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TRIVIALISING THE TRC REPORT, A DANGEROUS POLITICAL GAME!

With Mustapha M.K Sesay
The brutal civil conflicts in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Apartheid South Africa, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, to name but a few, adversely affected every facet of society; and in one or two instances, led to near states of anarchy, characterized by indiscriminate violence and wanton destruction of life, infrastructure and property.
To establish the root causes of the conflicts redress the wrongs and set the stage for sustainable peace and development, various inter-related transitional justice and accountability mechanisms were employed. They included the establishment of criminal courts, truth commissions and traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, either with full backing of the United Nations or other international actors.

Author: Mustapha MK Sesay, outgone SLAJ secretary General

Liberia and South Africa settled down for Truth Commissions and as a result, it failed to persecute perpetrators of the violence and hostilities in their countries during the civil conflicts. Though they left a hole in the hearts of relatives and friends of the victims, the situations were understandable. The bulk of Liberians and South Africans were so traumatized that they had not wished to create any situation which would have returned to haunt them. So they resolved just together and document the history and other stories of the war, with concrete recommendations and preventive measures.
On the extreme end, unlike Liberia and South Africa, international criminal tribunals were established for both Rwanda and Yugoslavia. This was certainly due to the fact that among other things, the UN and other concerned international actors were appalled by the various forms and levels of abuses and crimes that were perpetrated, unlike the two other countries where the truth commissions sat in their capitals, the criminal courts for Rwanda and Yugoslavia sat in The Hague, far removed from the scenes of the alleged crimes but so close to them in digging up the evidence.
In Sierra Leone, a two-track approach was adopted, comprising the South African model and those of Rwanda and Yugoslavia. A hybrid United Nations-backed Special Court was established, which applied both domestic and international laws. It operated alongside with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Though both institutions worked to ensure accountability, combat impunity and prevent a replay of the awful war scenario, they were on different wavelengths in terms of their mandates.
The Special Court, an international criminal tribunal, was created to prosecute and punished persons who bore “the greatest responsibility” for the atrocities committed within the country since November 30, 1996 during those war years. The TRC on the other hand, was created, among other things, to trace and document the root causes of the war, nature of violations, address the needs of the victims and prevent a repetition of the carnage.
The establishments of both institutions were critical to the attainment of the sustainable, sorry, the relative peace and stability that we now enjoy. Apart from contributing to combat widespread impunity and human rights violations, promoting genuine peace and reconciliation and setting the stage to prevent a repetition of the war, they both generated intense international attention on Sierra Leone and contributed to somehow improve the domestic legal systems and capacity.
But unlike the TRC, the SCSL, despite its immense contribution in giving renewed impetus to the drive for the establishment of a permanent international criminal court, faced a series of oppositions. It was and still continues to be seen by the bulk of the populace as a mere waste of time and resources. But whether this holds true or not, only history will tell. However, for the UN at least, it was the best option for that material time.
Several factors can be held accountable for this unfortunate situation. Generally, there was a low level of understanding and therefore misconception about the specifics of the court. Second, the huge sum of money involved to prosecute just a handful of about 12 persons, while hundreds of others who also committed grievous crimes continued to walk the streets as free men and women.
Their argument which appeared sensible at least to the layman was that the funds should have been better used to improve the living conditions of the victims especially amputees and the war-wounded. Also, to undertake other post-conflict trauma healing and development programmes; particularly when reparation for war victims, a key recommendation of the TRC, remains snail-paced. But this is a different matter altogether as the crux of this article is not about the court, but the seeming triviality and disdain with which the TRC and its invaluable report are being treated of late by certain individuals for selfish reasons.
Unlike the Special Court, the TRC was accepted by all the parties to the conflict without any known opposition. These included the perpetrators as well as victims and witnesses, state actors and international peace-brokers. But why was the TRC more readily accepted than the Special Court?
The reasons are multi-faceted and simple. Generally, unlike the Court, forceful arrests and custodian sentences were completely absent from its mandate. It was therefore seen as a more peaceful, traditional and robust mechanism to seek peace, justice and reconciliation. Some of its admirable features included public hearings and apologies by perpetrators and provisions for reparation to victims.
It was therefore popularly accepted that the Chairperson, Bishop Joseph C Humper, his deputy Hon Justice Laura M Jones and other Commissioners in the persons of Mrs. Ajaratu S Jow, Prof John Koroma, Mrs Yasmin L Sooka, Prof William Schabas and Mr Sylvanus Torto did a marvelous job in their attempt to contribute to redress the wrongs, create an impartial historical record of the war and open up a new chapter for peace, stability and development, in the form of a national vision.
The war years and the immediate post-independence period, according to those Commissioners, represented “the most shameful years of Sierra Leone’s history”, reflecting an “extraordinary failure of leadership” on the part of all those involved in government, public life and civil society. This means that almost every state actor was guilty in one way or the other as far as the TRC was concerned. Thus, the people of Sierra Leone owed all those who worked for the TRC a debt of gratitude. So instead of castigating them now for selfish political reasons, we must be hailing and blessing them.
Our major challenge as a nation in consolidating the peace since the completion of work of the TRC in 2004 had been how to generate the required political will and funding to implement its recommendations, which were accepted in good fate. These included those on governance, security, women, children, youth, the Special Court, reconciliation and reparation.
But recent developments, negative though, seem to be casting a spell on the Commission and its work as politicians continue to battle for supremacy in the war of words in the propaganda campaign in the run up to the 2012 general elections. Certain unpatriotic and ill-motivated ones have been distorting extracts from the report and arbitrarily using them in public discourse and debates to settle political scores. This came to the limelight soon after the declaration of the former NPRC second generation junta leader to contest for the position of flag-bearer of the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). It reached its climax recently following his subsequent election as flag-bearer.
