Unfree: Gambias citizens need to accept lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people by letting them to speak at the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission without fear. (Marco Longari/AFP)
Gambia is accounting for its past. Two years after the end of Yahya Jammeh’s brutal 23-year rule, the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission is under way. Its objective is to “promote healing and reconciliation” by creating an impartial record of the nature, causes and extent of violations and abuses of human rights committed during Jammeh’s time in office from July 1994 to January 2017.
This objective, however, comes with a caveat. The commission may create an impartial record, but it will be incomplete.
In 2014, Jammeh celebrated the 20th anniversary of his rule by devoting a portion of his remarks to reiterate his opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights. “We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”
There was no outcry in Gambia then. And still few are willing to speak up for the LGBT community.
“That would be a very significant decision given the cultural setting and people’s perception and understanding of LGBT issues,” said Madi Jobarteh, the Gambia country representative for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
Jobarteh’s observation accords with my own, formed after living as a closeted law professor in the country during Jammeh’s rule. Since leaving Gambia, I watched as human rights activists bravely called out the regime’s abuses, while omitting reference to LGBT rights or denouncing Jammeh’s position on the issue.
Unlike other countries such as Uganda and Nigeria, where LGBT communities exist and advocate for themselves despite widespread persecution, there is no such civil society in Gambia. It is too dangerous.
This means someone very brave will have to come forward if the commission is to hear evidence of Jammeh’s LGBT abuses and record them into public memory.
If word got out that an activist or LGBT Gambian planned to raise such issues before the commission, Jobarteh said he would be concerned for their safety.
Musu Bakoto Sawo, the commission’s deputy executive secretary, acknowledges “there is a high probability of victims not coming out.”
The result is that LGBT Gambians may be the one group whose experience with persecution goes unrecorded. Put another way, they may be the one group whose rights do not improve in the post-Jammeh era.
“For a long time the situation will remain as it is. Gambians generally are not going to take LGBT issues easily,” Jobarteh said.
To Sawo, this is a missed opportunity. She believes the commission presents “a perfect time to start conversations” about Gambia’s treatment of the LGBT community. But she points out that change happens slowly; discussions questioning the practice of female genital mutilation have been ongoing for decades.
Being patient might be practical, but it will not protect LGBT Gambians today. In a new Constitution being developed, their rights will probably be left out.
The unlikelihood that Gambians will raise LGBT rights in the commission does not mean that the network of global LGBT activists should step in. After all, Jammeh once rebuked foreign powers and threatened to cut aid to countries based on their LGBT human rights record by announcing Gambians “would rather eat grass” than take aid conditioned on LGBT rights.
Jobarteh reinforced the desire of Gambians to chart their own course: “Gambians will take offence if foreigners want to promote gay rights in the Gambia.”
What, then, becomes of a country’s efforts to create an impartial record of human rights abuses when it is unwilling to confront and account for the full extent of those abuses?
Exposing Jammeh’s abuses and giving space for victims to tell their stories is critical for building a new Gambia. But in one sense, that truth is easier to confront, heaped on to one man, one regime. What the few did to the many. What the many did to the few is harder to confront. Jammeh instigated a climate in which LGBT Gambians had to hide in fear for their safety, but he couldn’t have done it alone.
When Nelson Mandela received South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, he declared that the process “put the spotlight on all of us”. He defended the process as necessary to help the country to advance to a new era of shared dignity: “If we are true to our founding pact, we cannot equivocate about a system which exacted such inhumanity.”
Gambia is embarking on a historic new beginning. The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission is laying a foundation to prevent another system that exacted inhumanity from ever returning. It is up to Gambians to decide how strong they want that foundation to be.
Josh Scheinert was a visiting law professor at the University of the Gambia in 2010 and 2011. He is the author of The Order of Nature, a novel exploring a same-sex relationship set in Gambia