Tag Archives: Truth and Reconciliation Commission

“They did not know that they had been sent by wicked people, people who want to hide the truth of their lives behind the truth of mine.”

[A Liberian Woman in Staten Island, on Truth and Reconciliation Commission volunteers:] These two lovely white men came to my door, to say that the truth heals. They were well meaning; they had taken time off from their weekends to help us poor Africans. They did not know that they had been sent by wicked people, people who want to hide the truth of their lives behind the truth of mine.
That’s a quote from Jonny Steinberg’s fantastic new African Affairs article on how Liberians in Staten Island reacted to the TRC.
600 TRC volunteers took only 237 statements from all Liberians in the US.   Looking at Liberians in Staten Island, Steinberg accounts for the lack of participation by analyzing the intersection of intra-community fighting and distrust, suspicion and confusion about TRC motives, and the TRC’s approach to statement taking.
The TRC
Steinberg explains how the TRC has been clouded in confusion since its inception.  When warlords agreed to stop fighting, they did this under the implicit assumption that the TRC would be like South Africa’s, and grant them amnesty.  Though no one wanted to explicitly ask for this to be put in writing.  In fact the TRC was prohibited from granting amnesty for those accused of especially bad crimes, and had the power to recommend prosecution.  Many warlords inaccurately believed that had been granted amnesty, and would not have stopped fighting if they understood what the TRC’s real mandate.  This confusion extended to Liberians in State Island, where few understood the TRC would recommend prosecution.
Moreover, the TRC’s mission was so vast it was almost meaningless.  The TRC claimed it reached out to the diaspora to collect information that would contribute to a narrative about the war and its causes, yet it did not have the tools to do serious investigation.  Steinberg implies the TRC reached out to the diaspora for symbolic reasons.
The TRC’s final report recommended that more than 100 people be prosecuted for war crimes.  Steinberg notes that in many cases individuals on the list were not mentioned elsewhere in the report, and that, “[p]rivately, TRC commissioners acknowledged that this [list was included in the final report] to salvage the credibility of the TRC.”
Park Hill
Steinberg’s discussion of the politics of division among Liberians in Staten Island reflects the enormous amount of research he has done on this topic for a forthcoming book.  He describes how the Park Hill housing project became a community of Liberians who had trouble “making it” in the US.  He explains the origins of high level of distrust and secrecy; many have overstayed visitor’s visas, and others told stories about war time suffering to officials who would determine asylum status that were not entirely true.  Why should you share information about your past when your enemies could use it against you?  ”The most dangerous information one might share about oneself was one’s experience of the war,” Steinberg writes.
Yet as the Liberian war was ending, “these codes of silence were broken dramatically..[and] something of a proxy war began…ostensibly for control of the elected body representing Staten Island’s Liberians.”  Steinberg tells the story of Rufus, a leader of the community who had political ambitions back home.   “Park Hill’s relation to America was like Liberia’s relation to the global economy: marginal, excluded, knocking forever on the door. And Rufus A. was the gatekeeper, accruing a handsome fee for keeping the gate between Park Hill and America. Never mind that Roza’s money came from American philanthropies rather than the Firestone Rubber Company. The principle was the same.”
A party not under Rufus’ sway emerged to contest the elections.  So Rufus created his own party, which won elections twice.  But the elections were deeply contentious and accusations of fraud followed.  This led to a period of turmoil in the community, where its associations lost lots of money from New York donors.  Rufus’ soccer association–which had branches in Minnesota and the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana–went broke.
The TRC and Park Hill
While this was happening, Liberians in Staten Island followed TRC processes back home.  They saw how warlords openly mocked TRC officials.  When there was a knock on their door, and two white people representing the TRC and a Liberian community leader (who was inevitably part of the community’s political in-fighting) asked the resident to tell their story, I find it shocking the TRC even got 247 people to agree to talk.

[A Liberian Woman in Staten Island, on Truth and Reconciliation Commission volunteers:] “These two lovely white men came to my door, to say that the truth heals. They were well meaning; they had taken time off from their weekends to help us poor Africans. They did not know that they had been sent by wicked people, people who want to hide the truth of their lives behind the truth of mine.”

That’s a quote from Jonny Steinberg’s fantastic new African Affairs article, “A Truth Commission Goes Abroad: Liberian Transitional Justice in New York.”  (I can’t find the article online yet, but I imagine it will be up very soon.)

