Let me take this opportunity to again felicitate the Coalition, President Barrow, and the just-appointed ministers. I wish them the best of luck and pray that the Almighty grant them wisdom to steer our country in the right direction. Because the topic under discussion touches on the administration of justice in the country, I would like to acknowledge the choice the President made by appointing Mr. Abubacarr Tambedou as our Attorney General. It is an excellent pick, given Mr. Tambedou’s dynamism, experience, and dedication to the field of human rights law and the task ahead for the government.
Before I delve into the subject though, let me also use this opportunity to respectfully urge some of my friends who were very active in this struggle, but lately were sitting on the sidelines, to re-engage. I hope they overcome the awkwardness of partaking in the current debate about the country when one was not actively engaged in the run-up to the election. I overcame that by reminding myself that we did our part in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We fought the good fight with all we got. Besides, the problems we currently face require all hands on deck; and I believe we can all offer solutions for these problems. So, let’s not be stingy with our advice.
The Coalition’s calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission are quite admirable. Gambians need a forum to air out the truth concerning the atrocities meted by the Jammeh regime. The society also needs reconciliation at some level. As far as I am concerned though, there is one heinous atrocity the Jammeh government cannot be forgiven for: the April 10 and 11 Massacre. Let me hasten here to say that by focusing on this atrocity, I, by no means, attempt to minimize the other equally heinous acts of the Jammeh regime. By talking about this crime in this context, I am not suggesting that this crime is more important than the summary execution of the soldiers buried without proper rites in the aftermath of the November 1994 purported coup. Neither am I saying that the April Massacre is more important than the cold-blooded murder of Ebrima Barry, the numerous abductions, torture, and other abuses that went on in that country. But this is the most glaring crime that, in my view, the Jammeh government should be held accountable for. And I believe I am not alone in this view.
This is a crime the Jammeh government cannot deny happened. For instance, when the government slaughtered fine soldiers like Lieutenant Saye in November 1994, they denied that it happened. They even went to the extent of chastising Saye’s father for complaining about the disappearance and death of his son. When Ebrima Barry was murdered, an inept prosecution connived with some Cuban doctors in the country to ensure that the killers of Ebrima Barry were rendered scot-free, blaming his death on some kidney illness no one knew about before he was kidnapped and tortured to death by some firemen.
Unlike these examples, the April massacre is one crime the Jammeh government has been unable to explain away. Instead, they tacitly admitted guilt by promulgating an indemnity decree to try and insulate the perpetrators of that heinous crime.
There is no question in my mind that Jammeh gave the fateful orders to massacre the students. Most Gambians know that.
Now that we have a new dispensation in the country, Gambians are faced with a basic question: as a society, what do we do about the crime that was committed on April 10 and 11, 2000? I submit that this matter should not be taken to another commission of inquiry, whatever the nomenclature. Even Jammeh and his cohorts do not have expectations that this matter will not be properly dealt with in a proper juridical body once the tide turns against them; ergo the indemnity decree they passed in order to protect themselves. In other words, they knew that any new government in that country would want to hold them accountable for this crime.
They know crimes have to be investigated, solved, and prosecuted in court in accordance with the laws of the land. From the onset this is what the Jammeh government had resolved to avoid. They succeeded for almost 17 years in denying the victims and their families the justice they deserve. We should not allow this crime to remain unresolved on the 17th anniversary of that fateful day.
We should not disregard our laws simply because we want reconciliation. What some proponents of TRCs seem to miss is that the South African criminal justice system was so rotten and unfit for purpose that it could not handle the crimes committed against the blacks during apartheid. Their laws were meant to subjugate the blacks and protect their oppressors. The laws were ill-tailored to punish the oppressors. Therefore, in South Africa it made sense to resort to a commission, rather than the regular courts, to handle the crimes committed during apartheid. As I hope to demonstrate below, our system on the other hand is more than capable of handling this matter in a regular criminal court.
