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Victims of Jammeh’s Barbaric Rule in Gambia Still Hope for Their Lives


Habbie Bojang, a victim of a witch hunt in 2009 by Yahhya Jammeh in Gambia
Habbie Bojang, a victim of a witch hunt in 2009 by Yahhya Jammeh, when he was the longtime president of Gambia. Older residents of the town of Jambur, believed to oppose Jammeh’s rule, had been rounded up by an army general, taken to an undisclosed site and forced to drink an herbal concoction that produced hallucinogenic effects and left some permanently sick. Jammeh has been in exile in Equatorial Guinea since 2016, when he was booted out by regional states, but his legacy in Gambia remains palpable. As the UN provides financing to various government projects to help instill reconciliation nationally, some Gambians wonder why the support doesn’t go directly to their health and other essential needs. KEBBA SIDIBEH FOR PASSBLUE

BANJUL — Gambia, a tiny country of 2.6 million tightly knit people, located right in the middle of Senegal in West Africa, is still struggling to recover from the brutal 22-year authoritarian reign of Yahya Jammeh. He was the longtime former president who fled the country in 2016 to nearby Equatorial Guinea after he lost re-election and regional states forced him from power.

A range of United Nations agencies and bodies as well as other outside organizations have been providing aid and other services to help Gambia get back on its feet, but the assistance needs to be much more people-oriented and less government-centric to make a difference, citizen groups and human rights specialists told PassBlue. (This article is the fourth in a series of how small states use multilateralism to optimize their potential.)

“We work with the UN and they’re supporting what we do,” said Zainab Lowe-Baldeh, a victims’ advocate whose brother was killed by Jammeh’s rogue police. “I think they give priority to the state. They need to reinforce the support that they give to the state to make sure that the state also respects what they’re supposed to do. It falls on them [the UN] to hold the state accountable, to make sure that the work is done.”

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As part of Gambia’s challenging path to national recovery, in 2018, the government established a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), which received partial financing of $4.7 million from the UN. The commission’s goal was to investigate human rights violations that occurred during Jammeh’s regime and to bring justice to victims of abuse during that era. The process lasted three years, with hundreds of Gambians testifying about the violations they suffered from 1994 to 2016.

Stories of pain from Gambians poured out in the hearings, including instances of torture, poisoning, sexual violence and disappearances — but the consolation that people sought had fallen short, many victims and advocates say, to right the decades of horrific wrongs.

Part of the problem in any national recovery of this extent is that healing can take decades. More specifically, as in the case of small countries seeking UN funding for development and peace-building services on the road to stability and democracy, the responses can lack coherence or seem random. UN money for projects in Gambia, for example, go to government programs and rarely straight to advocacy groups, the latter say.

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Yet advocates in Gambia also acknowledge that the UN can do only so much for a sovereign country, especially one recovering from decades of abusive leadership. The country’s path to reconciliation has been unsurprisingly difficult after Adama Barrow, an architect with no political experience, beat out Jammeh in his re-election in 2016.

At the time, the government offered big hopes to Gambians when Barrow promised he would stay only three years to lead the country in the post-Jammeh stage. Barrow has reneged on many of these promises, however, and has even allied with the former dictator he vowed to prosecute. In 2021, before the most-recent presidential election, Barrow formed a coalition with Jammeh’s party — the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) — to help him win a second term.

Reflecting accusations of Barrow’s growing repression of human rights, a proposed legislative bill is aimed at repealing the country’s landmark ban on female genital mutilation. The step has shocked not only Gambian rights activists but also those around the world.

Barrow’s political coalitions and the possible major setback for women’s rights have raised serious concerns about his will to carry out the recommendations of the TRRC, observers say. The commission recommended the prosecution of Jammeh and others who carried out human rights violations during his regime as well as reparations to victims and reforms of state entities.

Omar Bojang, left, and Sainey Bojang, victims of the 2009 witch hunt in Gambia
Omar Bojang, left, and Sainey Bojang, victims of the 2009 witch hunt, in the compound of the head of a victims’ group in Jambur. Bojang is a well-known family name in Gambia and Omar is the village head. The victims of the Jambur witch hunt and others do not shy away from telling their stories of the cruel tactics Jammeh and his government used to crack down on people while he was president for 22 years. They have been asking for reparations from the state and other sources. Yet nothing has been provided, and it is against UN policy to step in for such purposes. KEBBA SIDIBEH FOR PASSBLUE

The Witch Hunts

Bojang is a well-known family name in Jambur, a village in west Gambia, and it was one of the places where older residents were accused of witchcraft during Jammeh’s rule. Four members of the Bojang clan — Saineba Bojang, Saine Bojang, Sarjo Bojang, and Masirah Bojang — endured a bizarre form of torture in 2009 for supposedly practicing what the government called witchcraft.

