Bloomgist In-depth: Confessions by hit Squad of former Gambia president – Yahya Jammeh
SEREKUNDA, Gambia — The day Malick Jatta confessed to shooting one of Gambia’s best-known journalists, he wore the camouflage uniform of the armed forces and said the kill order came right from the former president. The testimony was streamed live, and tens of thousands watched.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Then he hung his head.
Gambia, a nation of two million people on the West African coast, is in the midst of a highly public truth and reconciliation commission designed to investigate atrocities committed during the 22-year reign of Yahya Jammeh, a leader who created a culture of fear and misinformation so deep that many still take care to call him a gentleman.
Two years after Mr. Jammeh lost an election and fled, investigators are holding what some experts have hailed as the most accessible truth commission in history. Officials have been methodically interviewing killers and victims, eliciting testimony into the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of people. Central to their effort is a live feed that sends that testimony through YouTube, Facebook, television and radio — directly into phones and homes around the country.
In Gambia, an overwhelmingly young and quickly urbanizing nation that now has one of the highest rates of mobile phone use in Africa, listeners stretch from the capital, Banjul, into the countryside and abroad to the diaspora. Many have been devastated by the testimony; others doubt its veracity.
But for all the excitement about the stream, some Gambians are questioning whether simply hearing the truth will be enough to deliver justice. It’s unclear if the commission will lead to trial or prison for perpetrators. Admitted killers are being released after their testimony. Mr. Jammeh is in exile, and no one knows if he will ever be prosecuted.
For Baba Hydara, the son of the Deyda Hydara, the murdered journalist, the confessions have brought only hollow relief.
“They say that it helps with closure,” he said. “That’s a lie.”
What he wants is to see his father’s killers before a judge.
The truth and reconciliation hearings began in January and are expected to last two years. Witnesses are testifying in English and local languages, including Mandinka and Wolof; a sign language interpreter follows along.
Some of the most searing testimony has come this summer. Mr. Jatta and other members of Mr. Jammeh’s hit squad, called “the junglers,” have told of the murder of Mr. Hydara, an influential editor who the regime code-named “Magic Pen.”
They’ve confessed to the killing of 56 West African migrants whom the government accused of being mercenaries.
And they’ve admitted to taking part in the assassinations of two American citizens, Alhagie Ceesay and Ebou Jobe, who the junglers were told were plotting a coup.
Mr. Ceesay, a father of two, was a Chevron employee who had been living in Houston; Mr. Jobe, a father of three, was an operations manager for Wal-Mart.
Mr. Ceesay’s family has said that they had returned to their native Gambia to start a business.
Cameras rolling, one member of the hit squad, Omar Jallow, testified that Mr. Jammeh had ordered that the Americans be killed and “chopped into pieces.”
Mr. Jallow described how his team “took plastic bags and they put them over their heads and they strangulated them.”
Two junglers “cut off their heads,” he went on. “We took them and put them inside the grave and we buried them.”
A representative for Mr. Jammeh hung up the phone when called for comment.
Mr. Jammeh, who was Gambia’s second president since the country gained independence from Britain, took power in 1994 following a coup, and went on to win four presidential elections. His supporters hailed him for bringing roads, lights and education to areas in need.
But he also jailed dissidents and called journalists the “illegitimate sons of Africa.” He subjected Gambian AIDS patients to a self-proclaimed cure — a body rub and a banana. He sent his soldiers to hunt down people he accused of being sorcerers. He raped a former beauty queen named Fatou Jallow, according to her testimony, and he coerced other women into sex with cash, gifts and privileges, according to former officials.
Over time, his claims became so wild that the truth seemed to simply disappear.
Gambians voted Mr. Jammeh out in 2016 and after refusing to accept the results for weeks, he finally fled, only to reappear recently on Instagram, dancing the night away with a Congolese pop star and the president of Equatorial Guinea.
The president of that nation, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has granted Mr. Jammeh refuge. Extradition would be difficult.
Since he left, Gambians have tried to put their country back together. Part of that process has been the truth commission, an 11-member body charged with examining the regime. It is not a trial, but rather an investigation. At the end, the commission will make recommendations as to who holds the greatest responsibility for atrocities, and the attorney general will decide whom to prosecute. But a major point of contention is that some perpetrators will go free in exchange for their testimony.
The goal of the hearings, said Abubacarr Tambadou, the attorney general, is to negate “a sense of disbelief in the country,” about the facts of the last two decades. The reality, he went on, is that to get to the facts — and to the worst offenders — some smaller players will have to be given amnesty.
Governments around the world have used truth commissions to investigate painful histories for decades. But early inquiries, like the one in Argentina in 1983, following the Dirty War, often happened behind closed doors, with a report made public afterward.
It is only more recently that technology and political pressure have pushed officials to open these commissions. South Africa, in 1996, after apartheid ended, allowed video cameras inside its hearings. Radio has also played a role. Then came the internet.
In recent years, other countries have begun experimenting with live streams, including Tunisia and Colombia, with varying degrees of reach. Part of what seems to have made Gambia’s stream so popular, said Eduardo Gonzalez, a transitional justice expert, is its inclusion of perpetrators. Not all commissions do this.
In Gambia, after years of silence and secrecy left people hungry for information, taxi drivers crowd around TV sets, glued to the testimony. Vendors in market stalls listen through earbuds. Even supporters of the former leader said that they were hooked.
The commission is held in Serekunda, outside Gambia’s capital, in a hotel draped with bougainvillea. The streams are run by a national broadcaster and a team of young journalists from the channel QTV.
On a recent day, 10,000 people were watching on QTV’s YouTube page. The channel’s truck, parked in the hotel courtyard, buzzed with a sense of national duty.
“I come from a family of big-time Jammeh supporters,” said Ansumana S.O. Nyassi, 29, a reporter. When the commission began, his own father called the hearings a “witch hunt” designed to malign Mr. Jammeh.
Then his father watched the hearings. He no longer supports the former president, Mr. Nyassi said.
Shortly after the junglers testified last month, the state released them from custody. Mr. Tambadou, the attorney general, said he could not reasonably ask for them to be held without charges. This angered many.
“They have to be in prison,” said Ya Mamie Ceesay, 67, whose son was one of the disappeared Gambian-Americans. “You cannot kill someone, take someone’s life, and then go free.”
In recent weeks, a coalition of victims has also questioned some testimony, accusing Mr. Jatta of downplaying his role in one of the massacres.
Because of this alleged lie — a violation of commission rules — victims say he should be put on trial.
If one purpose of the live feed is to put all Gambians on the same page, it’s plain that the country is not there. Months in, deep divisions remains over Mr. Jammeh’s legacy.
In the streets of Serekunda, some said they didn’t believe the testimony.
“I don’t see any use for it,” said Cherno Ceesay, 24. Anyone the regime punished, he added, probably “did something wrong.”
Further out in the countryside, several villages had lined the road with green flags, a show of support for Mr. Jammeh’s party, the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction.
In one village, Sintet, Habibou Tamba, 33, said that he had been listening to the hearings religiously. “I agree, he committed crimes, heinous crimes,” he said of Mr. Jammeh.
But Mr. Tamba had been working for the Alliance party for years. It’s where he learned everything he knows about being a strong, confident man, he said. A poster of the former president still hangs in his bedroom.
He believes Gambians should forgive their former leader.
“It’s a man I loved,” he said. And when you love a man, he went on, “it’s hard to abandon him.”
Jaime Yaya Barry contributed reporting from Gambia.
A version of this article appeared on the New York Times with the headline: Now Streaming on YouTube: Confessions From a Presidential Hit Squad in Gambia.