In EP10, host Oladeji Tiamiyu speaks with Baba Jallow about his multi-faceted life, from a journalist uncovering human rights violations in his native Gambia to his experiences as an exile fleeing a military coup, a prolific author, and, most recently, as the Executive Secretary of Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission.
“Convergence” is a bi-weekly, limited series of conversations with thought-leaders and practitioners at the intersection of dispute resolution and technology. Host Oladeji Tiamiyu will focus on such topics as the role technology has had in resolving disputes during the pandemic, various ways technological tools have historically been incorporated into dispute resolution, and creative use cases that technology presents for resolving disputes into the future.
Baba Galleh Jallow is the Executive Secretary of Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC). He has held academic positions at Creighton University, La Salle University, and the University of The Gambia. Prior to becoming an academic, Dr. Jallow was a journalist, serving as editor-in-chief of The Daily Observer and later founding The Independent shortly after the introduction of military rule in The Gambia that introduced Yahya Jammeh as head of state. Due to his strong journalist critique of the Jammeh regime, Jallow would experience frequent harassment and threats from government forces, leading to his exile in America in 2000.
While in exile, Jallow would complete a master’s degree at Rutgers University and a PhD at the University of California, Davis, in African history. In academia, Jallow would author a series of books, including Defying Dictatorship: Essays on Gambian Politics 2012-2017, The Graveyard Cannot Pray, and Angry Laughter: A Biting Satire On An Inept African Civilian Government And Its Brutal Military Successor.
Saine, Pap & Edward Mcallister. “Gambia’s truth commission recommends prosecutions for Jammeh-era crimes,” Reuter’s, November 25, 2021. Last accessed 12/8/21.
Human Rights Council, United Nations General Assembly. Follow-up to the recommendations made by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in its reports on its visits to Albania from 5 to 12 December 2016 (A/HRC/36/39/Add.1) and the Gambia from 12 to 19 June 2017 (A/HRC/39/46/Add.1): Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. September 16, 2021.
1234 Welcome to convergence with Oladeji Tiamiyu. So today we have a very special edition. So much so that we are going to the beautiful tropical country of Gambia, in West Africa, to speak with Dr. Baba Jallow, who is a pre-eminent figure in truth and reconciliation commissions. He has thought extensively about how to design truth commissions, and currently He is the Executive secretary of Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, colloquially referred to as the TRRC, which we’ll be referring to frequently throughout this episode. Since there are a handful of cities in the U.S. exploring the use of truth commissions in response to systemic racism, I couldn’t help myself to use this as an opportunity to chat with Dr. Jallow, and he has so many intriguing ideas to explore, especially on the role technology can play in promoting reconciliation between different communities. In addition to his work with truth commissions, Dr. Jallow, has been a professor of African history at multiple U.S. universities, and is a prolific writer as an author of several books on democracy, women’s rights, and social justice in West Africa. He also spent several years as a journalist at Gambia’s leading news outlets. All right, that’s enough for me. Let’s get into the action. Dr. Baba Jallow, thank you so much for joining convergence today.
Oh, you’re welcome, Oladeji, and thank you for the opportunity to chat with you.
Absolutely. So Dr. Jallow, you’ve done so much in one lifetime. That’s honestly what I am always humbled by with you, from from journalism to academia, and now to being in charge of Gambia’s TRRC. And I did want to trace things back to your youth actually. And maybe just ask what your life was like at 14 years old, and the issues you cared about at this period in your in your life.
Thanks for an interesting question, Oladeji? At 14 years old I was I was at school, of course. And I cared for three things. I cared for reading. I cared for watching Indian movies. And I cared for writing stories. I didn’t care for looking after the sheep, as my father would have me do. But yes, those are the three things that I cared for most, watching Indian movies, and writing some stories.
And so you mentioned taking care of the sheep when you were 14. Were you in a more rural part of the Gambia?
Yes, I was born in a rural town called Farafenni. It’s is about 400 kilometers from Banjul, and I was born and grew up there. I went to primary school there and to secondary school. And then I went to high school at Armitage High School, which is further down, you know, the interior of the country.
Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. So I’m sure so much has changed since then. And I know that the things you’re writing about has indeed changed. But at 14 years old, what were you, what topics were you exploring for reading and writing?
Well, for reading, I was exposed to the works of people like Sembène Ousmane. I remember his “God’s Bits of Wood” and a collection of stories that I really, really love called “Tribal Scars.” And “Tribal Scars” had a series of stories in it. I was also exposed to the works of Camara Lye, especially “The Radiance of the King” and “African Child.” I read the works of H. Rider Haggard, “King Solomon’s Mines,” as well as all the books that he wrote. In terms of writing, what I did was, I was fascinated with these Indian movies. So when I watched an Indian movie tonight, tomorrow, I would go and buy an exercise book and notebook. And then I will try to adapt the story that I worked on the movie into a sub story using African characters. So that is how I managed to adapt some of them into into African stories, and also adapted some of the, stole if you like, some of the ideas I read in Sembène Ousmane and Camara Lye, and all this, and just adopted them into my own small universe of Gambian literature. So that’s how I started writing and those are the things that I wrote about.
Well, it’s beautiful that it sounds like you had a love for reading and writing from a young age and now at this journey and point of your life, you’ve written so much, you’ve written so many books. Most recently wrote, I think just a couple of years ago, you wrote “Defying Dictatorship: Essays on Gambian Politics, From 2012-2017.” And I guess I was also curious with all of this writing experience you’ve had, dealing with really challenging, complex issues like women’s rights, female genital mutilation, and all of these things, I guess I was curious of all the books you have written, which your favorite to write was, and which was the most challenging to write.
