RightsView contributor James Courtright recently sat down with Nana-Jo Ndow to discuss Gambia’s transitional justice process. For 22 years, Yahya Jammeh ruled The Gambia through widespread corruption, repression of media, torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. He was voted out of office in December of 2016, and fled after a political impasse at the end of January 2017. At the beginning of this year the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) began hearing testimony in The Gambia from victims and perpetrators of Jammeh’s regime.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Nana-Jo Ndow and to put it simply I like to say I’m from Ghana – Gambia – UK. My Dad was a business man, he went wherever there was opportunity.
What brought you to human rights work?
I had a father who was very into human rights and politics, so we’d always have debates and conversations. I volunteered with Amnesty International about 12 years ago in London. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but at Amnesty I realized I didn’t necessarily want to treat people, I wanted to understand the root causes of why these things are happening.
Regarding transitional justice in The Gambia, which is what I’m working on now, that was sparked by what happened to my father (Saul Ndow). He was a fierce critic of Yahya Jammeh, the former president of The Gambia. In 2013 he was forcibly disappeared on the orders of the former president. At first, I thought my father was just being kept somewhere, so I was trying to find his whereabouts and trying to get him freed. It really had a devastating impact on me physiologically, physically, and also in the family. I don’t want anyone else to go through that. If I can help one person not go through that, I would have done what I’m meant to do on this earth.
You’ve never heard anything from the Gambian government?
The government kept silent, that’s the whole thing with enforced disappearances. It’s the silence. It’s another way of torturing people because you’re not sure if you’re moving in the right direction. Am I making that person be tortured more if I speak up? Am I putting myself in danger? There’s this constant fear, this constant guilt. We never spoke up, but we reached out various individuals, groups and institutions including the UN, the working group on enforced and involuntary disappearances, the Senegalese, the UK, the Red Cross, and Amnesty International. We were frantic but also relentless. I knew who to reach out to because of my work for Amnesty, but even knowing who to turn to, it was still very … I wouldn’t even say frustrating, it was debilitating. Now imagine all these others who are not connected to the internet or are completely isolated, what they go through in their heads, how powerless they feel.
I want to take a few steps back. Can you talk a little about your experiences in Latin America?
I moved to Argentina in 2001 because I liked the idea of moving to South America. In Argentina I really got to understand more about what Argentinians went through with the dictatorship. When I found out about my father it was easier for me to speak about it with my Argentinian friends because to them this was not a new concept. They probably knew someone who knew someone whose father’s sister’s uncle’s father’s uncles’ brothers had been forcibly disappeared. The military there tried to impose some kind of amnesty so no one would be held accountable, but Argentinians got up in arms. You see the Madres de Plaza de Mayo saying they want answers, and they still haven’t given up. It was very inspiring to see how they pushed back.
Do you think The Gambia can learn anything from Argentina?
The Gambia is different in many ways. It’s in West Africa and it’s a tiny country, while Argentina is a Latin American country and is very big. That being said, it was bizarre [for the organizers of the Gambian truth commission] to go to South Africa and Sierra Leone, because the context was completely different. In South Africa they had apartheid, in Sierra Leone it was a civil war. In The Gambia you had a repressive state. It started with a junta, which it what you had in Argentina. In both countries there was a small group of people terrorizing society and completely ripping families apart, so for me there’s so much to learn from Argentina.
How does the Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) fit into this?
In The Gambia it’s the Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations Commission – but reconciliation between whom and whom? Is this meant to replace justice? What really bothers me is this narrative that if you’re seeking justice, which means holding someone accountable for their actions, it’s portrayed like you’re asking for revenge. This is not what we’re asking for. In Argentina people insisted accountability was their right, and Argentinians pushing back set a precedent for other cases in Latin America. When you say let ‘bygones be bygones’, you’re giving license for others to do the same thing. Some of those who were involved in my father’s case had been mercenaries in Liberia and were given amnesty. Then they moved to Gambia. What does that say? In Liberia they also went through a truth commission, but up to this day not a single person has been prosecuted.
