secretary, who as a journalist in 2000 was forced into exile by threats from Jammeh’s forces.
“I am just grateful that the process … is finally off the ground.”
The 11-member commission can make criminal referrals, and many victims want to see Jammeh return to Gambia to face trial for the abuses it investigates. But that seems unlikely given the warm welcome he has received from Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang.
Previous truth and reconciliation commissions, a model popularised by hearings in South Africa in the 1990s that delved into its apartheid past, have received mixed reviews – seen as cathartic moments for victims but criticised for granting amnesties too liberally and only looking into politically significant cases.