The high price of impunity

Published 19th January 2017

In December 2016 we celebrated the prospect of a peaceful democratic transition in Gambia as President Yahya Jammeh conceded defeat in the elections after over two decades in power. One week later, he changed his tune and refused to accept the election results. He remains defiant. Regional and international leaders are trying to persuade Jammeh to leave office peacefully and these efforts include promises of asylum and protection from prosecution for alleged human rights violations. Should Jammeh accept offers of immunity and political asylum, the perpetuation of impunity will be the result. A high price to pay for a peaceful transition or a reasonable trade-off?

Jammeh lost the election to President Elect Adama Barrow on 1 December 2016, where only 39.6 percent voted for Jammeh, 43.3 percent voted for Barrow and 17.1 percent voted for Mama Kandeh.

Jammeh alleges that the election results are inaccurate despite the Independent Electoral Commission confirming the legitimacy of the results. Jammeh has taken the matter to court. Unfortunately and perhaps conveniently for Jammeh, due to a shortage of judges, the Gambian courts can only hear the case in May.

Given that Barrow is meant to assume office on 19 January, the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) have been engaged in diplomatic efforts to encourage Jammeh to step down. The AU has indicated that as of 19 January they will no longer recognise Jammeh’s authority and have warned of “serious consequences” should Jammeh refuse to leave office peacefully. ECOWAS, though also pursuing peaceful mediation and seeking a peaceful transition have been rumored to be considering the mobilization of military forces.

At present Jammeh seems unconvinced by all regional mediation efforts and the golden ticket appears to be the offer of political asylum in Nigeria. The risk of prosecution is believed to be one of the reasons that Jammeh refuses to leave office, and this way Jammeh could be shielded from the long arm of the law. Nigeria’s House of Representatives approved a motion to grant Jammeh asylum if he steps down. Though it is not binding on the Nigerian government, it seems to provide room for the Nigerian President to extend the offer.

However, we all know how that turned out for Liberia’s warlord, Charles Taylor. Taylor, after receiving promises of political asylum, moved to Nigeria. The Nigerian government subsequently saw fit to facilitate Taylor’s transfer to Liberia and then to the Special Court for Sierra Leone where he was tried and found guilty.

Jammeh’s rule has been characterised by grave violations of human rights and some of his alleged crimes include mass murder, torture, summary executions, enforced disappearances among many other alleged crimes.

Should Nigeria provide asylum, Jammeh could peacefully agree to transfer power, which could usher in a new era of democracy in Gambia. Whilst this may seem like a fair trade-off for many Gambians seeking to prevent a war, what about the Gambians who have suffered grave injustices at the hands of Jammeh?

What about those who have been waiting for Jammeh to have his day in court?
Should Jammeh be granted political asylum, this could foster a culture of impunity and inspire other leaders to follow the same trend- refuse to step down after losing credible elections and bargain with the threat of war and chaos in exchange for your immunity.

The reality is impunity continues to damage the rule of law and justice in Africa. It continues to encourage would be perpetrators to do as they wish knowing they can later evade justice. Whilst threats of war should be given due regard, the long term effects of leaders violating human rights only to retire enjoying the peace and serenity of their million dollar beach-side villas must also be given due regard.

Impunity continues to cripple democratic institutions, compromise governance frameworks, and undermine human rights. Should this all come to pass, Jammeh would join an already long list of leaders who have found a safe haven in neighbouring African countries.

Uganda’s Idi Amin was welcomed in Libya at first and then later spent his last days protected in Saudi Arabia. He is allegedly responsible for the deaths of over 100 000 people. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko fled to Togo and moved on to Morocco afterwards where he died. Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia continues to live in peaceful exile and out justice’s reach in Zimbabwe. Mengistu is allegedly responsible for the deaths of many people, with estimates ranging from 500,000 to over 2,000,000 people.

The biggest tragedy in the provision of political asylum is that the voices of the millions of victims are quickly forgotten. Instead leaders play political games, ignore the commission of egregious crimes and support impunity. A very high price to pay or a reasonable trade-off?
** This article originally appeared in the Star newspaper on 19 January 2017 under the title, The High Price of Immunity

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