In any case, I really want to understand the compelling reasons behind the argument of people (other than the murderers wanting to save their skins) that want us to bring this crime before another commission in the name of reconciliation. I don’t think that the new government can hijack the grief of Gambians and tell Jammeh and his cohorts that it is fine to ignore our laws and we (the Gambian people) forgive him for the massacre of the students and other heinous crimes committed since then. Why don’t the families of the victims deserve justice or even retribution for that matter? What will be so wrong about having Jammeh and his cohorts stand up in court and defend their actions according to the laws of the land he was supposed to safeguard? With Mr. Tambedou’s able guidance, the government should not have problems, under current law, to successfully prosecute Jammeh and his cohorts.
I hope and pray that we have not lost the evidence that is needed in order to convict the perpetrators of this crime, including Jammeh. Back in 2000, I was a strong opponent of the coroner’s inquest and commission of inquiry that, in my view, were all elaborate ploys to deny the victims justice. But the reports emanating from these two bodies should shed some light on this matter; and are a good starting point for the future prosecution of this case. I remember when Jammeh contemptuously rejected the aforementioned reports, the Independent Newspaper wrote a stinging editorial calling out the callousness of the regime. Despite that we were dealing with a brutal dictatorship at the time, the Paper felt compelled to state that: “That the Gambia government, with no qualms at all, and with an absolutely straight face, can openly reject the reports of both the commission of inquiry into the April 10 and 11 student demonstrations and the findings of the Coroner’s Inquest into the shooting to death of about a dozen students and a journalist by security forces is a damning indictment of the Jammeh regime. It shall go down into the annals of history as an unforgivable and unforgettable crime against the people of The Gambia.” (Emphasis mine). And, after lamenting the injustice meted on Gambians by this rejection of the reports, the article concluded: “However, those who feel that they can do anything and get away with it should know that they can never escape their rendezvous with history, their rendezvous with destiny, their rendezvous with Divine Justice, however powerful they feel in their weak corporeal vehicles. Meanwhile, we join all right thinking Gambians in mourning this naked abortion of justice. We cry this classical imposition of the verdict of the iron grid. We cry this naked denial of justice. We cry the beloved country.” I hope and fervently pray that the current government’s handling of this case will never be editorialized in such fashion. Now, let us revisit what was revealed at the commission of inquiry and coroner’s inquest. Through testimony at the commission of inquiry it was revealed that: “the commissioner of Central River Division [said] that the president had given them orders to shoot anybody found on the streets.” Other actors revealed at the Commission who might help any future investigation, if they are still alive, include Fakebba Darboe, Inspector Madinding Fatty, Lt. Samba Baldeh, Ousman Badgie, Sankung Badgie, Momodou Ceesay (PIU), and Lamin Drammeh.
There is also incontrovertible evidence that Jammeh’s security forces, under his orders, fired the bullets that killed the students. At the time, the PDOIS Central Committee, among others, pointed out that “[a]fter strenuous work, the coroner stated in no uncertain terms that Baboucarr Badjie, Wuyeh Fode Mansally, Momodou Lamin Njie, Calisco Prera, Karamo Barrow, Reginald Carrol, Omar Barrow, Momodou Lamin Chune, Lamin Bojang, Ousman Sabally and an unknown male teenager died of gunshot wounds. The coroner put special emphasis on his conviction that all the deaths attributed to gunshot wounds were caused by live bullets. This clear cut conclusion provided answers to the most insistent demands for the causes of death of the students to be ascertained . . . . It does not need high grade sincerity to acknowledge that death by live bullets confirms that crimes have been committed. To disregard this fact constitutes a merciless disregard of objectivity.”
As I said before, it was never Jammeh’s contention that this crime did not take place, nor did he ever argue that his security agents did not fire the bullets. Instead, he was focused on trying to pin blame on the students, their parents, and some imaginary detractors who supposedly instigated the students to come out and demonstrate. Needless to say, he did not succeed. The students were smart enough and decent enough to know that covering up rape and murder was wrong. They did not need any so-called detractors to tell them that or to tell them to go and demonstrate against such dastardly crimes.