My favorite book to write was my childhood days, “Childhood Days in Chaku Bantang” that was just published last year. Its its a story kind of a collection of my memories from childhood that was kind of inspired by the fact that childhood days nowadays, is very different from childhood days when I was a child. Then we wrestled in the sun, we went hunting, we did a lot of good things, and not so good things. And so I thought, well, why not capture these memories and publish them in a book, and I really, really enjoyed recalling the characters that I knew when I was a child. There were lots of mad men and mad women in Farafenni at the time, and it was great fun, kind of recalling some of the old men, the men we feared and the men we liked, and that kind of stuff. So also the the fairy tales, or the folk tales that we heard from elders, and some of the myths about graveyards, about snakes, naming snakes at night, so really “Childhood Days in Chaku Bantang” was my favorite book to write. Chaku Bantang is just another name for Farafenni, where I was born. So the most challenging book I wrote, again, was kind of autobiographical. It is “The Graveyard Cannot Pray.” Now, “The Graveyard Cannot Pray” is a true story of a very, very drawn-out conflict I had with my dad, with my father, because he wanted to have my daughter circumcised and I refuse to have my daughter circumcised. And that conflict lasted for two years, and it drew in the community of elders in Farafenni. It was a very, very complex fight. I threatened to commit suicide if they circumcised my daughter, and that saved her. She’s alive and well now, grown up very happy that I protected her. But talking about female circumcision, female genital mutilation, for a man in my community was a very, very difficult subject and especially writing about it, putting it down and publishing what you wrote. It was a dangerous enterprise. I had a run in with my with my dad, and by extension with the with the Fulani elders. You know, how Fulani elders are very, very strict.
But I fought the battle for her and I saved her from female genital mutilation. And that was the most difficult experience I had in my life so far.
Yeah, yeah. And one thing I find so impressive with your writing is, you’re grappling with such difficult topics. It’s illustrating a broader issue throughout West Africa, throughout Africa, throughout many parts of the world. And it’s still through your perspective. So there’s a certain level of connection, greater connection that the reader can have with your thoughts, since it’s written from a more personal perspective. I really like that.
Yeah, that’s right. You know, most of the books that I wrote, non-academic books like “The Graveyard Cannot Pray” and and “Childhood Days in Chaku Bantang” and others are from my own perspective. I, they were all kind of, you know, defiances or you know, acts of defiance, against certain norms. I thought that there are certain things that should not happen. I questioned the rational, for example, for female circumcision, and I challenge the elders who tried to justify it by saying, you know, it is sooner, like it’s part of the prophet’s example. And I said, no, the prophet had daughters and the daughters were not circumcised. So, yes, you know, I like to put things in perspective, from my own point of view, but also affecting a wider community, not only of readers, but just a wider community of human beings.
Yeah, yeah. And there’s a certain beauty in what you’re sharing and how writing, both from the writer’s perspective writing, and then from the readers perspective, reading, can promote empathy can can kind of transcend a particular example and illustrate a broader rule. And I think your writing does that really well. So it’s actually difficult to ignore that when you read your books. It’s really difficult to ignore how your examples are touching on these really difficult human experiences. And so I know that some of the things you’ve been writing about have been kind of countercultural. So it makes me wonder how you feel about issues around freedom of the press, since you both had experience as a journalist and then also as a as an author?
Well, yes, that is that is one of the favorite issues that I had to deal with. Also one of the issues that landed me in trouble over and over and over again with the former dictatorship that was here, and that sent me into exile. And before going into exile, it sent me to jail. On a number of occasions, I think freedom of expression is at the center of human society, of human progress. If a society cannot say, cannot express his opinion on matters of public interest, then that society is in trouble. I just thought that whatever it takes, we have to prevent this country from sliding into conflict. The likes of the conflict in Sierra Leone, and Liberia at the time, you know, they could only be saved by a very bold defiance against dictatorship, against muzzling of the press, against violation of human rights. And that, too, is a universal concern. Not just for for Gambians, but for Africans and many other parts of the world.
Yeah, yeah. And you’ve touched on this experience with dictatorship that Gambia had. So maybe to explore Gambian history, there was this military coup in July 1994. And it was led by a group of people all aligned with the Armed Forces provisional ruling council. And effectively in July 1994, they successfully removed the president at the time from power and a new head of state came into power as a result of the military coup, and that individual stayed in power until he lost elections in 2016. I did want to zoom in on this moment in history, especially for Gambian history of July 1994, and ask you, I guess, where you were, at this moment, and and how you experienced the coup at the time?
