Understanding Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Dilemma
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was created from the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), signed in 2003 in Accra, Ghana.
Following 14 years of civil war, the TRC mandate was sample: to dig out the root causes of the civil war and recommend safeguards against its recurrence. That meant recommending mechanism for historical cleansing as well as eliminating the “falsehoods” in the Liberian history.
On June 10, 2005, the TRC Act was approved and by 2008 the Commission began active work—holding public hearings after a period of assembling witness and collecting their testimonies. By 2009, the Commission had collected the testimonies of 22,000 witnesses—men and women everywhere in Liberia, from Kpasagisia in Lofa to Wrobone Town in Rivercess.
Finally, on June 15, 2009, the TRC held a national conference at the historical Unity Conference Center in Virginia, Montserrado County. That was the last of several consultations with Liberians home and the Diaspora, the final gathering before the release of its report that sparked the biggest controversy in postwar Liberia. Three hundred and fifty people attended the decisive conference, representing every sector of Liberia—civil society, women’s groups, youths, political parties, the government and the Diaspora.
Quite frankly, the fate of the TRC was foreseeable, glaring. It came as no surprise that the recommendations of the Commission died a natural death. First, the Commission faced the culture of “let bygone be bygone”. Many saw that the TRC was digging out old wounds, counterproductive to the then just few years of peace, brokered only after years of bloodlust that saw an estimated 300,000 deaths.
A 2009 Talking Drum Studio survey—few weeks to the release of the final report—showed that more than three in five Liberians, including Cllr. Winston Tubman, did not support the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission.
While deviance with this part of the Liberian cultural value saw general rebuke, the political version of this incomparability drew even stiffer, hasher and fiercer condemnations. No politician proved worthy of a political concession. It would be a suicide for many in the corridors of government.
A scandal involving inconsistent witnesses or a brawl with jittery politicians, all of those proved insurmountable for the poor TRC. Why would it be a surprise when upon its final report the TRC turned the country topsy-turvy as if an earthquake had erupted?
Mandated by the CPA, the government supported the TRC process alongside support from aid groups. The Commission with its nine commissioners found it difficult operating between playing to the whims and caprices of the government and being that strict, defiant cry for justice.
It found itself between condemning warlords and perpetrators, and victims who did not appreciate it in the first place. Those nine commissioners and scores of staff working in all 15 counties were given the toughest job ever in the history of Liberia. It was a nightmarish dilemma but not a dream, so there was no choice to wake up.
In its final report, the TRC, facing all odds, listed very powerful and influential politicians for committing war and economic crimes, including massacre, torture, bribery and extortion.
“Most notorious perpetrators” and ex-warlords like Senator Prince Johnson and former rebel general Coco Dennis were recommended for prosecution, and “financiers” such as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Toga Gayewea McIntosh barred from holding public offices for 30 years.
Some people and firms on the combined list include: Alhaji G.V. Kromah, Lewis Brown, Emmanuel Shaw, Juanita Neal, Cora Peabody, Morris Saytumah, Edwin Snowe, Benoni Urey, Bridgeway Corporation, Africa Motors, Lonestar Communications Corporation, Liberia International Shipping and Corporate Registry (LISCR). In a nutshell, the Commission named and shamed those at the helm of power, some of whom crafted and signed the very CPA that brought about the TRC process.
To many, the Commission could not be serious. It must be a sacrilege to the highest level. The politicians and corporations named in the TRC report maintained their innocence and cried foul. The TRC was up for a witch-hunt; it was politically motivated and was akin to the very root causes of the civil war whose recurrence it was established to avert.
Such criticism required much unity among commissioners to weather, and the TRC should have done better to—in a way—bring itself to public disrupt. Our people say, “When you put yourself into a tomato cup, they will dish you out with broom straw”. And that was exactly what happened. Chairman Jerome Verdier at the Commission’s last news conference on July 2, 2009 brushed aside that criticism, saying that misunderstanding among commissioners could not overshadow the work of the TRC. Well, to a significant extent, it did.
