Liberian TRC: Reconciliation before the Truth?

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 16, 2009


Like many people in the country, I was surprised by an announcement last week that the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the institution set up by the Accra Peace Accord to investigate the Liberian civil war and foster national reconciliation, would organize a national reconciliation conference, at the Unity Conference Center, in Virginia, starting June 15, 2009. A gathering of such magnitude takes long preparatory efforts and the participation of many institutions. According to press reports, the conference will bring together some 400 people, 20 representing each of the 15 counties and 100 people representing diverse organizations. The broad agenda seems to center on “reconciliation.” It is hoped that the conference will end with resolutions calling for the implementation of many decisions that could impact the national reconciliatory process.

As it has happened for the greatest part of the existence of the Commission, this conference will not go without controversy. First, according to news reports, the media event where the conference was announced was attended by only a few members of the Commission. It is said that one member, Counselor Pear Brown Bull who claims to represent the Western counties disrupted the press conference and later “held” her own media briefing in her office. Her pronouncements were almost the opposite of what the TRC Chairman said in the other event, whom she accused of carrying out his own agenda.

Personality differences exist in any organization where people, from different cultural and political backgrounds have to work together. The task of the TRC involves highly charged emotional issues which can exacerbate those differences. The challenge for those involved in the process consists in elevating the national interest above their own preferences and dislikes. However, with accusations and counter-accusations that marred its work from the beginning, the TRC seems not to be able to move away from the personal to embrace the national. The question now is whether people who could not put aside their petty issues to work as a team could reach any level of cooperation to bring about national healing.

In our traditional setting, under the palava hut – now Peace Hut – elders judge quarrels and misunderstandings. Everyone trusts their judgment, based on a lifelong experience. They don’t allow their personal feelings to get involved when they are seeking the truth. Their decisions and judgments are accepted by all because they are “after any personal gain” in the process. In order words, their age and the wisdom they acquired put them above suspicion. The South African TRC worked mostly because nobody could doubt the sincerity and impartiality of Bishop Desmond Tutu.

The other problem facing the Reconciliation process comes from the fact that for the past few weeks, the leadership of the TRC has introduced another word that was not its mandate and that is the word “justice.” This had led to speculation that the TRC was recommending and emphasizing the establishment of a war crimes tribunal. The mandate of the Commission, inscribed in its name, was to find the truth about our national upheaval and lead us onto a path of national reconciliation. It may be that Liberians, after knowing the truth, could decide to seek justice or simply move on.

We believe that the truth about what happened between 1979 and 2003 is yet to be told on many levels. We have heard personal stories from many Liberians, including the President but we are far from knowing the truth.

We do not know who did what on the fateful day called the Rice Riots in 1979. We do not know how many people were killed and who gave the order to shoot. We do not know who actually killed President William Tolbert. Conspiracy theories abound in all directions. Was Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe really the mastermind behind the coup? Why then, on the morning of the coup, after the President was “assassinated” – the exact word used in the first press statement read by Samuel K. Doe – were the soldiers wrangling about leadership? If we fast forward to 1985, we may ask who funded the Thomas Quiwonkpa coup attempt. Who helped Charles Taylor escape from jail? Who financed his movements in the sub-region as he traveled and organized his military group? How did he get to Burkina Faso and Libya?

Beyond those issues, we must also find out the level of responsibility of other state agents: Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Libya, Nigeria, Guinea, France and the United States. Who did what and when? In each of those countries, there are people who have taken active part in what happened. For example, what is the level of responsibility of Burkina Faso and Libya who made no secret about training and arming Charles Taylor? What kind of relationship existed between General Ibrahim Babanginda and President Samuel Doe? Why did Herman Cohen, the then Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at the US State Department “re-assured President Houphouet-Boigny that the war would not spill over and would be contained inside Liberia?” Mr. Amara Essy who affirmed this fact was Foreign Minister of Cote d’Ivoire and in charge of the Liberian dossier and is well and alive. The questions are many and their responses could lead Liberians to understand what happened to their country.

The primary condition for reconciliation is the truth, not necessarily justice. After a fight of any sort, two people can decide to reconcile, especially after each recognizes their part of responsibility. There is always the possibility of one party deciding to go to justice. If Liberians do not know the truth about what happened how could they reconcile? Is justice more important than national reconciliation? What is the ultimate objective of the TRC? Is-it in its mandate to lead Liberia towards a war crimes tribunal or a genuine reconciliation process?

There is no way to prejudge an event that is yet to take place. The National Reconciliation Conference could lead to another stage in our search for the truth… Maybe, one resolution could be that we must go back to the drawing board and start all over. We deserve to know the truth, the whole truth before we can reconcile or taken anyone to court…

© 2009 by The Perspective

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