Yes, on July 22, 1994, there was a coup. We just woke up the news of a coup. We actually woke up to soldiers marching down the streets of Banjul and within the next few hours, we knew that a group of young lieutenants are taking over the government. And that Dawda Jawara, who was president of the Gambia, for 30 years, had fled into exile. You know, at the time, I was working as an assistant registrar at the West African exams council office here in Banjul. And I was in big trouble because I was writing for a newspaper and I had been warned before by my boss saying that if I didn’t stop writing, I was going to be sad, I was going to lose my job. And I refuse to stop writing. I said, I’m not writing on West African exams council matters. I am not writing at work, I write at home in my free time, so I’m not going to stop writing. So a week after the coup, precise that was on August 2, just one week, precisely one week, after Friday, July 22, 1994, when the military took over, I got my marching orders. I was sacked from my job for continuing to write for “The Daily Observer.” And so I went straight to “The Daily Observer” newspapers. And so the managing director at the time, the proprietor actually, Kenneth Best, who was a Liberian refugee, he just said come on Sunday and bring your application letter for assistant editor. So so that’s how I became a journalist. So I stayed in the Gambia from July 1994 to December 2000. And that was one of the periods of repression on the military, they had just started becoming very, very repressive. And in December 2000, I had to leave the country and come to the United States as a refugee, because my life was in danger. But during that period, the the six years that I spent on the military regime, I was arrested a lot of times. They would just come “The Daily Observer” offices and pick me up and then go and lock me up for three, four days. No charges, no indication of why I was picked up sometimes. Sometimes I was told that I was selling the country to the enemies. Then I was kept incommunicado for days on end, and then I was released. So it was a very dangerous period, if you like, for me. I did not know how dangerous it was until much later. I realized that I might have been killed, I would have been killed in one of those arrests because the arrest happen at all times of the day or night. They would come in the middle of the night and say, come on, let’s go, we need you. And then you just have to go with them. No arrest warrant, nothing, and they would be playing plainclothes men. And they will take me to the NRA offices, they would lock me up there for for many days, and they will say we don’t know where he is. So it was a very dangerous period for me. And it was dangerous because anytime I was arrested and released, I would go and write an editorial that is even more hard hitting than the editorial for which I was arrested. So what happened was they deported Kenneth Best, the proprietor who was the editor-in-chief. A Ghanian guy named Ellicott, Mr. Ellicott took over as editor-in-chief — a couple of months later, he was deported. And I was next in line. So I came directly to the line of fire as editor-in-chief. And then I continued getting arrested until they bought “The Daily Observer.” And then I left and started an independent newspaper. Again, the arrests and harassment continued until eventually, they said, I wasn’t from the Gambia, and they accused me of not being a Gambian. They went to my hometown and arrested my dad, and my mom, held them for one day, interrogated them, seize their ID cards. And then after that, they just couldn’t sleep. They say, you have to leave the country. And that’s how I left the country and came to the U.S. and continued the struggle from the U.S. through the pen, through the writings. It was a very kind of critical period for me.
Yeah, well, just a fascinating story. And I find the experiences of people like you and other human rights activists that have truly experienced living under autocratic rule like you did, I find all of that to be so powerful, because you truly sacrificed, you know, economic opportunities, right? You lost your job because of your thoughts. Your thoughts were punished, financially punished, right? And then you also had your physical well-being punished by being imprisoned multiple times simply for your thoughts, as well. So and then you had other people, your loved ones, physically threatened and harmed, and your citizenship even called into question. So I find your experience, right, to illustrate this broader challenge that members of the press have to, in many parts of the world throughout the world, have to grapple with, the extent that you are going to write what you believe, instead of essentially being co-opted by the institutions of power to stop your your writing. It’s not an easy decision, I imagine.
No, not at all. It wasn’t an easy decision at all. But then it wasn’t difficult either. Because I thought that I was doing the right thing. I thought that we had to speak truth to power. I thought that the future of the country, the security of the country is at stake, that if the dictatorship was allowed to proceed and do anything and everything in the country, that the country could slide into civil war. There was a civil war raging on in Sierra Leone, there was a civil war raging on Liberia. And we are seeing refugees coming from there every day. We are hearing horror stories from Liberia and Sierra Leone. And I was just determined to do what I could to prevent that kind of situation from happening in the country.
And then when Kenneth Best was deported, he actually sold the newspaper and the government used a proxy to buy the newspaper. That’s “The Daily Observer,” of which I was editor-in-chief. And so when they bought the paper, they called me into the office. The new managing director offered me 100% salary increment. They offered me a car, a Benz — I’ve said this before in the Gambian media — and the guy who bought the paper, Amadou Samba, a very wealthy Gambian businessman said, I will give you a house, I’ll give you a car, and I’ll give you 100% salary increment for you to stay. But then there was a caveat. They wanted to sack my news editor, who at the time was Demba Ali Jawo [??] — he was a famous journalist here. And I said, why are you sacking him? He said, well, we are just restructuring the paper. But I knew that wasn’t true. I knew the real reason that Mr. Jawo was being sacked, was that he ran a column called “Focus” and “Focus” was a very hard-hitting column that criticized the military regime at the time. And so I said if you sack him, I’m going to resign. And they sacked him on a Sunday. And on Monday I tendered my resignation letter, and then went ahead to start The Independent Newspaper. And that was seen as a challenge as an affront to the authority of the military. So they got more hostile, and I got more punished. So that was, that was how it went. I couldn’t let them buy me or coax me into doing things that were against my principles, that would compromise my integrity as a journalist and as a Gambian.
Yeah. So so when you leave “The Daily Observer,” and start your Independent journal, what was your experience of you have greater autonomy, no one can buy you out now. You don’t work for people who have kind of like co-opted your prior journal I guess, now that you had this greater independence, how did that inform your work?
Well, I just continued exactly what I was doing “The Daily Observer,” because “The Daily Observer” when I was the editor-in-chief, was a very fiercely independent newspaper. We had a very independent editorial policy. We wrote what we felt was right. We tried to be as objective as possible in reporting the news. And our editorials were unfailingly hard hitting when it came to dealing with issues of public concern. So that independent editorial policy is what I took away with me when we started The Independent Newspaper. And it just continued like that. So essentially, the independent spirit of the “Observer” was transferred to “The Independent Newspaper.” And so the harassment just continued.
