James Joyce was right that history is a nightmare, the African American writer James Baldwin wrote, reflecting in a somnolent Swiss village on the racial tensions in his country. "But it is a nightmare from which there is no awakening. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them." The words were written about 40 years ago, and were issued out of a specific context. But they seem to have a particular resonance for post-war Liberia.
Over five years after its brutal insurgencies ended with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in 2003 and the deployment of thousands of UN troops (at a cost of over $600 million per year), Liberia is enmeshed in another conflict altogether: a contest over its past and soul. The outline of the story is jarringly seductive, and there were very tantalizing hints of it at the 15-20 (2009) National Conference of Reconciliation organized by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It was held at the Unity Conference Center in Virginia, just outside Monrovia; the center was built for the jinxed Organization of African Unity (OAU) – the precursor of the more robust Africa Union (AU) – in Liberia in 1979 by President William Tolbert, who would be murdered in his bedroom by his own soldiers less than a year later.
Part of the once-famous Hotel Africa, the hall’s main structure – a massive high-rise building – is now a monstrous ruin, making the conference center, still intact and even elegant, something of a minor wonder. On the walls of the annex, which the casual visitor is likely to miss, there is a very telling mural, of a group of confident black people dressed in Western-style clothing getting off a boat to be greeted by apparently dissolute and benighted Africans in their ‘native’ attire. This is not an accurate historical representation, of course, but this is exactly the point. And that point is also captured in the flowering communiqué issued at the end of the conference, the delegates of which, "representing citizens of Liberia from all 15 counties and from all walks of life, background, race, clan [sic] and tribe [sic]," were still able to recall, with no hint of irony, "the spirit of all our Great ancestors, who through love of unity, freedom, justice and liberty founded this great Nation." This is the standard, vainglorious narrative of Liberia’s history, and here we are told that it is shared by "perpetrators and victims of crimes of all forms and degrees against our fellow brothers and sisters" during the country’s recent wars.
Surely the presence of perpetrators and victims imply contest; and so an unruly voice among the drafters asserts itself, calling for "a historical review commission [to] be established to review Liberia’s history and produce a version of it that reflects the lives of the people met here by the settlers in 1822." It persists on to point 24 of the communiqué, declaring that "the motto in the seal of Liberia should] be changed from its current form, ‘The love of liberty brought us here,’ to instead read: ‘The love of liberty unites us here’." In this same revisionist mood, the communiqué also called for "a national culture center [to] be established to promote Liberia’s diverse culture[s]," as well as for "a national consultation process [to] be set-up to determine a single indigenous dialect to be spoken throughout the country and taught in Liberian schools."
You now get the basic idea. In its modern form, Liberia was established by the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1827 as a colony for American freed slaves. The condition of freed blacks in the United States at the time was both pressing and complex for America’s (racist) white masters like Jefferson, for they amounted to hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Jefferson and his revolutionary colleagues clearly did not envisage that their ideas of independence and liberty, which had led them to revolt against British colonial rule, should extend to their own black population. These leaders thought that the chief solution would be to repatriate the blacks to Africa, where they would live in liberty with themselves. This point has been much stressed by various writers – from the English novelist and travel writer Graham Greene to the Liberian (indigenous) nationalist and academic George Boley, who later emerged as a factional leader during Liberia’s recent civil wars – but it surely had been settled over a century ago by that erudite Pan Africanist Edward Blyden. Noting the influential African voices in America who were yearning at the time for a return to Africa, Blyden wrote that while the whites clearly wanted to expel the freed slaves, the Liberian project "was in harmony with the instincts and desires of the Africans in America."
The only problem was that by a cruel sub-Freudian dynamic, the "instincts and desires" of these Africans would come to reflect exactly the pathos and contradictions of the American revolutionaries: in Liberia they replicated the system of servitude they had known in the antebellum South, only this time with them as masters and the majority indigenous Africans as virtual slaves. This is hardly surprising: the classical writers of ancient Greece and Rome, the world’s first organised slave societies, had thousands of years ago postulated something about the "slave mentality", the idea that a slave remains a slave even when freed, because the mind remains shackled and conditioned by an experience which makes freedom meaningful only if it exists side by side with servitude. This is Liberia’s foundational deformity, if you will, and it is why post-war Liberia today is burden by a very special anxiety: the fear that it is relapsing into that condition against which the struggles of the late 1970s, the nihilistic coup of 1980, and the subsequent collapse into bloody anarchy was triggered.