In Gambia, most people are related in some way. There are cases, even now, of marriages among first cousins. And so abuses under the Jammeh regime were deeply felt because the state often pitted relatives against one another. That is the case with Saine Bojang and Solo Bojang.

Saine Bojang, 76, was returning to Jambur from work in January 2009, when he saw a crowd of older residents gathered at the village square. They were there with soldiers, witch doctors and the Green Boys, vigilantes who worked with Jammeh. The soldiers were led by Maj. Gen. Solo Bojang, who later told the TRRC that he got a direct order from Jammeh to lead the witch hunters and Green Boys into Jambur.

Saine Bojang was curious to see what was happening in the village square, so he moved closer. The other Bojang, the major general, saw him and ordered him to join the crowd. He and 60 other people were soon rounded up and taken to an unknown location in Kololi, on the outskirts of the capital, Banjul. There, Saine said they were fed an herbal concoction with hallucinogenic effects.

He remembered seeing the first person who was forced to swallow the concoction to start hallucinating before he passed out. It had been prepared and served in unhygienic conditions, Saine told PassBlue in an interview last month. All the people in the room were forced to gulp down the liquid in “latrine cups,” he recounted.

For three days, the men and women who had been taken from Jambur were stripped naked, forced to sleep on a wet floor, fed bad food and had to drink the concoction until their bodies could no longer take it. The experience damaged their health permanently as well as their pride.

The victims, five of whom spoke with PassBlue in interviews in Gambia, said they were targeted because of their political opposition to Jammeh. Jambur and other villages that were the focus of witch hunts were communities where Jammeh did not enjoy absolute support, and accusations of witchcraft became a method of oppression for the regime. Sarjo Bojang, one of the victims, said she was ostracized from the local women’s group and was never again allowed to share meals during communal events after she was accused of being a witch.

Muhammed Sandeng, son of a killed politician, Solo Sandeng.
Muhammed Sandeng, son of a killed politician, Solo Sandeng. The UN has numerous agencies and programs operating in Gambia, a sliver of a country sandwiched in between Senegal, in West Africa. But civil society advocates say that the UN funding and services are too government-centric and would be better directed toward nonprofit groups to help Gambians address the lingering damage of Jammeh’s rule. KEBBA SIDIBEH FOR PASSBLUE

What the UN Is Doing in Gambia

The UN and many of its agencies were involved in the peace and reconciliation process in Gambia from the start, including the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, which heard not only victims’ accounts but also people who confessed they had carried out some of Jammeh’s atrocities.

The TRRC held 23 public hearings and received more than 2,500 statements with backing from a $4.7 million grant from the UN Development Program and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Economic Council of West African States’ Mission in Gambia (ECOMIG), which kept Jammeh from carrying out his plan to renege on the results of the 2016 presidential election, was backed by the UN Security Council through Resolution 2337. It was approved in January 2017, about a month after the December vote in Gambia.

The resolution not only endorsed the recognition of Adama Barrow as the president-elect of Gambia by the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), but it also condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the attempts to “usurp the will of the people and undermine the integrity of the electoral process” in Gambia.

Three years later, in 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the institution’s human rights experts said the UN would support reparations for victims of rights abuses and violations during the Jammeh regime. Yet more than two years have passed since the TRRC made its recommendations and almost two decades since the Jambur witch hunt, victims say they have not seen justice done.

The UN has nearly a dozen agencies resident in the country — from Unicef to the World Health Organization — with the main office located in Banjul. The UN entities fund the national government through programs and projects, but victims of Jammeh’s cruelty still cope with life-threatening illnesses question the UN’s strategies to help remedy  Gambia’s multifaceted recovery.

Guterres pledged full support to the implementation of the TRRC recommendations to ensure “justice, reparations for victims, and closure.” Fabián Salvioli, a human rights lawyer, visited Gambia in 2019 as a special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice and reparation, months after the commission finished.

Salvioli said at the time that he was concerned that most victims had yet to receive reparations or help with the health impacts they suffered, but the situation has not changed since his visit. One of his recommendations was for “government and agencies providing international cooperation” to provide reparations in the transitional justice process by taking a more “victim-centered” approach.

In 2022, the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the UN high commissioner for human rights invested $4.7 million in the TRRC. In the lead-up to the 2021 presidential election, in which Barrow won a second term, a $2.2 million project of the UN Population Fund, the UNDP and Unesco created youth-led “early warning-response centers,” while a $1.6 million program of UNDP and Unicef supported “inter-party dialogue.”