Unfortunate. Yeah. Not an easy time I imagine. You mentioned that you went into exile December 2000.
And when when you left Gambia, in December 2000, did you ever think you would return? And under what circumstances did you think you would return if you did?
Not, the idea of returning home was very remote in my consciousness. I mean, I didn’t know when I was going to come back home. Because there was this dictatorship, the President was young, he had already retired from the military and decided to stand for elections, which he won in 1996, and again in 2000. And I knew that he was going to continue winning elections. And this was a guy who would boast that he would be in power for 1 billion years, if he wanted to. And so it was a very bleak prospect when I thought about coming home. It was a very, very difficult situation. My family was here, my parents were here. Actually, both my parents passed away while I was in exile, and I couldn’t come back to Gambia to attend their funerals. So I came back several years later. My mom passed away in 2006, over six years after I left. My dad passed away in 2009, nine years after I left the country. And I was only able to come back in 2017. So you can imagine how difficult that was. But then I wasn’t going to compromise on the work for which I was exiled. And so I continue writing essays against a military regime, the dictatorship there. And those are essays that I compiled into a book called “Defying Dictatorship,” the one that you mentioned earlier. It was a it was a very, very, very difficult situation for me. I wanted to come home. I did all my doctoral research in Ghana, because I couldn’t come to Gambia.
Yeah, yeah, wow. And so yeah, it’s not an easy time at all. And so you make this return in 2017, and things had changed in Gambia pretty dramatically at that moment. Could you talk a bit about what changed in 2017 when you made the return?
It was a different site. I mean, I couldn’t recognize a lot of the things that I saw culturally. I heard phrases being used that I never knew about before. And the country had really changed. I was a stranger at home, because I was away for 17 years.
But then there was a spirit of democracy that could not have been imagined under the dictatorship. People were free, people were saying what they wanted to say. They were criticizing the government that was in place, and there was a spirit of hope that there is a new Gambia. Surely there was a turn point, the new Gambia back in 2017-2018. We were very optimistic that the Gambia has been freed or has freed ourselves from the clutches of a very brutal dictatorship and now we are going to create a new and vibrant democracy, a new and vibrant society that everyone will be happy about. So that that was the situation. It was a very jubilant situation, if you want, a very hopeful mood across the country.
Yeah. And at some point, you also got an invitation to take on the role that you currently have with Gambian’s TRRC, as the executive secretary. Could you talk a bit about how that came into fruition and any concerns or hopes that you had once, once you had accepted that opportunity?
Yes, I at the time in 2017, I was teaching at LaSalle University, Philadelphia. So in the summer, when, when the dictatorship fell in December 2016, in the summer of 2017, I came for vacation here at home. And I had a very brief conversation . . . . I ran into the justice minister, who I knew, and he said, I need to talk to you about something. I didn’t know what. And then when I went back after my summer vacation here for the first time in 17 years, one day he gave me a call. I was I was in Philadelphia, he gave me a call and he said, Baba, we are going to set up this truth reconciliation commission. We’ve looked around in Gambian academia. And we thought that you might be a perfect candidate to come and help us out with the role of Executive Secretary. Come help us set up the Commission, and head the Secretariat of the Commission. And I wonder if you would be interested in this? And I did not hesitate at all. I said, yes, I would be interested in that. So he sent me a formal invitation. I asked him to write to the history department, my department at LaSalle, which he did and copied me. And so I was able to secure a two year leave of absence from LaSalle to come and take up this position. Because the idea was to finish the work of the Commission in two years. Unfortunately, the Commission did not end in two years, it took longer than we anticipated. And so I had to request for an extension of my leave of absence. Unfortunately, or fortunately, one way or the other, it wasn’t approved. And I can understand they needed to move ahead, they needed to get a full time history professor at LaSalle. And so I had to resign my job at LaSalle. And I stayed on to assist with ending the war here. And I don’t regret it one bit. So that’s how I came home. And I worked with the Ministry of Justice, and we set up the Commission, and then the rest, as they say, is not history yet, but it’s becoming history
Yeah, and I can only imagine with your university, I mean, you, you have been someone to stand up for what you believe in, right, going back to your days as a journalist. And I can imagine, when you were presented with this choice between continuing with the TRRC, or returning back to Philadelphia, can imagine there’s a younger you going back to “The Daily Observer” days, who was like, I already know what I need to do, which is stay and fulfill this, this objective in line with the hopes that I have for the future of this country.
Absolutely so, absolutely. There was no doubt at all, in my mind, what I would do if my request for an extension was delayed. But I could understand too. I mean, I couldn’t blame LaSalle for wanting to hire a full-time professor. But at the same time, it was kind of inconceivable that I would drop the job, the middle of the process, and then head back to work on my tenure. I was I was being reviewed for tenure and promotion at the time that I left. So actually, the following winter, or the following spring semester was the semester that I was going to be out for tenure. But I just couldn’t drop the ball at the time. I thought, you know, whatever happens, I need to stay here. Even if I have to lose my job and get back on the job market afterwards, I would have to lose my job, I have to complete this work. Because I believe in what we are doing. I believe in what we are doing. And I believe that it serves a very, very big purpose and a very positive purpose too in the future of this country.
