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Lessons for Kenya from Liberia’s TRC

Saturday July 18 2009

By MAKAU MUTUA

This week I have decided to suspend my ‘‘open letter’’ so that I can address the lessons of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Kenya.

The ‘‘open letter’’ will be back next week unless an epochal event happens.

Except for the election in 2005 of Ms Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Liberia’s President, there had not been much to celebrate about that famous country for decades. But Liberia has made Africa proud again by the recommendations of its TRC which are bold, decisive and pioneering.

If fully implemented, the TRC’s recommendations could strike a fatal blow to impunity in Liberia.

Liberia, a country torn by the most vicious atrocities for decades, has done what Kenya, with its boast of more enlightenment, has been unable to do.

After a long and painstaking process, Liberia’s TRC has issued a verdict that is the dream of those who seek transitional justice. The TRC looked squarely – and dispassionately – at the country’s sick history and decided that enough was enough.

It has spared no one in its findings and has, in fact, taken aim at the mightiest and the most powerful. The truth of the TRC’s findings can only be given justice by the full implementation of its recommendations.

I will recount several incidents about the Liberian society’s barbarism.

While on a UN human rights mission to Liberia in 2001, I was told of how, at the height of the civil war, foetuses were cut out of their mothers’ wombs by child soldiers who were barely taller than the AK-47s they wielded. Another story – this one totally bizarre and sickening – had combatants killing young men and cannibalising their hearts for magical powers.

Liberia’s departure from the norms of civilisation was so complete that it haunts the human conscience. The society went to such dark and lonely places that the word demonic does not even begin to describe the horror.

It is this tragic past that the TRC sought to excavate and use to script a new dawn for Liberia. The TRC’s report makes clear that we cannot hide from our history, no matter how heinous. Nor can we pretend that it did not happen.

The report underscores the fact that reconciliation is not the first step in confronting the past. For how can you reconcile victims and perpetrators without accountability or justice?

Such “reconciliation” as we know, is not reconciliation at all, but the perpetuation of impunity. In that case, the society would not have learnt any lesson at all.

What Kenyans must understand is that there can never be reconciliation without pain and anguish. That is why a truth commission cannot be a whitewash.

But it’s been said that there will be communal violence if you pursue justice for the victims. I agree that this is a dilemma as long as demagogues and intriguers control political power.

This will be true so long as ethnic warlords dupe their ethno-cultural communities that justice is a declaration of war against them by other communities.

In reality of course this is baloney.

Warlords are the worst exploiters of their communities. If you doubt me, just look at the pain that warlords have inflicted on their communities in Somalia, DRC, Uganda, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The ethnic group is the last refuge of the scoundrel. That is why Kenyan communities ought to reject in toto the cynical manipulations of ethnic lords who fatten themselves at the expense of the group.

The Liberian TRC has cut through these hypocrisies and thrown down the gauntlet of justice. Its recommendations are nothing short of blockbuster. One of the boldest is the banning of 50 prominent Liberians from holding public office for 30 years.

This, by the way, includes President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who admitted to providing moral and financial support to warlord Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia.

The TRC would let President Johnson Sirleaf, who is 70, finish her current term, but not run again in 2011.

This appropriate sanction recognises the good work she has done since assuming power, but holds her accountable for her political dalliances with Taylor.

But in the group of the 50 prominent people lustrated is the notorious Prince Yormie Johnson, now a Senator, who supervised the slow execution of former President Samuel K. Doe.

In the famous video shown in news outlets around the world, Mr Johnson sips a Budweiser as President Doe is tortured and his ear dismembered.

Imagine the horror! It does not matter what crimes Mr Doe had committed, but such blood-cuddling brutality on the part of Mr Johnson must disqualify him from public office – at the very least.

Mr Johnson and others are accused by the TRC of “killings, extortion, massacres, destruction of property, forced recruitment, assault, torture, forced labour and rape”.

The TRC recommends that Mr Johnson and his ilk be prosecuted.

What does the Liberian TRC portend for Kenya? I believe Kenya’s putative TRC should fully internalise the lessons of its Liberian counterpart.

The lesson is a simple one. Take the Kamba advice – osa vinya! Have strength and courage! When you take your oaths as commissioners for the Kenya truth commission, see your task as noble and solemn – to seek truth, justice and reconciliation.

But do not put reconciliation first for that is putting the cart before the horse. If you make that mistake, you will have put Kenya in great peril come 2012.

Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School and Chair of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.