Can The TRC Bring True Reconciliation?


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 30, 2006


The induction of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was hailed as a milestone in Liberia’s road to peace and stability. It was the last tenet of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) signed in Accra in 2003 and that brought an end to the cycle of violence. The Sirleaf government deserves commendations for bringing the TRC on the front burner and finding the initial funding along with the UNDP and other donor agencies to kick-off the process.

Ellen With TRC Members
In a perfect world, perpetrators of hideous crimes and their victims would all stand in line and open their hearts to speak the truth. The perpetrators would confess their crimes and the victims would talk about their suffering and would then forgive their perpetrators. They would embrace, cry some and return home to their daily activities and Liberia will be a land of peaceful people.

However attractive its name and mission may sound, the TRC will be confronted to structural hurdles on its way to success, with some of those challenges predating its establishment.

Between a war crimes tribunal and a copycat of the South African “tell all and move on” forum, Liberia decided to adopt the latter. The decision was reached in Accra in June 2003, in the heat of the war during the negotiations that lead to the CPA. The two groups who negotiated to insert the institution of a TRC in the peace agreement should have never been allowed to discuss the issue. Some of the participants sought to continue the status quo and argued for a blanket amnesty for the wars. To defeat candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Accra, the argument used by the opposition was that she planned to bring a war crimes tribunal to put all warlords on trial. The same was again used against her in the 2005 campaign and she had to publicly announce that she would follow the terms of the CPA that called for a TRC.

The warring factions bargained hard to kill any agreement that would have made them to face a war crimes tribunal, while the politicians were courting the leaders of the warring factions to head the next government. The real victims of the war had never had any saying in that decision.

The choice between a war crimes tribunal and a TRC should have been postponed until after elections. Ideally, under the present conditions and by 2007, Liberians could have decided, through a referendum, how to look back on the war and made a rational decision.

Beyond the fact that it was conceived by political leaders and warring factions engaged in political bargain – most of the politicians had no experience of the war and the leaders of the warring factions were mostly cell phone generals who masterminded the war from abroad - the commission faces other great challenges that could impede its success, if not simply render it totally useless.

Financial Challenges
The first critical challenge facing the TRC will be that of financing. Unlike the Elections Commission where hundreds of NGOs and the UN as well as the European Union had vested interest, the TRC is not an “exciting” issue with palpable results that would produce a winner. After all, the biggest culprit of the war Charles Taylor is in the hands of the UN. There are neither clear villains nor victims in a country where people have a natural tendency to want to forget as quickly as possible. Falling somewhere between national psychotherapy and political carnival, the TRC will find it difficult to raise the $10 million it needs to carry out its task. It could be wiser to spend that amount to strengthen the judiciary and security forces and invest in farms and schools.

The period to be covered by the TRC is a structural problem that could make its work irrelevant. The fact that the TRC would only address itself to events that occurred between 1979 and 2003 is tantamount to attacking the symptoms rather than looking at the core of the problems. The massive killings, looting and destruction that occurred during those years of national madness were simply the effects of what occurred between 1824 and 1979. The Rice Riots of 1979, the 1980 Military Coup and the 1989 NPFL Invasion are all parts a normal reaction to social conditions that had reached their points of saturation. If the TRC cannot go to the sources of these outbursts, it will simply be reduced to fighting the smoke while ignoring the fire still burning.

The period 1979 – 2003 marked the point of saturation of social tensions that exploded. The explosion- like a balloon blowing up under pressure – occurred because the governing body used coercion and violence rather than allowing outlets for relief and adjustment as was suggested by those who sought change through “democratic means,” such as D. Tweh, Morias, Porte, Sawyer, Tipoteh and others. The violence of 1979 – 2003 was a by-product of structural contradictions still intact. The old social inequities that led to the rice riots, the military coup and the multiple invasions have to be revisited for Liberia to move on.