That anxiety is most clearly expressed in the TRC report released early in July, the month that Liberia celebrated its 163th year as a Republic, making it the oldest in Africa. The TRC had been established by an Act of the Legislature in 2005, and in the course of its ponderous work collected more than 20,000 statements from victims as well as alleged perpetrators during the country’s nearly fifteen years of brutal civil war, 1989-2003. The Commission was mandated to inquire into Liberia’s tragic past from as far back as January 1979 – the final year of Americo-Liberian rule, and ten years before the war began – to 14 October 2003, the day of the inauguration of the transitional government which replaced Charles Taylor’s rule. This time-span was a compromise reflecting a fundamental Liberian problem: the tiny but still-powerful Americo-Liberian elite tend to view the crisis of state collapse and violence as beginning with the coup of 1980, which overthrew William Tolbert, the last of Americo-Liberian oligarchs. On the other hand, the majority indigenous Liberians tend to think that the coup resulted from the disastrous nature of the Americo-Liberian True Whig rule, contending that the entire period from 1847 to 1980 was disenfranchising, laying the foundation for the war that began in 1989. In fact, Article IV of the TRC Act stated that the Commission could look at "any other period preceding 1979" in order to create an "accurate historical record" of the past which would form the basis of reconciliation.
Thoughtful Liberians have long deplored the paucity or absence of such a historical record. In Wilton Sankawulo’s vastly underrated novel Sundown at Dawn: A Liberian Odyssey (2005), a very wise character (doubtless the author’s alter-ego) vents his frustration about this fact, noting that Liberia will move forward in peace and stability "Only if we know our history – history that highlights our strengths and other resources. But the true history of Liberia is yet to be written. All we have is a jumble of journals, reports, and memos which tell us when Liberian was founded, who have been its presidents – what parties have been in power – what nations aided us…we’re thriving on chaos and mistrust because we don’t know our true history." The 370 pages of the TRC’s Consolidated and Final Report attempts to fulfill such a task, but it is hard to imagine that Sankawulo, Liberia’s foremost literary figure who died early this year, would have found it almost entirely disappointing.
Here I must state, by way of full disclosure, that from January 2008 to June 2009 (shortly before the report was submitted) I was head of International Center for Transitional Justice’s (ICTJ) Liberia Program, and that the TRC was one of the core institutions we worked with rather closely. It was, however, a very difficult relationship, to put it no stronger, though it continued till the end of my tenure without open rancour.
Predictably, the report has a long list of "causes" for Liberia’s slide into civil war, including the "over-centralization and the oppressive dominance of the Americo-Liberian oligarchy" (who at no point have constituted more than five per cent of the population) over the indigenous Liberians; a weak judiciary, tribalism, disputes over land acquisition, distribution and accessibility, and "lack of clarity and understanding of Liberia’s history including its history of conflicts."
Few would have any problem with this, though one can certainly quibble. A large part of the report is taken up by interesting but somewhat extraneous discussions around concept, methodology, personalities of those involved with the Commission, and various other mundane details. The historical section, deemed the most important, is brief to the point of terseness, and it is rather problematic. It opens, bewilderingly, with a notorious quote from Hugh Trevor-Roper, a former Regius Professor of History at Oxford, dismissing the idea of African history ("it does not exist"!) Perhaps the report-writers should have pressed further with Trevor-Roper, who for much of his career had to fend off accusations of racism and anti-semeticism, for he elaborated his foolish thesis by arguing that before European arrival in Africa, there was only "the gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the world." Would such a dubious authority aid the TRC’s efforts in trying to include the contributions of indigenous Liberians to the development of the modern state of Liberia? Is the TRC saying that pre-Settler Liberia is irrelevant?