600 TRC volunteers took only 237 statements from all Liberians in the US.   Looking at Liberians in Staten Island, Steinberg accounts for the lack of participation by analyzing the intersection of intra-community fighting and distrust, suspicion and confusion about TRC motives, and the TRC’s approach to statement taking.

The TRC

Steinberg explains how the TRC has been clouded in confusion since its inception.  When warlords agreed to stop fighting, they did this under the implicit assumption that the TRC would be like South Africa’s, and grant them amnesty.  Though no one wanted to explicitly ask for this to be put in writing.  In fact the TRC was prohibited from granting amnesty for those accused of especially bad crimes, and had the power to recommend prosecution.  Many warlords inaccurately believed they had been granted amnesty, and would not have stopped fighting if they understood the TRC’s real mandate.  This confusion extended to Liberians in State Island, where few understood the TRC would recommend prosecution.  (Here Steinberg draws on this riveting 2007 ICTJ report.)

Moreover, the TRC’s mission was so vast it was almost meaningless.  The TRC claimed it reached out to the diaspora to collect information that would contribute to a narrative about the war and its causes, yet it did not have the tools to do serious investigation.  Steinberg implies the TRC reached out to the diaspora for mostly symbolic reasons.

The TRC’s final report recommended that more than 100 people be prosecuted for war crimes.  Steinberg notes that in many cases individuals on the list were not mentioned elsewhere in the report, and that, “[p]rivately, TRC commissioners acknowledged that this [list was included in the final report] to salvage the credibility of the TRC.”

Park Hill

Steinberg’s discussion of the politics of division among Liberians in Staten Island reflects the enormous amount of research he has done on this topic for a forthcoming book.  He describes how the Park Hill housing project became a space for Liberians who had trouble “making it” in the US.  He explains the origins of high levels of distrust and secrecy; many have overstayed visitor’s visas, and others told stories about war time suffering to officials who would determine asylum status that were not entirely true.  Why should you share information about your past when your enemies could use it against you?  ”The most dangerous information one might share about oneself was one’s experience of the war,” Steinberg writes.

Yet as the Liberian war was ending, “these codes of silence were broken dramatically..[and] something of a proxy war began…ostensibly for control of the elected body representing Staten Island’s Liberians.”  Steinberg tells the story of Rufus, a leader of the community who had political ambitions back home.   “Park Hill’s relation to America was like Liberia’s relation to the global economy: marginal, excluded, knocking forever on the door. And Rufus A. was the gatekeeper, accruing a handsome fee for keeping the gate between Park Hill and America. Never mind that Roza’s money came from American philanthropies rather than the Firestone Rubber Company. The principle was the same.”

A party not under Rufus’ sway emerged to contest the elections.  So Rufus created his own party, which won elections twice.  But the elections were deeply contentious and accusations of fraud followed.  This led to a period of turmoil in the community, where its associations lost lots of money from New York donors.  Rufus’ soccer association–which had branches in Minnesota and the Buduburam refugee camp in Ghana–went broke.

The TRC and Park Hill

While this was happening, Liberians in Staten Island followed TRC hearings back home.  They saw how warlords openly mocked TRC commissioners.  When there was a knock on their door, and two white people representing the TRC, and a Liberian community leader (who was inevitably part of the community’s political in-fighting) asked the resident to tell their story, I find it shocking the TRC even got 247 people to agree to talk.

The article is a must-read.  It is the second Steinberg has written for African Affairs about the TRC.  The first, which was just as good, is available here.  I blogged about it here.

Critique of Sirleaf profile

Glenna Gordon critiques the New York Times Magazine profile of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf more thoroughly than I did:   

Journalist Daniel Bergner takes twelve paragraphs to even hint at the fact that many Liberians are unhappy with EJS, though it doesn’t bother talking to any Liberians who are not the president or running for presidency. It mentions candidate Prince Johnson, but it doesn’t mention that his candidacy isn’t the real threat and that George Weah’s is [...]  Bergner didn’t bother, you know, talking to any Liberians besides EJS about the TRC [...]

Glenna’s full post (which she has tagged with the category “simplistic political narratives”) is here.