Yeah, I was I was really fortunate to be involved with the TRRC in early 2019. And for me, it was just truly inspiring, because you have such transparency in the truth and reconciliation parts. So I remember going down to your offices and sitting just a couple feet away from former military officials who had committed these harms under the prior administration. And then also just being a few feet away from people who had endured torture and other harms, like like you have experienced — financial and physical loss. So I thought that the TRRC then was just a harrowing experience for me to witness it all. And so I guess with aspirations that you had around the TRRC, what were those aspirations? And now that you’re nearing the end of the mandates, have those aspirations come into fruition?
Yes, some of them have. Some of them have not yet happened, because the mandate of the Commission was to kind of investigate 22 years of human rights abuses and violations. And then to come up with recommendations for institutional reform, recommendations for prosecution of those most responsible for human rights violations, and then hand hand those over to the government and have those implemented after the TRRC. Now, one of the things that have happened as a result of the work of the Commission is that a lot of Gambians, especially young Gambians, especially civil society organizations and victims organizations, have come to adopt one of the slogans, or one of the campaigns that we learned with the slogan, “The Never Again” campaign, and they have been kind of socialized into hating dictatorship, into insisting on having their rights respected, into preventing a recurrence of dictatorship here. And so that has happened. Also, a lot of the victims have been helped through our internal operations program. We have lots of victims who were very sick. We managed to take some of them to Dhaka, some of them to Turkey, for medical treatment. Some of those victims are heathly now. So but when it comes to the recommendations that we are going to present to the government, maybe within the within this month, hopefully, those are yet to be to be given to the government. And they would include, of course, recommendations for a prosecution of people who were found to be most responsible for human rights violations, but also recommendations for institutional reform, policy reform, administrative reform, all of which would help in preventing a recurrence of the kind of decadent system that existed here under the dictatorship. So some of the objectives have been achieved already, some of them not yet.
It’s beautiful and I guess you’re dealing with such complex issues that have been in place and the Gambian society has experienced for more than two decades. So I imagined that just a couple of years, it’s not easy to unwind all the psychological harm that the country has experienced during such a long time period. And you also mentioned the civil society engagement with the Never Again campaign. So I guess with the Never Again campaign, what is, what has been the TRRC’s role in collaborating with civil society organizations for that? And how does one entrench a spirit of democracy in the midst of uncertainty for the general population? Not an easy question.
Not an easy question and it wasn’t an easy process either. Because what we did with with the TRRC is, having studied having looked at the past two commissions, you know, about 44 of them as of 2017 that I knew about, you know, read a lot online, read some books here and there, some papers, and we identified some problems that afflicted some of the the truth commissions that passed. And one of the biggest problems with those was the lack of inclusivity of the populations of the people of the country in which the truth commission was operating. So what we did with the TRRC was to make sure that we adopted two parallel approaches. One was the traditional approach of truth commission hearings, public hearings, that were held at the hall, the big hall that you saw, but the other was outreach activities. Now, in order to be able to do outreach activities to reach to all sectors of the Gambian population, we designed the Secretariat in such a way that you will have different units or different departments of the Secretariat that were dedicated to a particular target populations. For example, we had the women’s affairs unit, whose role was really to go out there and engage the women and make sure that gender issues and women’s issues were kind of centered, prioritized in the work of the Commission. The other unit we had was youth and children’s network unit. And the youth and children’s network unit had the role of bringing in or involving, including young people across the board. So they visited about 60 schools across the country, spoke to over 60,000 students. We also visited the ghettos and they visited unemployed youth and they spoke to young people about what happened here. You know, why did we have a dictatorship? What are the effects of a dictatorship in this country? And how could they prevent a recurrence of a dictatorship in this country. Same thing happened with the women’s affairs unit. We had a reconciliation unit that worked on reconciliation, we had a communications and outreach unit that assisted them. And then we had another unit that was kind of focused on working with the victim, the victim support unit that was kind of the interface between the commission and the victim community. So essentially, the outreach activities were designed to encourage people to come forth, both perpetrators but especially victims, especially women’s victims, and you know, child victims, they existed, to come forward and share their stories with the Commission. But also to empower them, to tell them that power resides in the people, in you. The power does not reside in the government. So essentially, in a way, the TRRC process was subversive of blind obedience to authority. You know, we thought that was one of the main problems that enabled the dictatorship in the past. And we addressed those issues in the outreach activities. So we are able to socialize a lot of people, a lot of young people. We were able to collaborate with the with civil society organizations and victim organizations. When we went out for outreach activities, we organized some of these outreach activities jointly with the victim center, with the ICTJ, International Center for Transitional Justice, and other organizations. So essentially, we just spoke to the people about what happened here, why did it happen, how can you prevent it from happening again. And in that way, we are able to kind of infuse the idea of Never Again, on some level of defiance against dictatorship and human rights violations in the population. And it worked.
Well, I’ve mentioned it before, so when I was when I was in the Gambia, I, I’ll never forget taking taxis between the Ministry of Justice, and the location of the Truth Commission. And on multiple occasions, my taxi drivers would have the hearings of the Truth Commission being played on their radios, and they it was just really beautiful to see all levels of Gambian society, following and tracking all that’s going on with the Truth Commission, because there is so much that goes on. So I found that really beautiful. And from what you’re sharing, I’m hearing that you were very deliberate in creating systems that would brought in stakeholder engagement and that would also empower them, which I think is really powerful, especially if you want like a long term, not just for years, but a long term cultivated spirit in the people to prevent historical, unfortunate circumstances from repeating. So I did want to focus in on that piece around broadening engagement and empowering stakeholders, because the podcast is all about technology and dispute systems and truth commissions are such a powerful, transformative, and as you put it, subversive tool that can be used to transcend historical harms. So when you were thinking about designing your truth commission, how did you think about the role of technology?
