Final notes on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Series

by Damilola Daramola

In reflecting on the real (Liberia and Ghana) and potential (Kenya, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and the US) effects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, a few things are present across the board:
Although the TRCs have been created to facilitate an atmosphere to air out the wrongs rooted in the past, there is yet to be an agreement on the progress that these commissions are making. As Samuel Johnson mentioned in the introduction of the series, the hardest part is “ensuring reconciliation and establishing justice.” How is reconciliation ensured and justice established? An example was examined in the case of Liberia, where the TRC recommended that current president be banned from public office due to her previous efforts in the civil war. The question will have to be asked: Is her role in the civil war far more damaging than what she has achieved now as the first woman head of state in Africa? After all, it would appear that by winning the previous elections, her efforts are a step forward in the bigger picture of rebuilding the country. How will justice be established in this situation without destroying the rebuilding process?
In examining the possible effects of TRCs in Kenya, Maingi Solomon raised the issue of unbiased commissions when politics in Kenya (and most parts of Africa) is heavily ethnocentric. Is it possible for a TRC to be established and implemented when the divisions are based more on ethnic roots than rational political ideologies? As was discussed in the article, prior political parties had been formed on the basis of a temporary pact between two (or more) ethnic groups. The leader of one group is elected to the presidency and sooner or later reneges on the pact and continues to assign positions based on ethnicities rather than actual qualifications. As such, when acts that violate human rights are perpetrated, ensuring reconciliation will have to begin with reconciliation among the varying ethnic groups. The issue with that is there is usually one ethnic group which has always been in a position of power. Can reconciliation occur without that particular ethnic group giving up its apparent position of privilege? A case, not discussed within the series but worthy of mention, is the Nigerian Civil War where the Ibo people wanted to separate from the Federal Republic due to persecution by the northerners. If a TRC was established in Nigeria, would one of the requirements be that an electable candidate from Eastern Nigeria descent be placed on the ballot of a major party? After all, the Nigerian presidents since the Civil War have either come from the North or the West. Or would that be equating reconciliation with political representation? In addition, is there true reconciliation without a structural change such as the presence of the Ibos in national governance?
One of the major points of contention is the role that current leaders play in the success of implementing a TRC. Although this commission should be separate from the political leadership of the country, the nation’s leader at the time of establishing the TRC is also relevant. The leader at the time might be on the end of justice or injustice depending on their ethnicity or position during the war/ moment of human rights violations. It is relevant that the leadership not only acknowledge that the wrongs committed should be righted, but that the leader also ensure that the country’s other leaders submit to recommendations of the commission. As Tawanda Sachinkoye mentioned in his article, it is important to the leaders, be it political or ethnic, be prepared to take the leading steps in not only acknowledging the wrongs but also apply consistent and genuine efforts towards justice. This brings us back to the role that current Liberian president ought to play in the TRC’s findings that implicate her in the preceding civil war. If there is to be a breakaway from the violations committed, shouldn’t she then be willing to admit and then subject herself to the TRCs rulings?
Although it would seem that the hardest part of the success of TRCs will depend on ensuring reconciliation and establishing justice, Andy Ofori-Birikorang’s article is a reminder that the truth telling part in itself could also be tainted. Borrowing from Siphokazi’s comments on the article, the media within a country is as polarized as the politics of the country itself. Hence, the reports that are made available can be swayed depending on the side that the particular medium is on. In comparing this to U.S. politics, there will be a sway depending on whether the news report being given is from FOX or MSNBC. There is a Latin phrase that says “Who will guard the guardians” i.e. if the media is expected to be unbiased, who will ensure that they remain that way? The question has to be asked if the reports of the hearings that are made available to the general public are unadulterated. Even if the truths told are not being swayed by the media, how can the media convey the thoughts of the citizens without passing their thoughts on the process? The point here is not objective commentary, but rather balanced commentary that does not paint who becomes the enemy as the Ghanaian media according to Andy advocated.  Are we then surprised that even the crisis that led to the coup this January in Madagascar began with the closure of the television stations owned by Andry Rajoelina, the disc jockey who has since risen to power? What does the TRC in Madagascar look like? As Domoina pointed out, the establishment of a TRC in Madagascar is as good as another soap-opera.
Finally, Merrian Brooks examined the issues that would originate were a TRC formed in the United States to deal with the events that happened in the civil rights era and prior. Although some of the events mentioned in that article were more recent (1960s), some of the ills go back to the times of the American Civil War (1860s) when the Confederate States argued that a ban on slave ownership would violate their rights as American citizens. In the end, one has to wonder how the passage of time affects the impact and revelations of a TRC. How can the actions of the slave masters on the slaves, the United States on the Native Americans, Nazi Germany on the Jews, higher caste members on lower caste members in India and so on be reconciled with present times when the perpetrators of these acts have long passed away? Although, future generations will never be made to forget the horrors of the past primarily because the conditions that haunt their communities echoes the injustices of yesterday.
In the end, it is relevant that the past be revisited as often as possible so that generations to come are reminded of the wrongs that have happened in history, the question will always be how the truth is revealed and how the justice that these revelations require will be enacted. For Africa and its countries’ trapped in Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” the quest for justice and a reconciled nation is not an option but a necessity.

