Two years after hearings began on decades of human rights violations, Gambia and West Africa anxiously await long sought justice

Nigerian Kehinde Enagameh on Tuesday became the latest witness to testify at the Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) – an institution established in 2017 to investigate human rights violations committed under the rule of Yahya Jammeh as well as design a national reparations program – since hearings began in early 2019.

Mr. Enagameh is seeking justice for his brother, Paul Omozemoje Enagameh, one of 59 West African migrants, mainly Ghanaian – and one of only two Nigerians to have been identified out of 9 total, whom Gambian paramilitary forces massacred under the command of then President Jammeh in 2005.

Though “several Gambian soldiers” have testified ­– and Gibril Ngorr Secka, a “senior officer” of Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency, last month presented a list of 51 migrants arrested at the time – the whereabouts of the victims and other details of the grisly crimes remain inconclusive.

According to Human Rights Watch, these people were at the time attempting to migrate to Europe when upon reaching the Gambia were arrested “on suspicion of involvement in a coup attempt”. Mr. Jammeh himself took power after a coup in 1994.

Since the 2015 “Migrant crisis”, migration from sub-Saharan Africa and other regions has become a prominent issue for governments on both sides of the Mediterranean; less acknowledged, however, is the long history of migrant flows within and migration from West Africa. A 2006 Migration Policy Institute (MPI) country profile traces migration to and from Ghana from the pre-colonial period to the first decade of the 21st century. For the purposes here, migration patterns will be described starting at Ghana’s independence in 1957.  

Skilled professionals initiated migration out of Ghana during a period of economic decline in the late 1960s. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), created in part to advance regional integration, also facilitated intra-regional movements: between 1974 and 1981, two million Ghanaians are estimated to have migrated, mainly to neighboring Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire.

Following economic downturn in Nigeria, political tumult in Ghana, and subsequent waves of “mass expulsions” of Ghanaians from Nigeria, many sought instead to migrate to Europe and North America. The population of Ghanaians on these continents grew to such an extent that by the “mid-1990s”, approximately 10 to 20 percent of Ghanaians “were living aboard.” The Nigerian diaspora also increased significantly throughout the 1990s.  

Notably, as its citizens were increasingly being pulled towards the U.S. and Europe, Ghana reestablished itself as a continental leader in accepting refugees and has since pursued policies aimed at enticing migrants and other members of the African diaspora to return to the country; its “Year of Return” and shows of solidarity to Americans after the murder of George Floyd are but two recent examples.

A separate country profile on the Gambia notes that it has been an important transit point for migrants headed to Europe; many irregular migrants work there before continuing onward. The Gambia itself has been a significant source of migrants – both highly skilled and irregular – relative to its size. Migration has occurred since its independence but particularly during Mr. Jammeh’s rule (1994- 2017). Contrary to Ghana, as of 2013 the Gambian government had shown little interest in engaging its diaspora.

Though perhaps unrelated to a lack of courting of Gambians abroad, it’s important to note that Mr. Jammeh stands accused of far more than migrant killings; the “themes” around which hearings have been organized include: “sexual and gender-based violence,” “creation of instruments of oppression and debasement of the Gambian constitution,” and “the enforced disappearance” of a journalist among others.

The OCCRP, an investigative journalist organization, details Mr. Jammeh government’s extensive mismanagement and plundering of state resources, both from domestic institutions and those abroad. It is even suggested that he was motivated to recognize Taiwan in order to secure foreign aid that was ultimately drained from foreign bank accounts.

Mr. Enagameh, in his testimony, spoke of his ­– and perhaps of many people’s – long path to hoped for reconciliation: “Since my brother went missing 15 years ago, we have been searching for the truth about what happened to him. It’s been painful and traumatic for the whole family…I want Yahya Jammeh and those involved in my brother’s killing to be brought to justice.”

Indeed, many of the victims’ families still seek answers and justice. A Human Rights Watch news release from July 2020 describes how survivors and human rights groups have called for an international investigation in part because the alleged crimes were committed in multiple countries (the Gambia and Senegal) and the victims themselves represented several nationalities – but also to expedite the justice process.

The UN and ECOWAS had together published a report on the killings in 2009 that reportedly did not directly blame Mr. Jammeh; it was also never made public. Other initiatives have come from Ghanaians who for years have lobbied their government to launch an investigation, and hoped Gambian soldiers’ testimonies would lead to prosecutions.

Last November, the TRRC requested its mandate be extended until the end of June this year, citing disruptions to investigations due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Public hearings on a total of six different themes will conclude in May after which a report will be submitted to President Adama Barrow.

Just as the 2016 election defeat did not, on its own, compel Mr. Jammeh to relinquish power – “a regional political- military intervention” was needed to persuade him – it’s unclear whether the TRRC’s efforts will rectify the decades long pain he inflicted on his country and denizens of the region. Mr. Jammeh has settled comfortably into exile in Equatorial Guinea and has even mused returning home – though Gambian authorities have threatened his arrest if he were to attempt to do so. Elsewhere, after formally announcing his new political party – the National People’s Party (NPP) in January – it is likely President Barrow will seek to maintain power after promising to serve a single transitional term – many of the likely opposition candidates had been imprisoned at the time of the last election. The time for reconciliation may not be now.

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