We were very fortunate to have the TRRC in the age of social media. And, you know, we were firm[??] to make saw that we use technology to achieve some of the main objectives of the commission. And this included inclusivity to make sure that both within the institution of the Truth Commission and outside nationally and internationally, there is an element of inclusivity. We wanted everyone to be included in the process, to be involved in the process, one way or the other. Secondly, we wanted the process to be completely transparent, that everyone knows exactly what is going on, so that no one will come tomorrow and say the evidence was cooked. Or this, this witness was quashed to say what they didn’t want to say, etc. We wanted the process to be credible, credibility was on top of our agenda. And we wanted the process to be efficient. Now, technology allowed us literally to, to do all of these things, to achieve all of these objectives in one way or the other. Now in terms of inclusivity we were able to get a media partner QTV. I’m sure you saw the big van when you came there, big truck standing in the middle of the compound.
Absolutely can’t miss it.
Yes, we are contracted QTV because we have different offers from different, or bids from different media organization. But we went for QTV, because QTV has, this satellite TV station, it has a worldwide reach. You know people in Russia, people in the US, people everywhere can tune into QTV and watch. And so even though it was a bit expensive on on our part, we just went with it so that everyone could follow outside of the country. They also have online media platforms. They have a YouTube page, YouTube channel, they have a Facebook page, and you could go there.
Can I just say how beautiful the YouTube channel is. Because even after I left Gambia, I was able to follow every single hearing via YouTube live, right? That’s, it’s just so beautiful and unique because Gambia is one of the newest countries to have a truth commission. It was beautiful to see. You know, in 1995, South Africa, when they were launching their truth commission, YouTube wasn’t a thing. So that wasn’t an option. But today, YouTube is something that really transcends borders in a powerful way. So I was able to really learn so much from those hearings, even when I was away from the Gambia.
Absolutely. So that was one of the ideas to to make sure that the hearings, everything that happened in that hall, is preserved in the form of videos and the form of audio recordings, and we had all of those. We were able to give open access to the media. So newspapers came, radio stations came to cover the hearings, online media came to cover the hearings, so that everyone would have access to the hearings of the commission. You know, we also used technology in interpretation. We made sure that we had a very, very well-equipped interpretation both that had interpreters, professional interpreters of English to the local languages. We have at least five of the major languages here. So that every witness who comes whether it’s a victim or a perpetrator, if they were to speak in any language, we will have an interpreter who was able to interpret what he was saying, what he was saying, from English to the local language. And so that was made possible by technology. We also had a transcribing team transcribing unit, that transcribe all the hearings, that from the audio to text. And that too was made possible by technology. So essentially, technology drove the process in very, very significant ways and it enabled us to make the process as inclusive as possible, as transparent as possible, as credible as possible, and as efficient as possible. The other thing that I thought was a very, very useful contribution of technology to the truth commission process here is that we are able to have witnesses who are in the diaspora. We had witnesses from, from America, you know, witnesses from the UK, witnesses from other parts of Africa, actually testifying live via video link. And so that was very useful. So we are able to have about 40, 40 for witnesses, mostly some of them perpetrators, some of them victims, who are outside the country who could not come here, but who were nevertheless able to testify before the commission. And that was made possible by technology.
Yeah, I think what you’re sharing is so fascinating, and one of the reasons why I find it fascinating is because the Truth Commission started before the pandemic, and it has existed overlapping with the pandemic. And in other branches of alternative dispute resolution, like mediation and arbitration, greater use of technology like remote hearings and remote processes, only really started becoming widely accepted by professionals in the field because of the pandemic and like health and safety protocols they had to follow. But you’re illustrating that because you did this before the pandemic, you’re illustrating that the value of technology for resolving disputes on a on a national level is noteworthy. And so I guess one thing I’m wondering is since the start of the pandemic, how, how the Truth Commission has actually changed, if at all?
One of the things that happened during the pandemic was that we had to suspend hearings for some time. And then that wasn’t quite feasible, and so we had to think of ways of having social distancing of the commissioners and the witnesses inside the hall. We limited the number of journalists who could could come into the hall to cover the hearings and we eliminated the free access, open access to the public. So people could no longer come and sit in the audience and watch, which happened before pandemic. But nevertheless, we are able to continue the hearings. And thanks to technology, we are able to really move the process without much hitches. You know, the process just went on, people stayed at home or in their cars or use their phones to watch on YouTube and Facebook. And the process just continued as it was almost before, before a pandemic happened. And that was only made possible because we had YouTube, we had radios, we had Facebook, we had online media platforms covering the hearings, and we had QTV and Gambia radio and television services, also covering the hearings. So essentially, we just observed the safety measures that were put in place by the government, by the World Health Organization, and by the health authorities here. And then we continue with the hearings. Because if you wanted to wait until the pandemic was over before we could continue, then you will be here for the next 10 years. We didn’t want that to happen.
Yeah, well, I think you were a step ahead of the pandemic, because you already had the technology in place, even before anyone had thought of Coronavirus coming into existence. And so I imagined that once that switch was required to for health and safety reasons that it wasn’t all that much of a difficult switch because you already had the recordings going on, you had the radios transmissions going on. And so it wasn’t like you had to reinvent things drastically.
