The Liberian TRC: Shocks and Shortcomings

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 09, 2009


If the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) were attempting to shock the world and put itself on the front pages for a few days, it mightily succeeded. One would have expected that after many contradictions in the course of the past years of its operation, the TRC would have looked for a sober way to make its final breath more relevant to the process of national reconciliation. Rather, like an actor who does not want to leave the stage, it tried to enflame the theater before making an exit.

Just a fortnight ago, we wrote that the TRC faced credibility challenges because of the way it conducted itself in public as well as how it organized its work. The calling of a last hour “national reconciliation conference” without the involvement of the government – that includes the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary- was indicative of the contradictions the TRC faced in delivering its mandate. The organization of the conference without other stakeholders pointed to the fact that the Commission sought relevance foremost in seeing itself as functioning in a vacuum and operating in opposition to the government and its three branches.

Now that the Report of its work has been released, it is easy to surmise why others were not invited to take part in the organization and the setting of an agenda for the conference. The outcomes of the conference, including its recommendations are almost identical to those published in the Report. This shows that the TRC had long decided to indict many in the government. It would have been difficult to prepare the indictment with the accused in the room.

The report, as released caused shocks in Liberia and elsewhere in the world, bringing New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof to ask the question as to how President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf could be included in a list for a war crimes tribunal? He still has a few things to learn about Liberia.

President Sirleaf herself admitted that as member of the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL) – she provided $10,000 to the then National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). She admitted her support for the NPFL at the beginning but withdrew that support when faced with the wanton destruction and killing by the NPFL troops. Others on the list admitted to playing various roles at different times in the conflict years, some more believable than others. A real national conference, organized by all the stakeholders would have been able to determine the way forward.

The TRC Report may have shocked many but what it achieved mostly was to expose its own shortcomings. The release of an “unedited” document in the public domain constitutes the first of those handicaps. There is a difference between “a draft document” and an “unedited document.” A draft is usually a text the writer is satisfied with and wants to seek comments and suggestions from other readers. An “unedited document” is something that was written but was not reviewed, both in terms of style, content and structure. It is as if the TRC “leaked” its own document, to see the reaction of the public.

The TRC was part of Liberia postwar governance process. No matter how self-determining it was meant to be, it was not expected to operate in a vacuum. The Liberian war had a historical context. This will never be repeated enough. The 1980 military coup with its barbaric undertones epitomized the oppression the majority of the people of the nation had endured for more than a century. The 1989 NPFL invasion was welcomed because Samuel Doe had ceased to be a “redeemer” and turned into a tyrant. The ouster of the NPFL/NPP government in 2003 had regional and global implications but the survival of the Liberian people remained central. Between those chaotic moments, disparate groups of Liberians had to fight for survival.

The TRC was to connect the dots and charter a way forward. Rather, it fell into petty personal issues and set itself on the course of vindication, political compromises and grandstanding.

The international community, especially those of its members dedicating themselves to saving us against ourselves became important players in the process and saw our crisis as their own. Since 2005, members of that community have looked down on some Liberian elected officials. The question seemed to be “How could this person occupy an elected position?” rather than “What made people to elect this person as their spokesperson?” This is Liberia and this is what its people have decided in 2005.

Liberians have yet to take ownership of their own destiny. They have yet to accept primary responsibility to design a course for their nation in History. There is still a dangerous dependency mentality that undercuts our ability to move ahead.

Hundreds of thousands had to die to get us where we are. Was Tolbert right in killing kids protesting in the streets and smashing windows of the stores where they could never shop? Was Doe right in overthrowing an elected government that only catered to a minority? Was Taylor right in taking up arms against a government that has stopped representing the aspirations of the people? How guilty or innocent are those peripheral fighters such as Prince Y. Johnson, Alhaji Kromah and George Boley in taking up arms to save or avenge their kinships?

The TRC gave Liberia a draft to work from. The draft needs to be edited and translated into a language that all Liberians understand. The content will have to address the concerns of all Liberians, not just the wishes of a handful.

The country has been at war from the Day One of its creation. The Commission has created a great catalogue but came short on its analysis, findings and forward looking strategy to bring Liberians together. The book written by the TRC can serve for many things but it comes short as far as two of its most important responsibilities: finding the Truth and Reconciling Liberians.

The TRC deserves commendations for its work. Liberia as a nation now has to take this tremendous body of labor and use it as a transformational tool.

© 2009 by The Perspective

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