Probably, the first sign of conflict among commissioners was a scuffle between Commissioner Massa Washington and Pearl Browne Bull at the public hearings in the Southeast. It is unclear how it started but the two female commissioners’ struggle was well captured in the media. The Analyst captioned: “Massa Knocks down the Mighty Bull”.
A lot more happened between that time of the Washington-Bull spat and June 30, 2009 when the TRC presented its final report to the Legislature. It seemed as if the spat between the two commissioners was characteristic of the split in the TRC. Commissioner Washington, John Stewart and Chairman Verdier seemed to be in one bloc; while Commissioner Bull, Sheikh kafumba Konneh, Rev. Gerald Coleman and Vice Chairman Dede Dolopei seemed to represent the other bloc. Commissioner Oumu Syllah seemed to have been the lone, neutral commissioner, with the Rt. Bishop Arthur F. Kulah having resigned.
The division in the TRC became even severer and became more glaring at the public hearings. Commissioners frequently quarreled with one another before witnesses.
For instance, tension brewed between Chairman Verdier and Sheikh Konneh over the latter’s tough questioning of a witness at the public hearings in Sanniquillie, Nimba County on May 13, 2009. Chairman Verdier fumed at Sheikh Konneh’s invasion of the witness’ privacy, accusing him of being presumptuous in his cross-examination, prohibited by the TRC Act in Article 7, Section 22. Sheikh Konneh accused Chairman Verdier of infringing on his right as a commissioner. Calm was only restored after Sheikh Konneh recused himself from the rest of the day’s hearings following the appearance of his brother Layee Sedekee Konneh and cousin Valle Kromah.
Another example came in Bopolu, Gbarpolu County when Commissioner Bull forcibly sat at the public hearing while undergoing suspension. She had been suspended by Chairman Verdier for reportedly applying for a vacancy with the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC), violating Article 9, Section 39 of the TRC Act. “I have been reinstated by the Supreme Court,” she interrupted and took a seat to an indistinct chattering and murmuring in the Bopolu Administrative Building.
Nearly three weeks to the release of its final report, Senator Johnson protested his inclusion on the list of “most notorious perpetrators”. A copy of the report had been leaked to the former leader of the defunct Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL).
He accused TRC Commissioners of starting a war from which they would run to the United States to seek refuge. As well as discriminating against Americo-Liberians and natives, he accused the Commission of handpicking delegates for its final, decisive conference on June15 – 20, 2009. He further alleged that he was a victim of a conspiracy involving the TRC and the Governance Commission that separated the “holy angels” from people like him.
Commission Bull validated Senator Johnson’s point at a press conference in her office at the TRC’s 9th Street headquarters. Her press conference came just few minutes after Chairman Verdier announced in a press conference the itinerary of the impending national conference at the Unity Conference Center. She had barged into Chairman Verdier’s press conference just in the middle of his announcement.
She dismissed Information Officer James Kpargoi’s rebuke of Senator Johnson’s claims, countering that prosecution for war crimes was not the opinion of conference delegates. Commissioner Bull accused the TRC of partiality and said its recommendations—still not public knowledge, only from Senator Johnson’s leak—did not represent the views of the Liberian people.
She claimed that more people from counties she oversaw—Margibi, Lower Montserrado, Bomi and Grand Cape Mount—recommended general amnesty for perpetrators and reparation for victims. “We should be impartial,” she told her separate news conference. “‘Even the dull and ignorant, they too have their story,’” she quoted a line from Max Ehrmann’s 1948 “Desiderata”. She denied leaking the documents to Senator Johnson, revealing that her office had been burglarized and her laptop stolen few days ago.
Spats and split were not the only downside of TRC process. The pasts of commissioners played a part. The TRC Act is clear in Article 5, Section 11: “Members of the TRC shall not be known or perceived as human rights violators; and without prior conviction for a crime”. But the commissioners were not perceived innocent by the public, not even Chairman Verdier.