No, not at all. The hearing started in January 2019. January 7, 2019, to be precise. And the pandemic was hit very hard here late 2019 and early 20. So no, we did not have to change anything. Like I said, all we needed to do was to reduce the number of cameramen and journalists. So if two or three journalists represented a media house for the pandemic, now, you would insist that only one person if possible, you know, at most two people would represent the particular media house. So we reduce the number of people, number of journalists. But then the number of media stayed, and all the other arrangements, technological arrangements, remained in place, and we did not have to change anything. All we did was the social distancing. And also to stop people from coming in and sitting in on the hearings. That was really the major change. So people could not just walk into the TRRC premises with their ID. So wait at the door, and then go sit in the hall. So that changed. But other than that, everything else went on as before.
And as you mentioned earlier, integrating so much technology into the system designers is powerful for posterity, right? You have all these transcripts, you have all of these videos. They are they are on the internet’s freely accessible, anyone can have access to them. And it is much more difficult to corrupt those videos, to corrupt those those transcripts because they’re already widely distributed. So if there were bad actors in the future, they would have to operate under a system where people already know their history.
Exactly so. Exactly so. I mean, we are happy that everything that the two commission did in terms of public hearings, in terms of site visits, and other public locations or events are all online. So you can’t really deny anything. Because we’ve had occasions in commissions where we have people who deny that this human rights violation happened or that, you know, the truth commission cooked up the evidence. You can’t say that here. You know, of course, there are still people who say no human rights violation was was committed in the Gambia. But what then the evidence is so overwhelming that people people just don’t listen to those kinds of denials. So a technology enabled us both to preserve the material for posterity, but also to transcribe and have hard copies. Because we have hard copies of all of the public hearings. We have actually books. We published them into books and those are lying down. So those who would be in the library and the archives. You could pick up a hard copy of all the transcripts for November 11, 1994 before or July 22, 1994 and read. So not only do we have them online, we also have them in hardcopies. They were transcribed, they were laid out. They were printed out and we have copies of volumes of all of the transcripts, all of the hearings that that happened at the truth commission.
Yeah, that’s really powerful. And I guess in terms of learning lessons, you mentioned that the commission is in its final stages. Maybe it has one month or so left. And I guess I was curious, looking back on this experience, lessons you’ve learned or things you would have done differently with the knowledge you have now . . .
Well, I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, personally, at the level of the commission. I think that the composition of the commission could have been better thought out, because at the time of the selection, nomination and selection of the commissioners, the government’s major interest was in reconciling the country. And commissioners were nominated by the communities. And they were vetted for integrity, and so on. But I think that they would have done a better job, if you like, of selecting commissioners. That said, the commissioners of the Truth Commission did very well, they all worked together very closely. They are all men and women of integrity, they did a wonderful job of the commission. Also, I think, in terms of the funding for the commission, we have had to struggle for funds, from quarter to quarter, because our funds are allocated quarterly. So I’ve had to, like fight tooth, nail, and claw to get funding from the government. I think making a budgetary allocation for the Truth Commission would have been very helpful. one lump sum, give it to the commission, let it do its work. But that has been a challenge that I think I would have advised the government to just make a budgetary allocation and give the monies to the commission. And more than that, I’m not sure I would have done a lot of things differently than we have done so far.
Yeah, it’s good that so much has gone well. That’s a good sign. And I imagine with the quarterly budget allocation that, since it’s been in existence for multiple years, you might have had challenges in in anticipating what the future holds, because you can only forecast one quarter of budget allocations.
Right, right, you have to you have to send in a request every quarter. And then, you know, bureaucratic red tape, of course. It’s everywhere. It’s like, it’s like milking, you know, a milking rock for water. At some point I’ve had occasions where I had to write the Minister of Justice Ba Tambadouand this minister, write to them and say, if you don’t have our monies by the end of next month, we wouldn’t be able to pay salaries. And if we are not able to pay salaries, we’re going to shut down the commission. I’ve had to do that over and over again. I have emails with me that I sent and that was helpful, because anytime the idea of closing down the commission came up, it would work. They would work quickly and get some funds and give us the money that we need. But then also, they never gave us the monies that we requested. So if you requested, let’s say for 15,000, the probably would give us 10,000. You know, that’s how it worked throughout. And so I think that is one area that that needs to be looked at. If a country is setting up a truth commission, they really have to think very, very hard about the budgetary allocation. It’s a very expensive process. You have to pay salaries for about 100 people or more. You have to pay overheads, the technology, you have to finance everything. So it’s a very, very expensive process. And it will be very helpful if any government that wants to set up a truth commission, things very long and hard about how do we form this process. If it were not for the support of the United Nations Peacebuilding Support Office, I’m not sure the Gambian government alone could have run this commission properly. That I can tell you.
Yeah, I’m thinking back to I think it was Sierra Leone’s truth commission, that had budgetary challenges. And even though it was like really well designed, and the intention was was was there to be very effective, its limited budgetary allocations kind of hindered its ability to be as transformative as as it could have been, perhaps. So so I do think that’s an important lesson for future truth commissions, how the duration of the budgetary allocations and the amount of the allocation itself necessarily impacts the effectiveness, or the scope that the commission can engage with.
