The Gambia, a tiny West African nation with a paltry two million population, is still to recuperate fully from the influence of former dictator Yahya Jammeh, two and a half years after he fled to Equatorial Guinea.
On the intervention of Ecowas via its Ecomig soldiers, Jammeh departed Gambia’s shores, interestingly, his pride unblemished. It all started with his bold declaration of spot-counting during the previous presidential elections in which he was seeking a fourth mandate. The opposition had, by this time, formed a merger, Coalition 2016, with the exception of one party, the GDC.
The declaration of spot-counting was triggered by Jammeh’s resolute willing to show political foes he enjoys unalloyed support amongst Gambians. Between then, a lot has transpired with majority Gambians disenchanted over his incarceration of a key political figure in Ousainou Darboe including the killing of activist Solo Sandeng, all from the United Democratic Party whose party is central in the coalition group coalesced with Gambians desire for change.
Adama Barrow –his eventual successor as we would later find out – a property-seller-turned president - was the man challenging him for the State House along with GDC’s Mama Kandeh.
Jammeh ended up losing abysmally on D-day, accepting defeat before making a dramatic U-turn to fault the polls claiming fraud.
The 54-year-old would hole-up himself at the presidential villa, refusing to give up power before pressure from regional bloc ECOWAS soldiers prompted him to flee, first to Guinea Conakry prior to flying out to Equatorial Guinea on the invitation of bosom and fellow dictator Tedoro Obiang.
A known lavish spender, the erstwhile military man who took over Gambia’s highest office in a bloodless Friday coup in 1994, made sure he flew out of the West African country in his final moments there on a red carpet with a flight loaded with cars and billions of dollars dipped from Gambia’s coffers.
Days following his exit, some had yet to come to terms with the development, particularly supporters from his green party. For most though, it was a fresh start and the dawn of not only a new era but of democracy and respect to rights and laws.
However, in truth, Gambians are still not free from the doings of their former leader whose damage spanning from 1994 is only beginning to float to the surface.
A truth, reconciliation and reparation commission was established at the start of this year aimed at healing the nation, more so families of Jammeh’s victims of gross atrocities committed by the previous military flavoured government.
The commission, chaired by Lamin Sise, an erstwhile adviser to the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has unravelled a plethora of dirty secrets.
Beginning it sittings by summoning witnesses to narrate events from how the 1994 coup occurred to the first victims of the then Junta, details have been at best chilling even for the strongest of hearts.
Spanning from the November 11 massacre of soldiers by the junta just four months after Jammeh had seized power to the first civilian casualty, finance Minister Koro Ceesay, developments have been graphic.
One of the most horrendous of narrations at the commission is the story of self-confessed killer Alagie Kanyi, an immigration officer, who divulged participating in the ghastly torture to death of Koro Ceesay who was bent on exposing the junta’s misappropriation of public funds.
The execution, staged at the residence of one of the junta men on the directives of Jammeh, in Kanyi’s narrative, was implemented by former ECOWAS vice-president Edward Singhatey who was at the time Gambia’s minister of defense.
The commission heard how the unsuspecting Ceesay was battered on the head with a pestle by Edward and soldier thugs and his remains charred in a doctored accident in faraway Jambur in concealment efforts by the government.
As these tales aired over national television and social media, public outrage also soared. But for panellists of the probing commission, it has all been smooth work for them until an adversely mentioned Yankuba Touray, one of the remaining former Junta members still in the country at the time, refused to testify despite appearing before the commission, dubbed TRRC.
Touray, a commander of one of the barracks before the coup, is implicated amid claims he staged the killing of Koro Ceesay at his own residence and reportedly temporarily evacuated his family to ensure accomplishment of the brutal massacre of the then finance minister.
Yankuba bluntly refused to give his accounts of events and was subsequently rounded up live on TV as a wild mob bayed for his blood for “disrespecting the TRRC”. He has been charged but the case is stalling over lack of witnesses.
Journalists who suffered any form of violations under Jammeh’s reign also had their turns at the commission, a thing later preceded by testimonies of Jammeh’s assassin squad members.
