Outrage in Gambia over claims ex-president ordered killings

Baba Hydara was in his car, listening to the radio when he heard a former hitman of ex-president Yahya Jammeh coldly describe how his dad was murdered.
Baba’s father, Deyda Hydara, co-founder of The Point newspaper and AFP’s correspondent in The Gambia for 30 years, was revered among journalists in this small west African country.

Baba Hydara, 42, has fought for years for his father’s murderers and those who ordered them to be brought to book.

Now the wall of silence around Jammeh’s 22-year reign of fear is starting to crack, and information — if not yet justice — is starting to flow.

The iron-fisted ruler, today aged 54, flew to Equatorial Guinea after being forced out in 2017 following an election defeat.

His henchman is giving testimony to a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) tasked with shedding light on one of the grimmest episodes in West African history.

Like the post-apartheid truth commission in South Africa that it emulates, the panel is gripping the public with its graphic evidence.

“It brought back memories, something we’ve been through like almost 15 years ago — it was very hard for the whole family,” Baba Hydara told AFP, describing his feelings as he listened to the testimony of one of the killers, Malick Jatta.

As a member of the “Junglers”, as Jammeh’s hit squad was called, Jatta admitted to being a member of a team that riddled Deyda Hydara with bullets on the evening of December 16, 2004.

“How it was planned, how he explained it, it’s like they did their homework. They studied. They really did research on how and where to hit him… it was very premeditated,” Baba Hydara said.

Jammeh ruled The Gambia, a tiny state that saves for its coastline is entirely surrounded by Senegal, after taking power in a bloodless coup in July 1994.

He was repeatedly re-elected in disputed circumstances until he was defeated in December 2016 by a relative unknown, Adama Barrow.

After a six-week-long crisis that led to military intervention by other West African states, Jammeh bolted from the country.

Human rights activists have accused his regime of the systematic torture of opponents and journalists, executions without trial, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and rape.

The TRRC hearings, which began in January, are expected to take two years.

At the end, the body can make recommendations with regard to prosecution or reparation but cannot itself issue any sentences.

The gruesome revelations appear to have shaken the faith of many of Jammeh’s supporters.

“We have always boasted that Yahya Jammeh transformed this country by building schools, roads and hospitals,” said Marie Mendy, a stallholder.

“The confessions by the ‘Junglers’ last week have shown that the evil Jammeh did in this country outweighs the good work he did for the people,” she said.

A street vendor, Mariama Manga, said she was “shocked” when, in one of the televised hearings, she saw a staff sergeant, Omar Jallow, confessing to taking part in the execution of 48 people on Jammeh’s orders.

“I regretted voting for Jammeh in past presidential elections,” she said.

“Our team was a hit squad for Yahya Jammeh. We had blind loyalty for Yahya Jammeh,” said a former “Jungler,” Amadou Badjie.

They alleged the former president ordered two US-Gambians suspected of plotting a coup to be “cut up in pieces”.

They also said he ordered the killing of both his former army chief, Ndure Cham, and a family member, Haruna Jammeh.

Former soldiers, currently in custody, have also accused Jammeh of the murder of around 50 migrants rounded up on a beach as they were trying to make their way to Europe, but were taken for rebels.

In his testimony to the commission, the head of The Gambia’s Press Union, Saikou Jammeh, also described how media houses were coerced and closed down, and journalists assaulted by former regime agents.

A hundred and forty journalists were arrested and 15 media outlets shut down, he said.

A former deputy chief of staff, Sana Sabally, described how he was tortured and how former interior minister Saddibou Hydara died of injuries in his arms.

“Now we have direct evidence linking (Yahya Jammeh) to killing Gambians. This can be the basis of formerly charging him and perhaps asking for his extradition,” said Salieu Taal, the head of the Gambian Bar Association.

President Adama Barrow has said he will wait until the TRRC has completed its work before deciding on a possible extradition request.

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