That’s right, it does it does affect the work of the commission. Fortunately, like I said, we had to fight but we always got enough money to make so that all the operations of the commission proceeded smoothly. We never had to stop because of lack of money, lack of funds. So we are grateful for that. But then it was a constant struggle. It was a headache. It was very stressful. Sometimes just having to run around and run after the government, you know how difficult it is to get money from the government, you know, so, you know, we had to resort to to threats of closing down the commission before they would give us money. So, you know, I think it would be very helpful if a government wants to set up a truth commission that they have enough money, because it’s a very expensive process. And sometimes, most times, you go beyond the initial period that was that was anticipated. For example, the TRRC was anticipated to last for two years. Now we just finished the third year and we are just at the tail end of the process now.
So I wanted to ask maybe one of my final questions. We’ve talked a bit about the challenges and truly the transformative nature of the Truth Commission, especially in how it uses technology to increase access and empower individuals. I guess, looking into the future, what are your predictions on the impact, the long-term impacts, that your commission will have had in Gambian society?
Great question. I think, I think one of the one of the impacts that we had, and that is going to stick, because one of the things that we wanted to do was to transform the political culture of the country, the broken mindset. To change the way people perceive their governments, to change the way people see themselves visa vis the government, to change the way that the nation and the state interrelated, what is the role of the government, what are the limits of the powers of the government . . . . And I think we have succeeded to some extent in kind of increasing the spirit of awareness in a lot of Gambians, especially young Gambians. Because, like I said, we had, we have this unit called the youth and children’s network unit, composed of young university students, very bright students, poets, you know, and they went out, and they spoke to students across the country, and young people across the country. So I think the knowledge that, you know, they have about their role as young people and as citizens of a country visa vis the role of the government, the limits of government authority, I think that knowledge will stay on, they will grow up with it, and they will continue to insist on holding the government accountable. I think that is going to stay long term. So the Never Again spirit is already infused across the country, especially in the CSO community. If you remember, recently, I sent you a photo of something of CSO’s coming together to march for the implementation of the recommendations of the truth commission, even though recommendations haven’t come out yet. But they have sensed some, some some some uncertainty in terms of government readiness to implement the recommendations and they decided to hold the march in support of the victims, and in support of the idea of implementing recommendations. I think that is going to continue. It’s already a cultural issue, it’s going to continue. So CSOs and victims’ organizations and young people across the country going to make sure that they will hold their governments accountable. And that is a long term issue. It’s not it’s not ending now. So whatever government comes in the future, they will have to deal with a popular mindset, a political culture that is a bit transformed, not entirely transformed, but suddenly transformed enough to ensure that we do not have a dictatorship in this country again. So that is a very, very good result of the work of the TRRC.
Yeah, that’s really exciting. And, yeah, the transformation is, is a long-term initiative that you have kind of equipped and empowered civil society to be able to think about in a strategic way. So I think that’s also really powerful. And I have one final question and so in, in America — you’re currently in Gambia, I’m currently in Boston — and right now in multiple cities in America — Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and I think Minneapolis — is also considering, and doing investigations into, creating their own local truth and reconciliation commission, in response to racial inequities in their respective cities and in the country, generally. America has had truth commissions in the past, but they have had, I would say, very limited success. And so since since you’ve done so much research and you’ve also done you’ve you’ve put your, your thoughts on paper and also being in charge of the Truth Commission, I was wondering if you had any recommendations, tips even, that you could give some of these truth commissions that are that are being created as we speak?
Well, yeah, I mean, it’s very exciting to hear that truth commissions are being set up in cities across the U.S. Yes, I think one of the things that I will say to any city or country that wants to set up a truth commission is that they have to make the process as inclusive as possible. And that inclusivity is at two levels. First, you have to make sure that, as an institution, the truth commission work is inclusive. So you don’t just have a group of commissioners doing everything that is required to be done: doing the research and investigations, doing the questioning and the listening to the hearings on everything. So you should have a well-equipped Secretariat for a start, a Secretariat that is there not just as a support mechanism, but as an active participant in the process. Now, that is at the level of the institution. Also, of course, you know, use as much technology — there is no lack of technology in the United States, so that should not be a big challenge — use technology as much as possible. Make the process very, very inclusive, make it transparent, so that everyone who is interested in the process should be able to access the proceedings of the process and know exactly what was going on. You know, I think if you make it inclusive and transparent, then ultimately the process would be credible, because it’s very easy for for people, whether they are victims or not victims, or even alleged perpetrators, to come around and say I wasn’t given a fair hearing, or, you know, the evidence was cooked. So if you make it transparent and inclusive, there will be no way that anyone can come out and say this is not true, or I did not do that, or I was coerced to say this or that. So essentially, those would be two things that people or the cities should keep in mind: make the process inclusive at the institutional level, make it inclusive at the state level, at the city level first, at the state level, and at national level, if necessary. So that everyone who is interested in what’s going on in the truth commission in Philadelphia, or somewhere else, should be able to access the hearings as they happen as possible. And so also make it transparent so that everyone knows exactly what’s going on. If you do that, then you are going to have a credible process. And whatever results would come out of your truth commission process cannot be questioned. They will be credible results, they will be credible recommendations that you can give. Because all of the recommendations of a truth commission should come from the evidence, not from the opinions of the commissioners or opinions of the victims or perpetrators, the witnesses. So the evidence should be out there for everyone to see and to know that this is exactly what happened. That probably would be a tip that I want to say with with these cities that want to perform to commission. It should be a well thought out process. They should not rush into it. Take their time to plan very carefully, to make sure that once it starts, it ends successfully.
Yeah. Beautiful. Well, Dr. Jallow, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. Thank you so much for sharing your life story, which I find to be remarkable. And thanks for being involved in the conversation. It’s been it’s been a fun conversation.