Liberia in transition

Tristan McConnell
15 March 2007

After fourteen years of civil war, hopes are riding on the scarred west African country’s truth and reconciliation commission. But it needs international support, writes Tristan McConnell.

There are stories about Liberia's fourteen years of civil war which no one wants to hear. Like Maher Bridge, where almost 200 people suspected of supporting the wrong armed group, were shot and thrown into the river below. Or the young men, high on drugs, who bet on the sex of an unborn baby before ripping the child from its mother's womb and leaving both to die. Or the children dragged from their schools and forced to become fighters. Or the estimated 70% of the female population who were raped.

These and many other stories like them will be told, and heard, before Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). While the stories are horrific, it seems there will be no shortage of people wanting to talk. Already, the country's TRC has recorded more than 5,000 testimonies in the three months since statement-taking began.

"People are quite ready to talk about what happened," says Priscilla Hayner, head of the Liberia programme at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Whether the TRC will be ready to hear the testimonies is another question. "All truth commissions face the challenges of setting-up an organisation in very little time, but this is especially difficult in Liberia, with its severe limitations on infrastructure and resources."

Especially resources. "We have a lot of goodwill, but the funding is not coming in," says Jerome J Verdier, the TRC chairman. "There is a big gap." So far, Verdier and his team of eight commissioners have received $1.5 million, mostly from the Liberian government. With a total annual budget this year of only about $130 million, the government can scarcely afford more. Yet it is estimated that the commission will need eight times that amount to fulfil its remit of collecting statements, holding public hearings and preparing a final report and recommendations by mid-2008.

Also in openDemocracy about Liberia's painful transition from civil war to politics:

Caroline Moorehead, "The story of Alpha Q " (10 January 2002)

Sorious Samura, " My American dream"
(6 March 2003)

Osman Bah, "I was a child soldier"
(22 January 2004)

Katharine Houreld, " A taste of freedom "
(16 September 2005)

Tim Hetherington & Charlie Devereux, " Liberia's election: changing the picture?" (12 October 2005)

Katharine Houreld, " Liberia's elections: striving for peace "
(10 November 2005)

Katharine Houreld, "Liberians' payback hour"
(12 January 2006)

The cost of delay

Truth commissions have become an integral part of efforts to rebuild post-conflict states over the last thirty years; during this period, there have been thirty-four commissions held in twenty-eight countries. They were commonplace in central America long before South Africa's post-apartheid TRC popularised them on the world stage. Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, truth commissions have been undertaken in Uganda, Chad, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo; another is being established in Burundi, and there is the embryonic one in Liberia.

"When done well, a truth commission does things that no other institution is able to do," Hayner explains. "It addresses questions a court can't get into: the ‘why' questions." It also gives voice to the victims, in contrast to court prosecutions that tend to focus attention on the perpetrator and eclipse the experience of the vast majority of everyday people caught up in a conflict.

The bloodshed in Liberia began in 1989, when Charles Taylor led a rebellion to oust Samuel K Doe, himself a military man who had stolen power in a bloody coup nine years earlier. The civil war that followed was characterised by tribal division, massacres, rape, the use of child soldiers and mass displacement of the population.

By the war's end in 2003, an estimated 250,000 people had been killed; close to 1 million people were forced from their homes; Taylor was in exile in Nigeria; Liberia's economy was in tatters; more than 100,000 fighters (one-tenth of whom were children) roamed the countryside -- and a United Nations mission of 15,000 troops was enforcing a fragile peace.

More than three years on, Liberia's capital, Monrovia, remains a battle-scarred city of derelict buildings, UN roadblocks, razor wire and potholes. Infrastructure is sketchy at best: a little electricity here, a little clean water there. In rural areas, the situation is worse still and in this context it is hardly surprising that the country's justice system barely functions.

Tristan McConnell is a freelance journalist based in west Africa. He writes for publications that include the Times and the Christian Science Monitor .

Also by Tristan McConnell in openDemocracy:

" Uganda's unsettled future "
(27 February 2006)

" The Democratic Republic of Congo: living up to its name? "
(28 July 2006)

" DR Congo's dangerous run-off "
(23 August 2006)

" Uganda: peace vs justice? "
(14 September 2006)

The TRC has been flung into this gaping accountability gap. Provision for a truth commission was made in the Accra peace agreement of 2003, legislation was enacted in May 2005 and it was formally established with a two-year mandate in June 2006. In October 2006, 192 statement-takers were sent out across the country, a figure Hayner calls "the largest number I've seen". It is their job to record voluntary testimony on human-rights abuses committed from 1979 to 2003.

Verdier is under no illusions as to the scale of the job ahead of him: "We have a society traumatised by conflict. We need to transcend the memories and trauma's of the past to move forward. There are many hopes attached to the TRC process."

Those hopes have been dented by a delay to the start of public hearings that were due to begin in January 2007, but which have been postponed indefinitely. This has led to some questioning about whether the TRC is up to the job. "The judicial system is fundamentally flawed in Liberia, with a culture of impunity, of breaching confidentiality and of no team-working," one aid worker says. "Against that background, the TRC is grossly underfunded and ill-prepared."

After trauma

Despite such doubting voices, Verdier says the delay will not undermine confidence in the TRC. "What people expect is a well-organised hearings process that responds to the needs of reconciliation," he says. "We've done our best with minimum resources to keep the process on course. We weren't satisfied that adequate awareness had been raised about the statement-taking by the time it started, and we didn't want that to be the case with the hearings before a public that is still well-charged, where the animosities of the conflict are still ripe. We have to take the entire country with us on this process, and if the healing and reconciliation is to have the kind of impact we want, everybody has to be engaged."

The stakes are high for the TRC and for Liberia; for both, the future is dim without the continued financial and technical support of the international community. The civil war left Liberia in ruins from which a new state and society is beginning to emerge, and the TRC will play a key role in that. "If I and my children are to live in this country in a secure environment flourishing in a good economy, this process has to take place," argues Verdier. "A traumatised mind is not a developmental mind."


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