Jammeh never showed any remorse. He never mustered the decency to admit responsibility and console the victims’ families. Instead, he encouraged APRC militants to stage a political rally to celebrate him upon his return from Cuba. He was also on record boasting that he was micro-managing events in Banjul on April 10 and 11, 2000, from Cuba. Even if he denies that now, he cannot deny the fact that he refused to hold any of his officials, including the Vice-President, on the ground responsible for this heinous act against the students. What happened on April 10 and 11 had never happened in our country. There were student demonstrations during the Jawara regime and there was one only a few days ago, under the Barrow administration. No bullets were fired and no one was murdered. It is under Jammeh’s watch that innocent demonstrators were mowed down in broad daylight. Never in the history of our country have we experienced such atrocity from the very people tasked to protect the innocent and defenseless. We have to remember that forgiveness and reconciliation begin with repentance. In order to repent, the Jammeh government has to accept responsibility first; and they never did. They never said that they were sorry. Instead, the Jammeh regime put us through a bogus commission of inquiry and coroner’s inquest, just to further add to the grief of the families that lost loved ones. Top government officials went to the bogus bodies and told blatant lies with impunity. Some eyewitnesses of the incident, including government ministers, were never called to testify. In certain instances, those who testified defied the then Chief Justice and openly refused to answer pertinent questions to the inquiries. In desperation, the Chief Justice at one point rhetorically asked whether “the shooters come from the moon?” The Commission was never meant for the pursuit of justice. It conveniently side-stepped the issue of accounting for the students’ cause of death. Rather, the focus was on “assessing and quantifying the material loss occasioned by the breakdown of public order on 10th and 11th April 2000.” (Emphasis mine) In other words, the government was more concerned about the damage to Gamtel installations than about the lives of these students who could have grown up to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, you name it.
Even though the Commission’s terms of reference adequately provided for the Commission to look into who gave the shoot-to-kill orders, the Chief Justice prevented witnesses from commenting on the issue. Instead, he entertained the ridiculous notion that criminals from the Serrekunda Police station somehow escaped from custody, stole guns from the station, and instead of shooting the police that locked them up, used those guns to shot the students that freed them. The government also insinuated that the students were not interested in dialog. This too, is totally false. The students did all they could to talk to government officials and had a legally sanctioned demonstration. It was the government that was not interested in dialog. Matter of fact, government ministers stopped to speak to the students, and those ministers were never attacked. Not a single piece of stone was thrown at them. Furthermore, when everything was said and done, not a single casualty was reported on the side of the government forces. Their lives were never threatened by the students. Jammeh, who was in Cuba, was not threatened by a mob of students. Public order was not threatened. The stand-off could have been easily diffused. But instead, Jammeh decided to resort to violence, because he and his cohorts did not have the wherewithal to engage the students in a peaceful manner.
This is not an attempt to convince anyone beyond a reasonable doubt of Jammeh’s culpability in this matter. This is neither the time nor the place for that. I seek here to put the new government on notice that this matter cannot and should not be swept under the rug. This is about the need for all three branches of government to work together to at least give Jammeh his day in court. Even APRC stalwarts in parliament surely cannot be against the proposition that this matter should be litigated once and for all in open court. Our Constitution contemplates that, justice and decency demands that, and we the Gambian people (including APRC MPs) owe a duty to the students whose lives were cut short to ensure that they finally get their day in court.
This is low-hanging fruit for the new government. Under the Constitution, “a criminal court shall only have jurisdiction to entertain proceedings against [a former President] in respect of acts or omissions alleged to have been perpetrated by him or her while holding office as President if the National Assembly has resolved on a motion supported by not less than two-thirds of all the members that such proceedings are justified in the public interest.”
This is a very low threshold. It is obviously in the public interest that justice be seen to be done in this case. If nothing else, the new government should hold the APRC MPs accountable by getting them on the record on whether Jammeh should stand trial for one of the most heinous crimes to visit our shores. This should be done before Gambians go to the polls to elect new MPs. That way, the public will be able to take this matter into consideration as they decide on who they want to send to parliament to represent them. I do not believe that Gambians will knowingly and freely vote for people who condone mass murder.
In conclusion, I would like to associate myself with the following sentiments that were expressed by the PDOIS Central Committee: “The butchery of innocent students with impunity is not a record that any government could be proud of. History will indict any government with such a record.”
Muhamad Sosseh, Esq.
February 20, 2017