The UN Peacebuilding Fund has spent over $30 million on 16 transitional justice initiatives, as recommended by the TRCC, between 2017 and 2022, but most of the resources have been directed toward Barrow’s government. The UNDP has favored paying for conferences, training and technical support to government ministries to implement the TRRC recommendations, PassBlue found.

Jambur victims said they have health complications for which they have yet to receive treatment. The victims who spoke to PassBlue all have eye problems, and they said the afflictions started after they were fed the herbal concoctions on instructions of Jammeh. At least 23 of the 61 Jambur villagers accused of being witches and wizards have died.

Ayesha Jammeh, a programs and documentation officer at the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations and a niece of the former president, said more victims have died since the TRRC presented its recommendations to the government in November 2021.

The UNDP resident coordinator in Gambia, Mandisa Mashologu, said the agency’s role is to support the government in its efforts to govern. On Aug. 29, 2023, the agency financed a discussion among the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Ministry of Justice victim-led civil society groups and victims of Jammeh’s rule, for example. It was one of the few projects that included victims and was attended by only 26 people. The meeting, according to a UNDP document seen by PassBlue, was meant to give updates on the status of the TRRC’s recommendations.

Gambia is an Anglophone country of 2.6 million people. The country is on the road to democracy, but human rights may be at risk.

In a UN Peacebuilding Fund document, it said it would not offer financial support to victims to protect them from communal jealousy. UNDP also said it is against UN policy to pay “individual or collective” reparation.

“Reparation is critical and an essential part of a comprehensive and people-centered approach to transitional justice, and the project will therefore specifically and as a matter of priority support the government in the implementation of TRRC’s recommendations on reparation in consultation and coordination with victims’ groups and civil society,” the UN said in it project document. It noted, however, that it would not provide reparations.

Victim-led organizations in Gambia who spoke with PassBlue said that while the UN and its agencies cannot pay reparations and have been helpful partners, the UN should finance more victim-focused programs for people who are still overcoming physical and mental repercussions from Jammeh’s dictatorship. The Gambia victim center led by a niece of ex-president Jammeh, whose father and aunt were killed on orders from him, ran a program catering to victims with medical needs. But she had to close it when funding dried up.

Victims-turned-advocates who are leading the campaign for justice and reparations acknowledged the limits of the UN and other multilateral organizations when dealing with a sovereign nation. They said the UN could, however, impose conditions on the million-dollar support it offers the government to force it to address the victims’ needs more directly.

“I think one of the critical things that one can say is, there was a lot of very ambitious and keenness to get things done,” Mashologu said in an interview with PassBlue. “Perhaps there wasn’t an initial prioritization of how all of this would happen.”

The Gambian government allocated approximately 150 million Gambian dalasi ($2.8 million) in its 2022 budget to pay reparations, but the fund was never released. Local media reported that the Barrow government has recovered  $14,727,540 from the sale of 44 international properties belonging to Jammeh. The Janneh Commission, a national body inquiring into Jammeh’s finances, said that it discovered over 280 assets owned by the former president outside Gambia.

A United States court ruled in 2022 that the $3 million mansion in Maryland linked to the former president and his main wife, Zeinab Jammeh, to be sold and proceeds used to benefit the victims of Jammeh’s rule. (She was the country’s first lady and one of several wives of Jammeh.)

“What happened to the money?” asked Muhammed Sandeng, son of Solo Sandeng, who was killed on the orders of Jammeh, talking to PassBlue. “The government of the Gambia could have done a lot in terms of reparations, right, and the most rightful monies that could ever do that would be the money from the perpetrator himself.”

President Adama Barrow of Gambia. He ran for the office in 2016 despite having no experience as a politician and beat Jammeh in his last re-election run, but Jammeh refused to leave office until regional countries pressured him to seek exile. Now Barrow is being accused of violating human rights in Gambia, and the country’s landmark ban on female genital mutilation is facing rollback to the dismay of women’s rights advocates globally.  

Barrow’s Hardening Repression

At least five of the UN agencies based in Gambia continue to fund Barrow’s government despite its growing record of human rights violations. While the country has become more tolerant of dissent, voices critical of Barrow and his government have been targeted and harassed. Madi Jobarteh, a political commentator, and Bakary Mankajang, a journalist, were arrested and charged with sedition and inciting violence last year. Government critics said Jobarteh was singled out for criticizing Barrow and the journalist was charged for his work.