Going Beyond The Symbols
As a social scientist, the keynote speaker at the launching of the TRC, Dr. Amos Sawyer, alluded to the need to go into the past beyond the 1979 line drawn in the sand. He said: “Some of these challenges are directly associated with the intermittent conflicts and brutal civil war of the last quarter century; many run deeper into our history—as far back as to our founding…” Dr. Sawyer says that “some” of the challenges are associated with the conflicts of 1979 – 2003 but he adds that “many” of the challenges are things unresolved from as far back as the founding of Liberia. The comparison must be here between “some” and “many” and the latter carries more weight. It means simply that many of the problems that brought Liberia to its knees have to do with the foundation of the nation.

Dr. Sawyer, who pointed out in his speech that Liberians like to gloss over serious problems to find quick fix solutions cited as an example of things to revisit the motto of the republic: “The Love Of Liberty Brought US Here.” This sentence, written on every official document and landmark in the nation, precludes any ownership of the state by 95 percent of Liberians.

The destruction of state properties during the war and the massive killing of people who worked for government were indicative of the alienation of the great majority of Liberians towards government. Dr. Sawyer asked this question when he wondered why people fighting for “liberation” were destroying everything on their way, including their own villages. It is because most Liberians viewed the government as belonging to a small clique in Monrovia that collects taxes, rides big cars and sends their children to school in Geneva, London or the US while there is no chalk or textbook in the classrooms in Monrovia, Fishtown or Robertsport.

It is Also About Economics, Religion and the Laws
The sources of the conflict are also embedded in issues that have to do with land tenure. Over the years, tribal lands were confiscated and appropriated by individuals when not simply sold to concessions. The biggest landowners in Liberia today are former “settlers” or descendants of a few natives who collaborated with the past exploitative regimes. The original owners of these lands are still alive, although most may have been displaced. Someday, their descendants will seek to take control of the government in order to regain their ancestral lands. Therefore, until the land issue is resolved, Liberia may still have another war coming. Unless, of course, if the TRC were to go beyond its boundaries.

Symbols of power in Liberia are still embedded in cultural borrowings from the US, such as the Christian religion and the English language. The religion of the minority group has become a de-facto state religion in a country where the majority of people goes to neither church nor to a mosque. This negation of the system of belief is source of a latent conflict and could lead to violent reaction. Government functions are still opened and closed with prayers in languages – English or Arabic – that the most Liberians don’t understand.

The laws in Liberia are archaic. The existence of the customary and the statutory law institutes two nations. It creates sets of judiciaries only applicable to a certain group of people, with the Chief Executive of the Republic as the sole link between the two groups, standing separate and unequal.

By evoking the issue of symbols, Dr. Sawyer was - subtly - inviting Liberians to go beyond the isolated actions – no matter how horrific – that took place in a determined period and look at the root causes of the conflict. Short of this, the TRC would only be a smoke screen that would try to cure cancer with a band-aid.

Liberians have rarely taken time to reflect deeply on their state of being and find solution. The country has been in survival mode for a very long time. Liberians seem to always want to forget the past and move on. The oldest African republic has never had a single public library or a real bookstore in her entire history. It seems that the country wants to always forget what happened yesterday. The fact that the National Archives built by Samuel Doe was destroyed and looted after the war and then taken over by the National Investment Commission is indicative of how much Liberians wants the past.

As conceived, and as set to function, the TRC could just turn out to be just a national neurotic carnival notwithstanding the great men and women that make up its membership and the goodwill of the support of a government that campaigned on a reform agenda. As Tiawan Gongloe once said, when the foundation is faulty, everything goes wrong. There could be no better closure that these words from Dr. Sawyer’s keynote speech at the launching of the TRC:

“Some of the challenges that confront us have their roots in the process of state building that was experienced in Liberia, the historical narratives we adopt about it and symbols we project about our country and ourselves. As many of these are rooted in nineteenth century realities—and may have had their positive uses in earlier times, they tend, today, to promote exclusion and exacerbate division and, therefore, need to be reviewed. The story of Liberia is presented in our history books solely as an endless struggle between two homogenous and antagonistic political communities. History written this way cannot serve the purposes of reconciliation and healing.”

The TRC may be the greatest challenge for Liberians to move forward. Will they take advantage of it or will it be “business as usual,” to paraphrase Gyude Bryant.

© 2006 by The Perspective

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: