The Gambia under Yahya Jammeh (1994-2017)
Yahya Jammeh came to power in The Gambia following a 1994 coup that ousted Dawda Jawara, who had been President since the country’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1970. From 1994 until his forced departure after losing the 2016 elections, Jammeh and his authoritarian regime committed widespread human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killing, sexual violence, and arbitrary detention. At the same time, Jammeh’s government passed legislation to suppress dissent and discourage victims of human rights violations from seeking redress.
Under Jammeh’s rule, Gambian authorities systematically targeted “journalists, human rights defenders, student leaders, religious leaders, political opposition members, judiciary officials, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and security force personnel.” The administration’s targeting of journalists and anyone deemed critical of the government – including the killing of 14 protestors in April 2000, the killing of journalist Deyda Hydara in 2004, the enforced disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh in 2006, and the torture of journalist Musa Saidykhan in 2006 – is well documented.
One of the most brutal enforcers of Jammeh’s regime was the Junglers (also known as “Jungullars” or “Black Blacks”), a paramilitary division of the presidential guard that reported directly to Jammeh. In 2015, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture found evidence that the Junglers operated outside the formal purview of law enforcement and carried out the regime’s most repressive abuses: arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial killing. Torture, in particular, was routine and prevalent, and the methods reportedly employed included the use of hammers, machetes, pliers, and needles, as well as injections into victims’ bodies. In the aftermath of a failed coup in 2006 – the sixth attempted coup since the start of Jammeh’s rule – the regime announced that it would crush plotters “without mercy” to “set an example.” Junglers tortured suspected participants for “confessions”. Following another attempted coup in 2014, dozens of Gambians were tortured and forcibly disappeared.
In 2016, Adama Barrow – the consensus candidate of a coalition of seven opposition political parties – defeated Jammeh in what was deemed a peaceful and credible presidential election. After a six-week constitutional crisis and political impasse in which Jammeh refused to concede, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) authorized a military intervention on January 17, 2017, with the support of forces from several West African nations. Jammeh finally departed for Guinea and then Equatorial Guinea on January 21, 2017, after ECOWAS-authorized Senegalese troops entered The Gambia to support the democratic transition of the country.
Justice and accountability in post-Jammeh Gambia
In December 2017, President Barrow’s government launched the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to reckon with Jammeh’s horrific legacy. The TRRC’s mandate is to “investigate and establish an impartial historical record of the nature, causes, and extent of violations and abuses of human rights” committed under Jammeh’s regime.
In 2019, the TRRC began broadcasting public hearings on national radio, which captured the nation’s attention. The hearings revealed the systematic and widespread nature of the regime’s abuses, which involved every state apparatus. Former members of the Junglers publicly testified about the crimes they committed under Jammeh’s orders. The progress of the TRRC is being documented by the African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED), which publishes regular monitoring reports.
The TRRC is empowered to order reparations for victims and to grant amnesties to certain categories of perpetrators in exchange for their truthful testimony. The TRRC does not undertake criminal prosecutions, which may come at the conclusion of its current investigative work. As of October 2018, however, Attorney General and Minister of Justice Aboubacarr Tambadou said that The Gambia was not yet prepared to prosecute former Junglers; indeed, four were released after testifying before the TRRC.
Additional post-Jammeh reforms have included the creation of a permanent independent National Human Rights Commission in January 2018. Gambian legislators are currently in the process of reforming the constitution and the criminal code. Beyond government efforts, a number of civil society groups, such as the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations, have mobilized to advocate for the rights of victims, monitor and document human rights violations, and provide support to victims of the Jammeh regime.
In the meantime, Gambian human rights groups have advocated for members of the Jammeh regime to be prosecuted wherever they are found. Currently, there is a pending criminal investigation in Switzerland against Ousman Sonko, former Minister of the Interior. In the United States, a federal indictment has been filed against Michael Sang Correa, a former Jungler.
- July 1994: Coup d’état ousts President Dawda Jawara; Yahya Jammeh becomes the Chairman of the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council and declares himself Head of State
- November 1996: Jammeh is elected President.
- March 2006: Coup plot against Jammeh is discovered and aborted; Junglers engage in mass arrest and torture of alleged coup participants, seeking forced confessions.
- December 2014: Another attempted coup failed; dozens of individuals are detained, forcibly disappeared, and tortured.
- December 2016 to January 2017: Jammeh loses election to Adama Barrow, who leads a coalition of seven opposition parties. Jammeh initially refuses to concede the election, but flees the country following an intervention by ECOWAS. President Barrow is inaugurated in Senegal in January 2017 and takes office following an agreement on Jammeh’s exile.
- January 2017: Jammeh departs for Guinea and then Equatorial Guinea
- December 2017: Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) launches.