As the government marches towards the establishment of a commission to look into the atrocities of the Jammeh regime, it is important that it continues to engage the Gambian citizens, especially the victims, and be upfront about what it is trying to do. It is incumbent upon the government to explain to Gambians and friends of The Gambia the nuances surrounding the so called Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) mechanism it wants to invoke. Some of us seem to place too much emphasis on the reconciliation and forgiveness aspects of TRCs; thus prioritizing perpetrators of heinous crimes over the victims of such crimes; and unwittingly promoting impunity in the society. My focus is on the wisdom of discarding regular courts and replacing them with commissions to deal with criminals. In other words, I am more concerned about the vehicle we want to use to arrive at the reconciliation the government is seeking. I submit that punishing criminals before regular courts and reconciling with criminals after they have paid their debt to society are not mutually exclusive.
It is very important that people realize that the TRC concept goes against the norms of civilized societies when it is used as a tool to avoid holding criminals accountable for their crimes. Therefore, it is wrong to put victims and societies on the defensive, by asking them at this early stage of the process to forgive their tormentors. Moreover, it does not help to make it sound as if it is somehow uncivilized and vindictive for victims to demand that criminals be punished. It is praiseworthy for people currently in power, who suffered under the Jammeh regime, to now appear self-righteous and magnanimous and willing to absolve criminals who wronged them in the past, including criminals who never acknowledged wrongdoing, let alone seek forgiveness.
The other victims, however, should know that there is nothing wrong in demanding that criminals in our society be punished for their crimes. That is a normal and civilized thing to do. No civilized society should tolerate impunity. I reiterate that no one is asking for revenge here. For instance, no one is demanding that Jammeh’s children be shot or he himself and his vice president be summarily executed without trial, like they did to our children on April 10 and 11, 2000. What the victims deserve is for the government to apply our laws and international norms to hold people accountable and quit putting the onus on the victims to forgive people who are not even looking for forgiveness.
When Gambia signed on to the Rome Statute, it “[affirmed] that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation.” Our government also pledged “to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of” certain crimes, including the cold-blooded massacre of innocent and defenseless children on April 10 and 11, 2000. I call upon our government to, at a minimum, honor its international obligations and take “measures at the national level” to ensure that the April 10 and 11, 2000 Massacre is effectively prosecuted and it “must not go unpunished.”
One can argue that the atrocities committed in The Gambia are not in the magnitude of the genocides in other countries. But here is where Gambia steps up to serve as a model for the world by showing that we will vigorously pursue justice even if only a single Gambian is murdered by our political leaders. Let us be the nation that set the threshold for prosecuting brutal political leaders who commit crimes against their defenseless citizens. As I, and many, have argued, ours is not a polarized society where you have hundreds of thousands of victims and perpetrators on opposing sides, ready to plunge the society into chaos if perpetrators are punished for their crimes. Even places such as Rwanda, with a far more complex situation than we are faced with, ensured that certain criminals were appropriately prosecuted before putting forth reconciliation mechanisms. We, on the other hand, have thousands of victims and a few criminals in our midst, who can be dealt with through our regular courts. Setting up another toothless commission to deal with the April 10 and 11, 2000 Massacre, for instance, is akin to designing a solution for a problem that does not exist, in my humble opinion.
The government will do a major disservice to the citizens if it lets murderers go scot-free simply because they appeared before a commission of inquiry and confessed to their crimes. The government should desist from putting pressure on the victims to reconcile with perpetrators of heinous crimes who have not faced justice. Why can’t we put pressure on the criminals to accept whatever punishment society imposes on them in good faith and then seek the forgiveness of their victim? It is offensive to insinuate that the victims are the bad guys here, because they do not want to forgive criminals. It is equally condescending and offensive to say that it is uncouth and vindictive to demand that criminals be punished for their crimes. The government should be putting all its energy towards holding criminals accountable and ensuring that heinous crimes such as the April 10 and 11, 2000 Massacre never happen in our society again.
Politicians in our midst would be within their rights if they wish to personally forgive people like Jammeh because they want to woo Jammeh supporters or they are being magnanimous. It is also understandable if, in the name of self-preservation, politicians promote toothless commissions over regular courts, because they themselves would prefer to be brought before a commission should they commit heinous crimes while in office. Ordinary citizens, though, should never condone impunity; and should vehemently oppose any ploy to encourage it in our society.
As the Barrow cabinet deliberates on the way forward and how to craft a comprehensive TRC policy, I respectfully urge them to put the interests of the victims and society at large ahead of the interests of criminals. There can be no genuine reconciliation if victims feel that they are being forced to forgive perpetrators of crimes, who have not shown any remorse and have not paid their debt to society. The true essence of a TRC would be for perpetrators to openly confess their crimes and submit themselves to the will of their victims and society at large, be it for appropriate punishment or forgiveness. Perpetrators cannot be guaranteed the latter by the mere act of confession. An essential part of taking responsibility, is accepting consequence.
Muhamad Sosseh, Esq.
May 23, 2017