“The detention and prosecution of Mankajang for his reporting is a chilling reminder of the country’s past under the Yahya Jammeh dictatorship and a betrayal of its democratic gains,” Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said.

Last December, Barrow pardoned prisoners who rights activists say were convicted of rape and other sexual offenses. Dawda Jallow, the attorney general of Gambia and minister of justice,  defended the president’s actions, saying it was Barrow’s prerogative to pardon whomever he pleased. Sexual assault is one of the many offenses Jammeh was accused of committing.

The current speaker of the Gambia National Assembly, Fabakary Jatta, who was Jammeh’s pick to lead the Assembly after the 2007 re-election, is a leader of the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction party. Activists say the government has a moral obligation to ensure that no one who worked closely with the former president is given a prominent role in Gambian leadership.

But Ida Persson, the special adviser on transitional justice to Jallow, said that Jatta was never indicted for any role in the Jammeh presidency and that the Assembly passed the Ban from Public Office Bill, a show of commitment toward the recommendations of the TRRC.

“People who helped Yahya Jammeh to run the government the way he ran the government are now being absorbed into this government, and they are taking very central positions in the government,” Melleh Jagne, another victim of Jammeh, said. “That’s an area that has disappointed a lot of people because we thought after getting rid of Yahya Jammeh, we would make sure that the people helping him to do the bad things would not be encouraged to get into government.”

Some Gambians also doubt the sincerity of the government to prosecute Jammeh as he remains exiled in Equatorial Guinea. The ex-president’s niece who ran the victims’ center said that Barrow has not acknowledged the abuses done by the former president.

“There was an agreement that I am the transitional president for three years,” Barrow said in an interview days after he was sworn in after the 2016 presidential election. “We will bring in democratic principles to have a good foundation for the country and electoral reform so that we can go back to the poll to elect a new president.”

Reed Brody, a prominent Hungarian-American human rights lawyer known for his work prosecuting the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for his atrocities, said the Barrow government was initially reluctant to participate in the process to see Jammeh extradited and tried in Gambia. The technical committee for a hybrid court set up by Ecowas and Gambia to prosecute crimes committed during Jammeh’s era was launched on Feb. 29. The court, when functional, will try, among many other cases, the accused murder of 50 West African migrants by Jammeh’s Junglers, the rogue police unit of the president.

Dreaming of His Father

Abdulsalam Kanyi, a dark, soft-spoken 18-year-old, wants to be as rich as Muhammed Jah, the founder of leading telecommunication company in Gambia. He is years from that dream, being a senior in high school about to take his final examination for college.

He sees his step toward higher education to become successful enough to seek justice for his father, Kanyiba Kanyi.

Eighteen years ago, on Sept. 18, 2006, Abdulsalam was still in his mother’s womb. That day, his father was picked up in their home at Bonto, a town on the west coast of Gambia, by men from the National Intelligence Agency, a state security service notorious for disappearing opposition figures.

One armed soldier and two other unidentified men drove the older Kanyi away in an unregistered taxi, Isatou, Kanyi’s widow, told the TRRC in 2020. No one saw or heard from him after that night.

Kanyiba Kanyi was well known in Bonto. He worked at the Christian Children’s Fund, an American nonprofit group, and he was active in the United Democratic Party (UDP), the biggest opposition group in the country.

He was taken from his home just days before the 2006 presidential election was held. Kanyiba’s influence in his community had become a threat to the ruling party and President Jammeh. Kanyiba was accused of spying on the APRC, and his disappearance became a warning sign for other UDP members, many of whom pulled back on their political activities, fearing they could be kidnapped as well.

The younger Kanyi, Abdulsalam, said he heard these details during the TRRC hearing when his mother and those that the ex-president ordered to arrest his father testified. Isatou had tried to shield her son from the details of his father’s disappearance, she told PassBlue, and it was not discussed by the family. Isatou said she could shield him for only so long.

When he was 10, he read a newspaper article about his father. He then asked his mother if inmates in the Mile 2 Prison facility were well fed because he had heard that his father was being held there.

Abdulsalam’s priority now is education, and he said that support from the UN could get him closer to his goal, but it would never fill the hole in his heart. He walks a distance of 20 miles from Bonto to his school in Lamin village. He said that living closer to school could save him time better invested in studying.

“I grew up without my father, without experiencing his love,” Abdulsalam said. “I don’t want that to affect my education. I am a science student, I need lots of books. The UN can help me with that.”

Muhammed Sandeng contributed reporting from Gambia.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the UN's efforts in Gambia?

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Victims of Jammeh’s Barbaric Rule in Gambia Still Hope for Their Lives
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