Sirleaf consults on TRC recommendations

 [Liberian President Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf sought the advice of Parliament and the National Bar Association Sep. 2 on the political sanctions suggested by the TRC, which include recommended prosecutions for six former warlords and a 30-year ban on occupying public office for Sirleaf. In her report to parliament, Sirleaf urged consideration of community reparations in the form of public facilities to victims of the civil war, as individual financial compensation would prove too expensive.

Liberia gossip

This African Confidential article on Liberian politics is the Page Six of Liberian gossip.  Or to mix metaphors, Harry Potter for Liberiaphiles. (h/t to Jairo)

Unity insiders say US diplomats had told Sirleaf about alleged connections between members of her security apparatus, including her son Fombah Sirleaf, Director of the National Security Agency, and a mysterious Russian businessman.

The Russian, Victor Bogosyan, was deported in May 2009. A source close to the presidency says he ‘had a line of government people waiting to see him’. Money-changers in town said he paid massive premiums for loans, while he set up a popular nightclub run by attractive Peruvian women. The US officials are said to have linked Bogosyan to drugs deals. A Unity Party insider said that the President then summoned an informal meeting with all her security chiefs, at which [former Minister of Justice] Banks’s officials explained that they knew all about this, and ‘it was not something Madam President needed to know about’. Banks was soon fired.

Other highlights:

  • Sirleaf is credited for breaking up the Lebanese monopoly on importing rice, but this article says the Liberian who Sirleaf’s government helped enter this market is Allen Brown Jr., the son of a former Charles Taylor associate.
  • The article explains how the the merger among the Unity Party and other parties further cements Americo-Liberian rule.
  • Apparently Varney Sherman (a main contender against Sirleaf in 2005, strong ties to Lebanese) is legal counsel for ArcelorMittal in Liberia.

“The TRC’s Final Report is unsightly and horrible flawed.”

Jonny Steinberg will have an article in the January 2010 African Affairs on the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  You can wait until then and access it through JSTOR, or purchase it here.

Here are some excerpts to whet you appetite.  This is the best article I’ve read on current affairs in Liberia.

  • “The TRC’s Final Report is unsightly and horribly flawed. Aside from making enemies of its natural allies, the Report’s recommendations on prosecution and censure are based on shaky and unreasoned foundations, and are surely incapable of surviving judicial review. Its fate will probably be that of a quashed document embraced by many ordinary people but rejected by much of the political elite and the international community.”
  • There’s a fascinating discussion on how it came to be that the 2003 Accra agreement did not include amnesty provisions, even though many thought it did.  ”Indeed, when the TRC recommended that he be prosecuted six years later, former rebel leader and current senator Prince Johnson protested that he and others had been granted amnesty in Accra.”
  • “As for the TRC, it appeared unlikely that it would ever grow teeth… The Liberian elite is awfully small. Each Commissioner was acutely aware that within two or three years her work on the Commission would be over and her capacity to find good work in Monrovia would probably depend upon the largesse of more powerful people. The Commissioners hardly seemed the sort to rock the boat.”
  • “It seemed that the TRC had not the capacity or the will even to hold warlords accountable to the barest truth. Several former warlords expressed open contempt towards the Commissioners when they came to testify, addressing Commissioners by their first names, or even as ‘pekin’, ‘little boy’ in Liberian English. The message was clear: We may have graced you with our presence, but you will not dare to go after us.”
  • Steinberg argues that the TRC report places all the blame on the political elite, and none on ordinary Liberians.   “If the political class rallies against the Final Report, and many ordinary people rally behind it, the popular dimension of the war will remain forever unconfronted.”

Want more?  Read Sizwe’s Test.

Prosecution presents evidence of Taylor’s secret bank account, final version of TRC report released

Two interesting Liberia updates from the news today:

First, the prosecution finally found one of Charles Taylor’s secret bank accounts, and presented it as evidence this week.  The account received $3.5 from Taiwan and $2 million from Natura Holdings (Gus Kouwenhoven’s company), among other deposits.  Here’s an excerpt from an article on this:

Taylor – who has always claimed that “no one, no human being has ever come up and said, ‘Here is a bank account with a million dollars belonging to Mr Taylor’” – acknowledges the existence of the account at the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, but rejects prosecutors’ suggestions that he used it to hide illicit funds. It was a “covert account opened up by the Government of Liberia during this period, to fight our war”, Taylor told the court.