A key aspect of the report that has become a subject of heated debate and confrontation in recent times is the alleged human rights violations and abuses by the NPRC junta, more specifically the extrajudicial killings of Bambay Kamara, the former Inspector General of Police and 25 or so others, an incident in which Bio is being implicated by his political opponents. The argument had been so slanted that it has not only been betraying the nation and undermining the work of the TRC, but threatening the very peace and stability that we are now enjoying.
During his maiden address to the nation which he delivered recently, Bio categorically denied any personal involvement or responsibility for these executions since, according to him, as Secretary of State then he was “not in any position to prevent them from happening”. Whether he would have in fact been willing to do that if he had the opportunity was a different matter altogether.
The fact is, by the findings of the TRC, Julius Maada Bio, Valentine Strasser, the late SAJ Musa and other members of the NPRC were all collectively responsible for whatever wrongs that may have been committed during their administration, because the coup was staged by them and they were also in charge of governance. But with all due respect and sympathy to the bereaved families, Bio would not have been tried alone and the case itself should not have been singled out, as several other serious crimes were committed by other members of the NPRC and other people in governance since independent. Otherwise, this would have been tantamount to a political witch-haunt.
The late SAJ Musa, former NPRC number two man who reportedly tortured and mutilated the victims before they were hurriedly executed, should have borne the greatest individual responsibility. But he is no longer with us and the TRC report which was presented to President Kabbah in October 2004 recommended that the hatchet be buried and the chapter closed for good and for bad too!. And the majority of the populace was in agreement with no known public opposition until mid 2010. To make matters worse, no one particularly cared about the needs of the dependants of the deceased who were left to pitifully mend their wounds in silence.
Judging it from any perspective, if anyone was genuinely committed to seeking their interests or redress for their departed love ones, there were ample opportunities at their disposal, including the report of the TRC on the matter. The Tejan Kabbah-led Government had 11 years to try rtd Capt Strasser and his colleagues for all or some of the alleged embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds and the heinous human rights abuses and violations they were accused of committing including those executions. Parliament could have easily revoked the indemnity decree left behind by the NPRC and brought them to law, but they did not. Instead, Government at the time left the matter in the hands of the TRC.
Ridiculously, except for the report of the TRC which contained comprehensive and realistic recommendations targeting various sectors of society and the solemn lamentations of the bereaved families which still continue to re-echo back stage, no one recommended any further action against those former NPRC junta leaders. Not even the opposition parties including the APC bothered to publicly challenge the SLPP Government to prosecute Bio, Strasser and their colleagues at the time or at least appease the bereaved families through humanitarian gestures.
The Ernest Koroma-led Government which took over from the SLPP also had almost four good years (September 2007-June 2011) to do what Kabbah’s government failed to do, provided they were not using the case of Baimbay and others as side kick to score political goals. But they also did not. The idea of bringing the NPRC former khaki boys to law only started going into people’s head when Bio’s name began featuring prominently again in party politics, a clear manifestation that the whole issue was politically motivated and therefore risky.
I remember vividly the Minister of Information and Communication Hon. Ibrahim Ben Kargbo informing the nation on radio and TV along the Attorney General and Minister of Justice then, about the Government’s intention to set up an inquest to investigate Bio and company. Paradoxically, not for the alleged misappropriation and embezzlement of public money and other human rights abuses, but specifically for the “u-n-l-a-w-f-u-l and e-x-t-r-a-j-u-d-i-c-i-a-l” executions of the late Bambay Kamara and company on allegations of planning to execute a coup to overthrow the NPRC junta. This in itself was also suspect.
The mere announcement received wide local and international condemnation by various facets of society including civil society which preferred sleeping dogs to lie and bygone be bygones as recommended by the TRC. The former TRC chair Bishop JC Humper was the most outspoken in his condemnation.
The only credible international organization which publicly declared support for the inquest was Amnesty International, the world’s biggest human rights institution. But for real justice to be seen to be done, it urged the Government to broaden the scope of the investigations to include all other human rights abuses and violations since independence. As a direct victim of the war who was severely wounded and tortured to almost the point of death and one of my eyes punctured for refusing to compromise my work as a journalist, I ended up reasoning with Amnesty, if only the Government still desire to genuinely go beyond the TRC recommendations, which I was comfortable with. In other words, a holistic inquest, free from any or all political influence, but the Government was unwilling to do that.
Thereafter, the idea either died a natural death or was unceremoniously killed by the Government. This should have finally closed that chapter, but for political propaganda!
Honestly, as a witness and one of the few Statement Takers for the TRC, I always feel upset and offended when I see and hear people attempting to gamble with the future of this nation just to score political goals. If anyone is genuinely concerned about the surviving families of those executed and other victims, he/she must honourably step forward and support them morally and materially, not by politically trading with the death of their loved ones in the public domain and in the process castigating the TRC and trivializing its report.
Coming to look at it, it takes a victim of the war and a forgiving heart to appreciate the pains of losing an arm, gang raped, forced to kill your parents or relatives, or mutilated in cold blood. This political mudslinging is unhealthy and unfair. It must be halted and immediately, as we prepare ourselves for 2012 Presidential, Parliamentary and Municipal Elections, otherwise we must be ready for a violent showdown which stories most of us may not be chance to survive and tell.
If anything, our responsibilities now as patriotic citizens of this nation include teaming up together to assess the status of the implementation of the recommendations of the TRC, popularizing them and devising robust measures for improvement including speeding up the reparation process. Let sleeping dogs lie as we look ahead.

Mustapha M K Sesay is the out gone National Secretary General of SLAJ and can be contacted at/on – Phone: +23276652556, +23277652556, +23233652556. Email: mustapha.sesay@gmail.com

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