Damilola Daramola is a Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Center for Electrochemical Engineering at Ohio University, USA, where he conducts research on hydrogen production from wastes like ammonia and urea. He received his Doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering from Ohio University and frequently writes on personal growth and science.

Twitter LinkedIn 

5 Responses to Final notes on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Series

  1. As nations progress there is definitely a need to learn from the past hopefully people learn to work together for the sake of the country's economic development and advancement of humankind. Even as individuals we continue to reflect on the past as we move forward with our lives. The problem in the continent is the sense of entitlement that lead to some of the shame we have brought to the mother continent. This week I was impressed by the judges of Mo Ibrahim prize, unlike with the nobel prize case. If nobody deserves a prize it should not be given out just because it has to be bestowed. I had hope that Mbeki and Kufor would share the prize, but as I do my analysis they fell short by a narrow margin. This is a lesson to be learned instead of bequeathing the baton to some undeserving stand up comics.

  2. Impressive summary Dammy, and I like that you bring up the issue of the Igbo and the Biafra war.Not only is it worth mentioning, it is also critical for a discussion especially looking at the national structure that you present. So why is it that the Igbo's do not participate? Also, I have always wondered about the 'WAZOBIA'- if I am correct, it stands for three major groups? How is this perceived by the minority groups?

  3. I remember talking to a very wise commissioner in the Rwandan Truth Commission who chuckled as he labelled the South African TRC as "Hollywood reconciliation". While, in comparison the Rwandan TRC was rooted in traditional structures of justice the Gacaca courts, clearly far less glamorous than Desmond Tutu's impassioned speeches infront of the flashing cameras! Mamdani says that you can't have it all. You either have to choose justice or peace. Hence he also argues that Rwanda represents justice without reconciliaiton while South Africa represents the opposite. He is right! But the 'truth' of the matter is as we have seen in the cases above is that the country needs both.

    If justice is not found for the Kenyans who were brutalised in the elections of 1992, 1997 and 2008, what are we to expect in the next elections? Will we claim to be surprised at another occurence of violence? The Liberians will be having elections in 2011, is at a surprise that the secretary general of the UN has asked for the UN forces not to move out of Liberia as yet? Mind you these forces have been there since 2003. I have no answers!

  4. Honestly if I had to choose between justice vs. peace I think I will go for PEACE becaue in some corners in the continent we need peace. Once we have been able to bring peace and stability then we can start dialogues hoping that governments will take those outcomes into consideration. Don't get me wrong some people need to check-in in Den Haag. The "Hollywood Reconcilliation" has no place in the continent as people become overnight celebraties and climb the box office chart at a speed of light off course bring millions of tax-payers hard earned cash to their families. Until we realize how misinformed or oblivious we are then our beautiful continent is in trouble.

  5. In response to your question Bose, I am not sure how the minority groups feel about this since I am not in the minority. Even if I were, I wouldn't be able to correctly capture the feeling of everyone. What I would say is that most of the friction in the country comes more from religion and less from ethnic groups. For the most part the country has lived in peace along the lines of differences in language. Apart from the ugly episode of Biafra, there are few incidents relating to ethnicities. In the end, the word "Nigerian" is celebrated amongst all. That is not to say that minority groups are not maligned.
    I also agree with the justice vs peace statement. There will be differing opinions on which is more relevant, but we should remember that there are less lives lost in peace than in the form of justice. Just as the prisons do not always work in reforming people who disobey the laws, justice often represents little more than vengeance.
    In the end, the past is there as a warning with the hope that revelations lead to people working together as a community.

Leave a reply