In a shocking political about-turn, Gambian President Adama Barrow has joined forces with the country’s former ruling party ahead of the December 2021 elections. Barrow’s surprising new ally – the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) – was headed by former president Yahya Jammeh until his exile in 2017. Jammeh had refused to accept Barrow’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections that ended his 22-year rule.
The alliance has angered survivors of human rights abuses committed while Jammeh was in office. In 2017 Barrow set up the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) to investigate these atrocities, promote national reconciliation and advise the government on prosecutions, amnesty or reparations for the accused.
Instead of honouring the process he started, Barrow’s latest political maneuvering comes just weeks before the TRRC’s third attempt to submit its final report to him. Many hoped the commission’s task of compiling 16 volumes of reports dating back to 1994 would be the first step to ending impunity by prosecuting crimes committed under the previous government.
Can Barrow juggle the new alliance and still deliver on his electoral promise to see justice done for Jammeh-era violations? His political balancing act comes after a fallout with the allies who helped him achieve his historic victory over Jammeh in 2016. The United Democratic Party (UDP) had backed Barrow’s campaign as part of the Coalition 2016 (together with six other parties). Barrow vowed that sweeping reforms would follow, including justice for his predecessor’s victims.
Cleavages within the coalition soon emerged when it became clear that Barrow wouldn’t keep his electoral promise of serving only a three-year ‘transitional’ term. The alliance’s collapse became imminent in 2019 when Barrow sacked prominent coalition members from the government, including UDP leader and vice-president Ousainou Darboe. In January 2020, Barrow formed his own party, the National People’s Party (NPP), effectively ending his ties with the UDP.
Since then, the president has faced increasing resistance in the form of popular dissent. The Three Years Jotna pressure group emerged in 2019 to protest against Barrow’s decision to serve a five-year term. In response, the government banned the movement, labelling it as ‘subversive, violent and illegal.’
Gambians are also unhappy over the continued presence of regional forces in the country. Troops provided by the Economic Community of West African States Mission in The Gambia and Senegal were deployed in December 2016 to pressure Jammeh to concede electoral defeat. Despite efforts to reform the country’s security sector, Barrow’s strained relationship with his security chiefs has compelled him to use regional forces as the presidential guard.
After burning bridges with the UDP, Barrow has become an increasingly isolated leader, struggling to secure a sufficient support base for the NPP. Then in September 2020, APRC members of parliament allied with Barrow’s camp to block the adoption of the draft constitution, which included a two-term limit. This motivated the president to gamble on a formal alliance with the APRC.
While the finer details of the NPP-APRC alliance remain vague, questions arise on how it will affect the country’s transitional justice efforts. Will Jammeh return to The Gambia from exile? He fled to Equatorial Guinea in 2017 under regional and international pressure to concede electoral defeat.
During TRRC public hearings, several witnesses directly implicated Jammeh in atrocities. Former members of Jammeh’s infamous ‘death squad’ known as the Junglers said he ordered the murders of Deyda Hydara, a newspaper editor, in 2004 and two Gambian-American business people in 2013. Three Junglers members testified that Jammeh ordered the 2005 mass killing of 50 migrants, mainly from Ghana, and the subsequent cover-up. The TRRC also heard beauty queen Fatou Jallow’s testimony about how Jammeh sexually abused her.
Yet Jammeh seems intent on returning home, where he commands a loyal political following. Initially the government’s official stance was hostile to Jammeh’s plans, threatening to arrest him if he entered the country. However, speculation surrounding secret negotiations between the government and the former president have persisted since 2019.
APRC officials may have given credence to this speculation by confirming that their agreement with the NPP included a clause allowing Jammeh to return. Contradictions in the government’s response are a worrying sign that for Barrow, political expediency trumps reform.
There’s also no clarity about whether Jammeh would face prosecution if he returns. If the former leader is shielded from trial or granted amnesty, that will raise questions about whether other APRC officials would be similarly protected.
Earlier this year, The Gambia’s Supreme Court unanimously denied Jammeh’s ally Yankuba Touray immunity from prosecution for crimes committed under the previous government. Touray was tried and sentenced to death for the murder of former finance minister Ousman Koro Ceesay. This raised hopes that more court cases would follow after the TRRC’s final report to the president.
Although it remains to be seen what the TRRC will recommend, the new political alliance potentially pours cold water on the prospect of more prosecutions. Survivors of the previous regime’s abuses may never see the perpetrators stand trial. Indeed, since the alliance was announced, senior APRC members have called for the TRRC to focus on reparations and reconciliation rather than criminal prosecutions.
This is concerning. Barrow’s history of reversing his decisions on the length of his presidential term and apparently on Jammeh’s return doesn’t inspire confidence that he will push for prosecutions at the expense of his new allies.
Written by Chido Mutangadura, Consultant, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria
This ISS Today is published as part of the Training for Peace Programme (TfP), funded by the government of Norway.