Addressing Some Of the Foundational Challenges Of Our Quest For Post-Conflict Renewal


(A Speech Delivered By Dr. Amos C. Sawyer At The Launching of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on June 22, 2006)


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 24, 2006


Madam President, Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker and Members of the Legislature, Mr. Chief Justice and Justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia, Mr. Chairman and members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, members of the cabinet, members of the diplomatic corps, prelates and religious leaders, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, fellow citizens of Liberia

Today we bring to the forefront the most difficult, delicate and painful part of our post-conflict reconstruction program. For a quarter of a century, our country has experienced intermittent conflicts and a brutal war. During this period, we have had three national elections (in 1985, 1997 and 2005). And yet elections have not been sufficient to set us on the course to recovery and reconstruction. We have had scores of judicial seminars and legislative training workshops—in the last 5 months alone, we have had at least 3 legislative training seminars. All of these exercises are designed to help us do our work better. Yet all of them can have only limited impact if we remain in the grips of trauma and divided by bitter memories, and by the scars of war and of history.

The most important of the missing links in our quest for recovery and reconstruction up to now has been a much-needed soul-searching exercise in which we as Liberians strive to reaffirm our common humanity and restore our dignity and build our community. We need to look each other in the eyes (eyeball to eyeball), explore our individual and collective wrongdoings, examine our past and find common grounds to develop trusting relationships among ourselves and to forge ahead to a common future. Mr. Chairman and Members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is your task to help us find our way forward on the path to reconciliation and healing and to a common future. Let me congratulate each of you for taking on this assignment and wish you God’s speed.

But let me quickly say to all of us—especially to those of us who might find it convenient to shift the task of working for reconciliation and healing wholly to this Commission—let me say that as important as this Commission is in helping us on the path to reconciliation and healing, national reconciliation cannot be achieved through the initiatives of a single entity, it can only be achieved through processes that involve all of our institutions and all of our people, working together over time to address the range of relationships that are considered by various groups of Liberians to be grievously unjust and unfair. In this sense, every Liberian has a duty to work for reconciliation and every governance activity—from how we support our cultural organizations to how we organize our security forces—must be designed and implemented with a view to contributing to national reconciliation. In other words, reconciliation is only achievable over time by us, ourselves and through the quality of governance we are able to sustain in all areas—lest we deceive ourselves by seeing the TRC as a one-stop shopping center, a quick fixer and a miracle performer.

We do, however, look to the TRC for leadership in helping us address some of the foundational challenges of our quest for post-conflict renewal. 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. Let me outline a few here for our consideration:

Let us look at some of the challenges that stem from our civil war and the last quarter century of intermittent conflicts.

One of the first challenges we face in this regard is to gain as full and comprehensive an understanding of our conflicts as possible. Liberians and others have written about various aspects of these conflicts; yet there are several fundamental questions that need to be answered: For example, we still do not have a systematic and scientific study of the critical foundational issues underlying conflicts in our country. We still do not have a scientific understanding of the dynamics of conflict processes and the factors that have driven these processes. In this regard, we still cannot fully explain the behavior of some of the perpetrators: what accounted for the nature and level of atrocities, the role of perpetrators in burning down their own villages and towns, the assaults on elders and on hospitals and clinics—including those used by the perpetrators themselves. Understanding these will help us to come to terms with the darker side of our human potential and the perversity to which human capital can be used here in Liberia. Understanding these would help us know the beast within us all, and would underscore the compelling need to cage it and help us develop ways to do so.

There are other challenges about gaining a fuller understanding of our conflicts. One such challenge is to know the magnitude of the human toll of our conflicts. We still do not know how many people perished in our civil war. We hear estimates ranging from 200,000 to 300,000. Could we do better and come up with more precise estimates as available science and technology would allow us? Then, there is the question of who were the dead? We should want to know who they were? What were the circumstances of their deaths? And we need to decide on an appropriate way to memorialize them and all those who have fallen in a quarter century of conflicts. Mr. Chairman, the TRC might want to consider taking the lead in helping us address these issues. Through your aegis, our scholars and writers can be encouraged to help us gain a deeper understanding of our conflict; our statisticians, demographers and forensic scientists, in cooperation with international colleagues and with the support of the international community, can undertake this task.