By June 2008, when public hearings kicked off, it was reported that Chairman Verdier was among a bevy of student leaders of the University of Liberia that led protests against the government of President Samuel K. Doe in the 1980s that led to the deaths of several students. Many were injured and many raped.
The alleged connection between Sheikh Konneh and ULIMO was another one but it was an allegation against Commissioner Stewart that thrilled a public hearing at the Centennial Memorial Pavilion in Monrovia. Former Information Minister Lewis Brown became furious when Commissioner Stewart aggressively questioned him about his relationship with former President Charles Taylor and his time as Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC).
Mr. Brown reacted by questioning Commissioner Stewart’s role as member of the Black Beret, a paramilitary group formed just after the 1990 civil war to restore calm in Monrovia and its environs. A spat between former Minister of Information Lewis Brown and Commissioner John Stewart got so tense that both men attempted to settle with blows.
Critiques from the Orators
The 162nd Independence Day’s celebration Bong County in 2009 was overshadowed by the release of the TRC report. It had just been released on July 2, 2009. The orator for the event was Paramount Chief Flomo Barowor of Jorkorleh Chiefdom, husband of nine wives and father to more than 40 children. The day fell on Sunday and so was celebrated on Monday, July 27, 2009. The Gbarnga Administrative Building was filled to capacity, with President Obiang Nguema Mbassogo of Equatorial Guinea and Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas of the ECOWAS Commission special guests.
Like Senator Johnson, Paramount Chief Barowor accused the Commission of “rejuvenating and reactivating” another war in Liberia. “When we say don’t put water, we also mean don’t put spit,” he said through an interpreter in his native Kpelleh vernacular. Thanking President Sirleaf for buying him his first car, his rebuke of the TRC report appealed to the audience, often bursting into prolong cheers throughout his oration.
Cllr. Varney Sherman’s oration during the 166th celebration was not dissimilar. For him, there were recommendations that could not be implemented—prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes and barring of financiers from public offices—and those that could be implemented—palava hut forum. Those recommendations could not be implemented because they contravened the Constitution, Cllr. Sherman argued.
Despite attempts to throw the TRC report into the dustbin, everyone agrees that reconciliation is of immerse importance. There have been myriad views of Liberia’s attainment of genuine peace and reconciliation.
In her 2009 Independence Day Message, President Sirleaf argued that being elected by the Liberian people in 2005 was proof that the nation had forgiven her for anything they held against her and saw her as a unifier. “For the first time in nearly two decades, six-year-olds (2003 -2009) do not know war,” she said.
“My administration will not rest until the gains of peace are felt by all,” she added to a rapturous applause. She arrayed her achievement then—increment of reserve from US$5 million to US$50 million, US$15 to US$80, and US$8 billion in foreign direct investments, among others.
Dr. Amos Sawyer, Chairman of the Governance Commission (GC) was not impressed. Speaking just three days after President Sirleaf, at the celebration of the life of Nigerian Pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdu-Raheem, the former Interim President differed with the President sharply. Without mentioning her name, Dr. Sawyer said elections were no evidence of reconciliation.
He made the case of the 1927, 1951 and 1955 elections—marred by huge irregularities—led to instability instead. “Elections in the past were a miracle; elections now are a substitute for reconciliation,” he said, adding that not even political alliances and mergers were evidence of national healing and renewal.
Unsatisfied with the TRC process, however, which the GC played an important role, Dr. Sawyer called for a national conference on reconciliation. “‘Bygone be bygone’ is not the answer. Let us not lurk ourselves in this vicious cycle. No country builds its fabric by dodging its problems. We have to confront the challenges of reconciliation as painful as they will be. People are burdened by the past; they wear the scars of the wars.”