Their stories of deaths they’ve carried purportedly on the orders of Yahya have been more than gruesome and excruciating for the victims’ families.
While the TRRC is no court hearing and Jammeh, in a legal context is innocent until proven guilty, accounts told of him so far, depicts a man as opposition leader Mama Kandeh put it, ‘Gambians are only beginning to know after 22 years under his rule’.
Some of these former assassins, arrested in the immediate aftermath of Jammeh’s ouster in 2017, have tried minimising their involvement in the numerous executions owing to the weight of atrocities they’ve committed.
The commission’s lead counsel Essa Faal, had to push some of them to the corner using legal aggressive questioning approach which, in each instance, tended to spill more beans.
If narratives told at the hearings are any to go by, Jammeh “crushed” and “finished” anyone who posed a threat to his rule including supposed political foes to his immediate relatives.
This brings to sharp focus the hard-to-tell truth of Masireh Jammeh and Haruna Jammeh's horrendous deaths, a blood sister and brother to ex-president Jammeh respectively.
Carrying dirty works with a next to nothing salary, the commission heard these massacres were instructed by Jammeh via his hit-men squad’s leader Nuha Badjie, a senior military personnel and staunch loyalist.
Killed Dumped in a Well or Buried in Jammeh’s Farmland
Portrayed throughout his time as a “the farmer president” and an ardent believer in crop production, tales of him so far suggest an appalling counter-narrative.
Kanilai, the former president’s birthplace, is said to be the place where the bulk of the atrocities were committed most particularly its surrounding thick bushes with the bodies either buried in Jammeh’s farmland on his recommendations or dumped in a well situated in the north of Senegal, Cassamance.
Omar Jallow has been the most forthcoming of the killers confessing their sins to the nation. Most, in spite of his involvement in over forty-eight killing incidents, praise him for his boldness to divulge how the murders occurred.
“I was in the vehicle as we headed to Haruna Jammeh’s place where we picked him. He was sandwiched between us –the patrol team -. We drove into the bushes of Kanilai. We tied a rope around his neck (Haruna Jammeh’s neck). I held one end of the rope while Alieu Jeng held the other end and we pulled it. Sanna Manjang stamped his head and he died. This was Yahya Jammeh’s brother. He was a good man and was good to us each time we visited his residence. We were only following orders,” Jallow said as a brief silence punctuated the commission.
Continuing his testimony, Jallow divulged that 2006 abortive coup leader Ndure Cham and former parliamentarian Baba Jobe were suffocated to death using plastic bags.
Jobe was imprisoned on trumped-up economic crime charges and Jammeh apparently feared his friend-turned adversary could expose him, the 54-year-old dictator arranged for his liquidation which reports from the grapevine then said began with food poisoning in his prison ration leading to jobe’s eventual hospitalisation.
“Jammeh told us Baba Jobe should be killed by dawn and that he is at the Banjul hospital. We (our killer squad) met at the Arch (monument) for briefing. I and another person passed through the hospital’s emergency unit while rest of our members scaled the hospital fence at night. We had a prison officer watching over the sick Baba Jobe who was the time sleeping. The prison officer was detailed about our operation and he allowed us in immediately he saw us. We suffocated Baba Jobe with his bed sheet with others holding his legs and the rest on his body, 'Jallow says.
Omar confirmed the 44 Ghanaians headed for Europe via the risky sea voyage but on a transit in Gambian waters, were thought to be mercenaries based on intelligent reports then, revealing they were all summarily executed with pistols at close range and dumped in the Kanilai infamous well while two of the American-Gambians were slaughtered and chopped to pieces on suspicion of planning to uproot the APRC leadership before being buried at Jammeh’s farmland.
“Jammeh told us to chop them to pieces before they’re buried and we did just that,” he said.
Topping it all, Malick Jatta, another key member of the hit-men, claims Jammeh may have hypnotized Gambians by possibly pouring mixed juju water into the national suppliers’ tank.
These are the latest realities Gambians are grappling with, with many more revelations expected to follow as the hearing continues.
While there are still fervent Jammeh backers, the mention of the former statesman’s name in some quarters is enough to incur glares from the public.