Then there are challenges having to do with how we address wrongdoings associated with the period of intermittent conflict and the civil war. Needless to say, we cannot apply a blanket one-size-fit-all approach to addressing these wrongdoings. Some of these wrongdoings rose to the level of atrocities. In post-conflict societies such as ours, we need to address each situation of wrongdoing in a specific— if not a unique way. However, a common principle that should apply in addressing all situations of wrongdoing is that our quest for reconciliation must be accompanied by a quest for justice. But we must also ensure that the quest for justice take different forms and pursues different goals as would be appropriate to meet the needs of victims as well as the needs of society as a whole.

We have learned from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his colleagues of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission that it is possible that reconciliation can be pursued with a view to achieving retributive justice or to restoring relationships or both. Your task, Mr. Chairman, members of the TRC is to guide our collective judgment in determining in what cases should the need to address impunity be considered a compelling requirement for national reconciliation and in which cases it should not. Fortunately, you can be guided both by international norms as well as by a sense of public morality. What is very important here is that you display a good sense of proportion such that your quest to address impunity does not diminish the prospects for restoration and healing. Or that your strong desire to ensure peace and national harmony does not incur a cost of unwittingly condoning impunity. In your search for balance, you have available to you the good sense of the Liberian people. Please consult with them. Let me also remind you, that you have a range of tools available to you for reconciliation and healing. Many of them are embedded in our culture. We must use them also.

Among the challenges of reconciliation stemming from or exacerbated by war are the ethnic and communal conflicts that have pitted one group of Liberians against another in many parts of our country and called into question the “Liberianess of some of us. We have Mano and Gio versus Mandingo in Nimba; Loma versus Mandingo in Lofa; the muted Kru versus Sapo conflict in Sinoe; the Grebo versus Krahn antagonisms that have long existed in Grand Gedeh and contributed to the creation of River Gee County. With your leadership, we can deepen our understandings of these antagonisms and sustain our attention to them so that we would be able to dispassionately explore a range of appropriate approaches to addressing them. We may not complete the task under your leadership but we could get off to a solid start.

Mr. Chairman, 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 need to revisit our national symbols has been raised but dismissed several times over the last half century. Our national motto, “The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here,” has been a source of controversy, if not alienation, for several generations of Liberians. Thirty years ago when I was a young professor at the University of Liberia, a student of the University of Liberia proposed that we consider an adjustment to the motto so that it would read thus: “The Love of Liberty Unite Us Here.” More recently a young Liberian poet proposed a similar adjustment.

Mr. Chairman, Members of the TRC, these are not esoteric or irrelevant issues. They have to do with our identity and the identities we assigned to our compatriots and with how we interact among ourselves. They influence how we shape our vision, define our mission and develop a national agenda.

The last challenge I like to raise here has to do with the challenge that years of conflict have posed for the youth and children of our country. The young people of our country have been both the instruments of violence as well as the greatest victims of violence. In spite of this tragic situation, many of them have become exemplary citizens and wonderful role models. Yet, we have a profound challenge to rescue our youth and children by restoring our families and communities, planting good values, putting our resources into our educational, training and rehabilitation programs, among other measures.

All of this requires human and financial resources, among others. The greatest resource of all will have to be the resolve of the Liberian people to pursue a course of reconciliation and healing and to build anew. We urge government’s support for the work of this commission even if initially meager; and we call upon the international community to help us support a Liberian-owned and driven process of national reconciliation and healing.

Mr. Chairman, some may think that by opening up a public discourse on fundamental questions about the wrongs we have committed against each other and how to transcend our differences, you would be opening up a pandora’s box. I submit to you that we will be much better off opening up the closets, airing out the linens, struggling to find a way forward than to keep the closets closed and let rumors, bitterness and division continue to find fertile grounds. One of our major shortcomings as a people is that we have not had sufficient forums for constructive deliberation and critical self-examination. We have been quick in dispensing labels to those who dare raise questions and to gloss over profound issues. And where those forums have existed, we have not always used them constructively. I know this very well. In the past, many of us (including myself) who raised questions may have spoken so loudly that we drowned out some and scared others. But there were others who spoke in such a whisper and so timidly that they had very limited impact on the debate or were not heard at all. And for the majority of us, we remained silent and acquiescent. Some of us were too busy trying to survive and some of us we too busy enjoying the spoils of the land. And so we all ended up in a tragedy of historic proportion. And none of us can escape blame.

And so Mr. Chairman, members of the TRC, Madam President and fellow Liberians, we have an opportunity to make this commission, above all else, an important national forum for constructive critical self-examination and reflection and for the exploration of bold ideas as to how we can heal our wounds, construct our country and enrich our common heritage. We embrace you Mr. Chairman and members of the Commission as you help lead us in this endeavor. Congratulations. God bless us all.