“All Liberians are victims of the civil war whether directly or indirectly,” according to a government official, two years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report.
The final report determined that Liberia suffered a normative state collapse. In total, 250,000 people were reportedly killed and over 203 massacre sites and mass graves are scattered across the country.
In that report, Liberian political elites are held responsible for the destruction and violence. While the official remarks appeared to be a generalization, it was essentially a deliberate calculation to obscure the official narrative.
On 30 June 2009, Liberia experienced a watershed moment when the TRC final report was released.
The report made wide ranging recommendations on prosecution, lustration, and reparations among others. The report was greeted with euphoria and optimism.
Its impact was popular and the public divided into two categories; those who supported victims and civil society or those who sympathized with the alleged perpetrators and political elites.
The latter group was small and stigmatized. Seven years on, the former has shrunk, the latter has grown. Now there is a third category evolving; those who are indifferent toward the TRC Report, apathetic about its utility and promise for the future.
This last group represents an interesting part of Liberia’s postwar demographics, those born during the 1990-2003 conflict yet too young to remember the violence. Their collective memory is limited and the preventative value of “Never Again” means little.
Unlike other countries where experiences of genocide or violent conflict are processed and packaged through memorials, textbooks, theatre, drama, and others, the Liberian experience and lessons remain untouched.
Group knowledge of the war is largely based on unstructured oral history and distorted memories. The tendency to obscure the official narrative in the interest of a small group is counterproductive and a potential threat to security.
In early 2010, during initial efforts to design reparation and propose policy options, political elites responded that all Liberians were directly or indirectly victimized. These same individuals felt rolling out a reparative scheme would at best be ambitious and at worst problematic, opening space for confusion.
Though this generalization was perhaps a nuanced reading of the context, the message had other motives. It was targeted at indirect victims with the view of pacification. Liberians who considered themselves indirect victims lost loved one, suffered trauma and torture but have somehow managed ‘to move on.’
This includes government ministers, civil society leaders and youth. Like other contexts, Liberia’s experience has assembled a hierarchy of victims; those who were victimized and able to self-rehabilitate and move on contrasted with direct victims who carry a special burden but feel trapped unless the state can unlock them and set them on a path of full recovery.
Instead of forging cooperation and solidarity, the relationship between these two groups has become tense. Indirect victims tend to view themselves as strong and hardworking and consider direct victims to be lazy, beggars and potential troublemakers.
I spent two years working with the Liberian Governance Commission. I observed that opposition to the TRC Report has become a form of groupthink. In my interactions across ministries, agencies and commissions, I observed officials were either critical or silent.
There were officials who previously supported the TRC Report but recanted when taking a government position. When called to speak at functions or discuss peacebuilding or reconciliation, officials often discuss their personal victimization and losses during the conflict.
Their admissions are often germane but their statements are deeply rhetorical without commitment to reparations. The undertone can be summarized as: I am a victim like you but look where I am and who I’ve become, you certainly don’t need the TRC Report to move on, put the past in the past and let’s move on.
The undercurrent is a post-TRC revisionism, whereby political elites and their principals, and alleged perpetrators are more favorable to the script of collective amnesia because it has capability of dismantling the official narrative.
A new counter narrative emphasizes that though many bad things happened, alleged perpetrators should not be judge by their past, but rather by the present and their promise to do better. The Government of Liberia is the country’s largest employer.
For political advancement, appropriating this narrative has become a new form of patronage in order to integrate. Mention of reparations and deliberate measures of reconciliation cannot exist within this narrative.
The danger of this form of revisionism is its perceived goal; to reimage and reinvent those who are presented in the report as villains into ‘heroes’ or ‘peacemakers.’
This revisionism is more preoccupied with transforming perceptions around a small group of individuals, rather than using this moment to discuss socially how to prevent violence from reoccurring through concrete reparative or reconciliatory measures.
The TRC Report should not be embraced primarily because it threatened to put jail a few people, but for how it prescribes measures for nation building, creating an inclusive history and fostering social both physical and relational.
Liberia has made tremendous progress over the last decade and it is significantly transformed from a war-ravaged nation to a country on the rebound.
Socially, the country is seeking healing but remains divided over how the past should be addressed. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf observation that, “Liberia is at peace but not at peace with itself” is an accurate summary of the current predicament.
Her statement possibly foreshadows a future if Liberia’s past is obscured and truth distorted, where progress will be drowned by the weight of the past. Until there is a state-led consensus, society will remain divided by those who opposed it, those who support it, and the uncertain and confused 1990-2003 generation.
Without critical lessons of “Never Again,” the 1990-2003 generation may eventually accept violence as method to restress conflict. As the children of indirect and direct victims, they’ve been raised with conflicting narratives of revisionist politics and desperate attempts at reparations as form of healing.
On 30 June 2016—the anniversary of the TRC 2009 report—when the United Nations Mission in Liberia transferred security to the Liberian Government, the corresponding fear and anxiety are echoes of unfinished business.
That echo reflected the symbolism of 30 June and invokes mixed reactions of hope over postwar development and uncertainty over social accountability, reconciliation and reparations.
Aaron Weah, Contributing Writer