Are you worried about that in the Gambia?
I’m very worried about that. Some people in government are trying to portray victims who are asking for justice as being unreasonable or as being selfish by saying we’re stopping society from moving on. But you don’t just sweep this under the carpet. Maybe I can forgive you, but you still have to be held accountable. The truth commission is to have a historical record of the human rights violations that happened in the last 22 years. But for me somehow it looks like it’s a way for society to accept it. The burden is always placed on the victims and I think that’s why I’m so inspired by the Argentinians.
What is reconciliation for you?
To begin with, it’s having people know your story. But it’s also listening to what victims say they want. I feel like so much emphasis in The Gambia has been placed on those who’ve committed crimes. The focus has been on the perpetrators, and again the victims are forgotten. The government cannot come in and say “this is how we’re going to reconcile.” They must listen to those who’s suggestions they don’t necessarily agree with or like. As a government they’re serving the country, they have to listen to people, it has to be an inclusive process. The Gambia is such a small country, someone’s brother’s uncle’s cousin killed that person. There could be tensions, but you have to make it clear that with reconciliation you also have to be accountable for your actions. It’s very important for future generations.
What are you working on now?
I’m the founder and the executive director of the African Network against Extrajudicial Killings and Enforced Disappearances (ANEKED). We’re a small organization led by victims of the former regime. My cousin went through the emails back when we were trying to find my dad in 2013, and she said it made her realize that ANEKED actually started back then. That for me was like wow, everything we learned back then, we brought it with us when we officially launched.
We have quite a number of protects, one of which is the TRRC Digest, which is a repository of the truth-seeking process in The Gambia. People need to know what’s being said at the commission, but many don’t have time to sit in front of the screen all day, so we’re summarizing as accurately as possible. We then have it translated into the four main local languages, Fula, Jola, Wolof, and Mandinka, and we air it on the radio. We’ve received great feedback. Information is so powerful, people need to know what witness said happened in their community and in other communities. It’s easy with so many things coming out every day to lose track, but with the Digest we can go back and say this one person killed x number of people, what are we going to do about it? It falls into the four principles of dealing with the past: right to know, right to justice, right to reparations, and guarantee of non-recurrence. We need to have this out there so no one can come along and decide to re-write history.
We also got funding to do a memorialization project. We want to have a place where there will be a memorial center where you would have the stories of witnesses and objects. What inspired us is the Argentinians with the Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA where you have this former detention center where they show you what people went through and give you names of missing people. I think this should be out there for people to visit and for schools to take students because it’s part of the history.
Also, again the name says it all, it’s a network for young activists. It’s very easy to feel alone doing this work, to feel isolated. You need to know there are other activists out there and share good practices and tactics. But safely!
I’m also involved in ongoing litigation. I filed against the government of The Gambia for the failure to conduct proper judicial investigations and prosecute those who were accountable. My case, well that of my fathers, is very clear. Names were out there before the truth commission. Why don’t they conduct a judiciary investigation? There’s already a lot of evidence out there and we’ve given that evidence to the government. So, it’s sort of trying to make them understand there needs to be accountability, and hoping this sets a precedent for other people.
How do you stay centered and healthy doing this difficult work?
I want this to be out there because there’s so much stigma about it – I see a therapist. Therapy has really allowed me to put boundaries, to know when I’m reaching my limit because I hear stories that are so heavy and make me go all over what I went through. Sometimes I have to pull back because I’m no use if I burn out or have a breakdown. Therapy allows me to really share how I feel. It’s difficult, and I have to constantly re-center myself, but I was given tools through therapy. I’ve been very blessed to be surrounded by great people. My husband is amazing and has been incredibly supportive. My cousin I work with is amazing. I have another cousin who is fantastic, I can share my feelings and my frustrations with them. My mother has also been trying to be very supportive of the work ANEKED does. In this work I’ve come across a lot of people who have complexly lost their ability to empathize. I constantly remind myself you have to have empathy. It’s OK to be irritated, but you have to let it go. Don’t hold onto that feeling, its unhealthy. It doesn’t serve you.