Nearly 10 Years On TRC Report Still Dominates Liberian Politics

Commissioners of the TRC during a public hearing in 2008

By James Harding Giahyue

Monrovia – Most visits by high ranking UN officials are predictable – the official makes bland statements about good governance and commitments to support Liberia. The March visit by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed was different. Mohammed had a clear but uncomfortable message for President George Weah’s government: The time to implement the recommendations of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had come.

Mohammed’s call energized the movement for justice in Liberia. Soon after nearly 20 local and international human rights organizations called on the Weah government to establish a war crimes court. A local group “Citizens Action for the Establishment for War and Economic Crimes Court” petitioned the Legislature for a war crimes court. Soon after that the influential Council of Churches joined the call.

It has been nearly a decade since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission handed down its final report recommending a war and economic crimes tribunal and a range of other remedies to bring justice for 250,000 dead and millions displaced in Liberia’s civil wars. Until now very few of the recommendations have been undertaken—the palaver hut forum, for instance. The rest of the recommendations, including reparation and erection of memorials were shelved by President Sirleaf who claimed the recommendations would have been destabilizing to a fragile country. But the report continues to reverberate in Liberia’s political discourse. The recent conviction of Mohammed Jabbateh for immigration fraud relating to his extensive war crimes in Liberia, and the upcoming prosecution of Thomas Woewiyu, the indicted war criminal and ally of former president Charles Taylor, have fueled a new interest in the TRC report and its recommendations.

Recommendations Roil Liberian Politics

The TRC was created by the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), signed in 2003 in Accra, Ghana. Its mandate was to dig out the root causes of the civil war and recommend ways to stop such a conflict happening again.

On June 10, 2005, the TRC Act was approved and by 2008 the Commission began active work. The TRC collected 22,000 testimonies, held more than 800 hearings and made more than a hundred recommendations when its report was released on July 30, 2009.

It listed Senator Prince Johnson of Nimba and Representative George Boley of Grand Gedeh as “most notorious perpetrators” to face a war crimes court. It recommended current presidential advisor Emmanuel Shaw, businessman-politician Benoni Urey and Representative Edwin Snowe of Bomi face further investigation for economic crimes. It indicted institutions such as Bridgeway Corporation, Africa Motors, Lonestar Communications Corporation, Liberia International Shipping and Corporate Registry (LISCR).

It was, however, the barring from public office for 30 years of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf along with a host of other politicians that proved the most controversial of its recommendations.

“They said we compromised our ability to secure prosecution by indicting the President,” recalls former TRC commissioner John Stewart. “Unknown variable. It may have; it may have not,” he says. “We felt she was an active participant and we felt she did not tell the truth.”

President Sirleaf opposed her indictment at the Supreme Court on ground that the TRC did not grant her due process.

In her 2009 Independence Day Address—barely a month after the TRC report was released—President Sirleaf argued that her election as president in 2005 was proof that the nation had forgiven her for her involvement in the civil war. She said she had lived up to expectations. “For the first time in nearly two decades, six-year-olds (2003 -2009) do not know war,” she said, listing her other achievements then: increment of reserve from US$5 million to US$50 million, relief of US4.9 billion foreign debts and, among others, the US$10 million renovation of the Tappita Hospital.

She won the case at the Supreme Court and her administration chose to implement the recommendations it deemed necessary despite the fact that the TRC Act mandated all be implemented.

But President Sirleaf was not alone in her opposition to the TRC report. Senator Prince Johnson, formerly head of Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and who had been videotaped torturing former president Samuel Doe before killing him, accused the commission of being biased against him, a claim backed by Commissioner Pearl Brown Bull, who, with the late Sheikh Kafumba Konneh, refused to sign the commission’s report.

Commissioner Bull had been at the center of wrangle within the TRC. She went to the Supreme Court to overruled her suspension from the commission by Chairman Jerome Verdier. He ruled that she had a conflict of interest over her alleged application for a vacancy at the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC).   

Commissioner Gerald Coleman concedes that this internal wrangling impacted the TRC report. “Jerome [Verdier] did very well with that in certain ways but near the end, as we were closing down, we realized that there was a split among us,” he explains, who signed the report but had some reservations, including on prosecution. He says he wanted the TRC to recommend restorative justice as he thought it would be less difficult to achieve. Retributive justice is for a society with rule of law intact and strong institutions.

“There was a group that thought we were making decisions that were not compatible with the leadership at the time,” he recalls. “There was a strong feeling [among the other group] that we must have justice, but in my view [retributive] justice has no meaning in a broken society.”

Cllr. Verdier did not respond to emails requesting comment.

The split within the TRC mirrored the mixed views over its significance in the public. A Search for Common Ground survey published a week before the report came out found that more than three in five Liberians did not support the idea of a TRC. That number included the eventual standard bearer of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) in the 2011 presidential elections, Cllr. Winston Tubman. The current chairman of the party, Mulbah Morlu campaigned vigorously at the time for a war crimes court, labeling the TRC a “toothless bulldog”.

At the time President Sirleaf faced little opposition to her decision to shelve most recommendations in the report. The public too was afraid of digging up old wounds and rekindling the horrors of the war. Aaron Weah of Search for Common Ground says the combination of elites’ protecting their own and a “casual” understanding of the TRC process by some politicians and the public contributed to the failure.   

“The TRC recommendations account for about eight to nine warring factions,” he says. “Each head of those warring factions was either formerly a cabinet minister, a university lecturer or a senior member in the government. You can understand why in such a context such recommendation will not be implemented,” he adds.

Criticisms Undermine the Report

The TRC was also hugely criticized for its inability to publicize its policies on reparation and prosecution. It was also said the report was written too fast, in a hurry to meet publication deadline.

Stewart admits to those criticisms but blames it on the lack of support from the government. “There were deliberate efforts to stall the work of the TRC,” he laments. “One of the things that we were not able to do and we proposed to do [for instance] was a death toll investigation as a way of complementing future prosecutorial actions. That was not done. The Government displayed reluctance.”

Stewart is adamant that the TRC would recommend general amnesty if it were to rewrite its report. “I think our strategy would have been different but I think the basic principle would be the same,” he says. “I think we all believe that there should be accountability and establish the basis on which people should give account.”

All said, the disagreement over the TRC boils down to amnesty against prosecution.

Warlords at the CPA in Ghana opted for a TRC and not a war crimes court because they believed it would not include prosecutions according to Weah. He says they did not realize that the TRC act gave it power to recommend prosecution. The Liberian civil war is one of the most brutal conflicts in history. An estimated 250,000 were killed, thousands more were tortured and wounded, tens of thousands were displaced at home and abroad, children recruited as child soldiers, and women and girls were raped and used as sex slaves. It devastated the country’s infrastructure, undermining development in the years since.

“Before the Accra Agreement, we had 13 peace agreements. In each of those agreements, there was implicit amnesty. What did it do?” Weahs asks rhetorically. “How can you address the violent memory of the Lutheran Church massacre on let bygone be bygone? How can you resolve the Duport Road massacre, the Maher Bridge massacre?

“What will remain one of the legacies of the TRC was to stand up to the political establishment to write a report that they thought was fair and impartial.”

This story was written by James Harding Giahuye and produced in collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in its content.