Second, the TRC released their final consolidated report. Kate Thomas has an article on VOA, noting that this report differs from the unedited one in that there are 10 more people listed as “most notorious perpetrators”  and 5 new people listed under the economic crimes category.  The “most notorious perpetrators” list now includes John T. Richardson, Benoni Urey, and Bell Dunbar (former head of the LPRC).

The VOA story quotes Jerome Verdier, head of the TRC, saying that there is in fact another volume of the final report that has not yet been released:

“There is a volume four, which is also unpublished, for the same reason that we do not have time and resources,” he said. “Volume four contains 10,000 pages of transcripts from the hearings of the TRC, the hearings for victims from all around the country and then the hearings in Monrovia which brought together war veterans, politicians and all of that, and then the hearings in the diaspora.”

Brown-Bull says TRC report part of international conspiracy

I’m not sure how I missed this.

Hat tip to Ruthie Ackerman for pointing me to this story by Boima J.V. Boima on Ceasefire Liberia on former TRC commissioner Pearl Brown-Bull’s disagreement with the TRC report recommendations. 

[Bull] said that one of the main reasons why she is opposed to the report is because of the international conspiracy that had earlier occurred in crafting the report.

“I want this generation to know that it was based on the instrumentalities and recommendations of the Minnesota Advocates, which is comprised of white criminal lawyers, that the current unedited TRC report came into being. Therefore, being a renowned lawyer in this country for years I will not and never will support such an act of conspiracy that resulted in the crafting of the TRC report,” Cllr. Bull said.

Uh, what?  Anyone know what she’s referring to?

Bull also said the US is using the TRC report to push for prosecution of war criminals in an international court.  She said the TRC chair never asked for her comments on the unedited version of the report.  She apparently disliked the format of having “victims” and “perpetrators” testify at separate times.  (Though so few of the “perpetrators” apologized, I’m not sure how any other format would have worked.)  And she has misgivings about the TRC’s decision to recommend prosecution for several people:

The former commissioner, whose son was brutally killed by the NPFL rebel faction during the war, said that the majority of the people that she earlier interviewed within the counties as part of the TRC called for forgiveness instead of retributive justice. “But the Jerome Verdier-led commission, after conspiring with international communities, went ahead to  publish and recommend punishment for people in the country,” she asserted.

None of these points seem especially crazy to me (except maybe the Minnesota Advocates claim), but one wonders why she did not push for changes in the TRC’s activities and recommendations earlier.  After all, she has been one of just a few commissioners for several years.  It sounds to me like she is seeing all of the criticism the TRC is getting, and is now trying to distance herself from it.  Thoughts?

TRC diaspora report released

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The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s diaspora project has been released.  It’s called “A House with Two Rooms.”  At 626 pages, you can either read it as a PDF (in parts) or buy it for $26 on Amazon.

Sadly, I’m not going to have time to read this report in its entirety.  If you read it, and find anything interesting, let me know.   I’d love for someone to do a guest post analyzing the report.

TRC in a coma?

Daily Observer cartoon by A. Leslie Lumeh.

Daily Observer cartoon by A. Leslie Lumeh.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a big fan of A. Leslie Lumeh’s cartoons in the Daily Observer.  But lately they’ve gotten a bit preachy and patronizing.  A recent cartoon encouraged Liberians to help each other out.

But I like the above cartoon, and it reminded me that I haven’t been following Truth and Reconciliation Commission report follow-up.    First, part 2 of 3 of the TRC final report still says “unedited.” What does this mean?  And what will part 3 of 3 include, and when will it be coming out?

Second, I’m confused about the TRC follow-up legislation.  This Bloomberg report says the legislature is postponing the passage of legislation that would implement TRC recommendations:

“We decided as a body that we cannot take any decision on this report’s recommendation until we consult our constituents for about a year where we will solicit their views on whether or not to implement the TRC recommendations,” Wesseh Blamo, a lawmaker, said…

Certainly that’s a cop-out, but I’ve also heard the legislation has been postponed because the final (not unedited) report has not been released.

Anyone want to help clarify things?

Update: A reader just asked another question.  Does anyone know how Byron Tarr made it onto the list of people the TRC recommends be barred from holding office for 30 years?