Another view commonplace among politicians was economic empowerment as a means to reconciliation. Former Grand Bassa Senator Gbehzohngar Findley and Montserrado County Senator George Weah argued in 2013 that a catalyst for reconciliation would be jobs and opportunity for Liberians, especially the young people.
Former Deputy Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations Missions in Liberia (UNMIL) Aeneas Chuma within the same period agreed with the empowerment-reconciliation theory. “It will be a lot easier for reconciliation if there is simultaneous progress in development,” Chuma told the UN Focus magazine. “Reconciliation must be buttressed by investment and development all over equitably.”
Skipping the TRC
Noble laureate Leymah Gbowee accepted a post of head of an ad hoc reconciliation committee after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize with President Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman of Iran in 2011. However, less than a year she resigned on grounds that the President was not doing enough to combat reconciliation, corruption and nepotism. The government accepted Gbowee’s resignation but dismissed her claims, citing the establishment of the Independent Human Rights Commission for which it allotted US$5 million in the 2012/2013 National Budget.
Weah of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) replaced Gbowee as Peace Ambassador. At this time, the Vision 2030 Roadmap had been drawn, with him at the core of healing process. But not even the soccer legend with his athletic charms could make the cut. Not even an exhibition of his 1995 Ballon d’Or and his hosting of African soccer greats such as Roger Mila and Austin Okocha would help him.
It was reported that the Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to disburse any more fund to Weah’s committee until he provided a blueprint of what he hoped to achieve. Political commentators had already foretold the trouble that lay in wait for Weah after his appointment.
Some said it was a Trojan horse for the leader of the biggest opposition party to share the spoils. And that became the case. Weah came in for criticism from the National Union for Democratic Progress (NUDP) for lacking innovation and Montserrado Representative Gabriel Nyenka for being unqualified to be the Peace Ambassador. “You cannot have Mr. Weah who lacks control of CDC executive leaders serving as Liberia’s Peace Ambassador. What result would you expect?” Nyenka asked rhetorically. Weah said the Liberian people were the cause of their own problem.
Hope for Justice
Given the reaction of the public to recent arrests of Agnes Reeves Taylor, Martina Johnson, Mark Jabateh the United Kingdom, Belgium and the United States, more Liberians would welcome a war crime court for Liberia than those who will oppose it.
People have had enough, especially after President Sirleaf conceded in her last State of the Nation Address that she failed in reconciliation and anti-corruption. It is shame that though we have had more than a decade of the silence of gunshots we have not been able to tackle those two chief vices that undermine the progress of our country.
No rocket science here, without justice for victims and war crime court for those who bear the greatest responsibilities for atrocities committed here, there can be no reconciliation. Many heinous crimes were committed during the civil war, and the magnitude of the crimes committed must be parallel to the punishments for those crimes. This is not witch-hunt or political strategy deployed against anyone.
It is to erode the impunity and acculturate the culture justice that to spur the culture of excellence and innovation that are essential for economic growth and prosperity. That is the same idea behind Nazi leaders being prosecuted even in their 90s; the same idea behind the Rwandan, Congolese and Ugandan tribunals, where rebel generals have been and are being tried.
In November 2013 a delegation of the Network of African National Human Rights Institution (NNHRI) visited Liberia and found no faults with the TRC recommendations.
Rather, it parodied the Independent Human Rights Commission for lack of visibility, urging the Commission to decentralize its activities. If the Commission would have carried out the recommendations of the TRC, it would have been far more visible and audible than the quietest agency it has become.
Each of the arrests aforementioned in the U.K. Belgium and the U.S. is a huge slap in the face of Liberia. These countries are making arrests for torture and for lying to immigration officers and Liberia cannot do anything even for the 300,000 people who were killed.
Just as truth hurts a person and development comes with pains for many so does reconciliation come with justice. Joshua Blayee, alias “General Butt Naked” understands this. He is rather tried in a court for his crimes than transfers a legacy of injustice to his unborn generation. It is not peace, prosperity and parity for the sake of justice. It is the other way around.
By James Harding Giahyue