There is truth in the following observation (appearing in the historical section): "Central to understanding the socio-political conflict and its degeneration into armed conflict in the evolving history of Liberia is the choice made by the early leadership of Liberia from colony, to commonwealth and statehood. It was a choice of purpose or political direction for the new enterprise. One option was a Euro-American orientation with the idea of a civilizing and christianizing mission at its core. The other option was to attempt to build an African nationality that blended Western and African values, as Edward Wilmot Blyden and others have advocated. The choice of the former is at the root of Liberia’s yet unresolved historical problem of political identity and legitimacy. The choice, in time, alienated, marginalized, degraded not only the majority of the inhabitants of the Liberia area, but implicitly the very westernized black leaders who bought into and adopted the views derived from American colonialist sentiments."
Again, one can quibble. Blyden has recently emerged as the great intellectual and political hero of Liberia, the most important inclusive personality among the settler types (in Boima Fahnbulleh’s remarkable historical novel Behind God’s Back, published in 2005, the same point is made even more forcefully, with Blyden appearing in the novel as "Dr. Caldwell".) This is largely a myth, of course, and its appearance in the TRC report is telling. Blyden, as a highly cultured man, was certainly disdainful of the vulgarities of settler politics, and he had little time, himself a proud "unadulterated Negro", for the Mulattos who dominated early Liberian politics: his quaint racial theory had them as degenerate and effeminate, an inferior breed. But far from being a consistent spokesman on behalf of indigenous Liberians, Blyden advocated the bringing in of more blacks from America and the Caribbean. Reflecting the views of some of his European friends, he looked upon indigenous Africans as degraded and benighted – the issue of equality with them did not arise in his mind.
Blyden himself was forced to flee Liberia by his political enemies, and he settled in Sierra Leone, where he died. Liberia remained in its state of inertia; at the end of the nineteenth century the settlers numbered only 25,000. When in 1874 the Liberian government decided that other groups adjacent to Monrovia would be allowed representation in the national legislature as "referees and advisers", their advice was restricted to matters involving their own ethnic groups, and they were denied the vote. It is entirely moot given their background and demographic disadvantage whether the settlers could have afforded a more inclusive state: for political purposes, history does not make room for such nuance. Liberia, in fact, was probably too weak and indigent to have expanded its writ much: by the end of the 19th century, its entire budget, about 25,000 pounds sterling, was less than half what its neighbour Sierra Leone was spending on education.
Liberia’s fortune changed radically when in 1926 President Charles Dunbar Burgess King (who was born in Sierra Leone of settler descent) signed an agreement with the American Firestone Company to invest $20 million in rubber plantation; the company also gave a loan of $5 million to the government, and then took the management of the country’s customs to ensure the loan was paid back. Firestone fueled both a measure of economic growth and an extreme form of patrimonial corruption, with receipts from its taxes and royalties being controlled directly by the Presidency. This ensured that the Liberian government had enough resources to ignore the overall socio-economic development of the country, as well make the Presidency a very potent and overwhelming force. The relationship between the Monrovia government and the indigenous population was skewed that a League of Nations investigation in 1931 actually recommended that Liberia be deprived of its independence and colonized. In the mid 1950s, William Tubman, the embodiment of this new patrimonialism, had made the presidency utterly personalized: maintaining his personal yacht, bought at crippling cost by the indigent state, cost more than the allocation for education for Liberia’s 2 million people. He was succeeded, after 27 years in power, by Tolbert, who was overthrown by the nihilistic Samuel Doe, a former Master Sergeant. Under his bloodthirsty reign, Liberia dissolved into anarchy.
However fair one wants to be about Liberia’s settler elite, it is clear that they, out of ignorance, avarice or existential necessity, refused to adhere to Edmund Burke’s vision of a state as a partnership with its citizens in all arts and sciences, in all virtues and vices, in all endeavours great and small. And they refused to see that disenfranchisement, the relegation of a large body of people to a position that Baldwin called that of "disesteemed," leads to rage. That rage, as Baldwin saw clearly, may be "personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable; this rage, so generally discounted, so little understood…is one of the things that make history." Liberian history for the past quarter century – from the Doe coup to the Taylor-inspired insurgencies – has been driven exactly by this rage of the disesteemed.
While the TRC report captures some of these undercurrents, the analysis often seem breezy and pat, as though what is being presented is self-evident: the writers do not even bother to make attributions (footnotes etc).
Attention is likely to focus on the recommendations around lustration and prosecution, but the manner in which these are made is rather irresponsible and foolish. The report notes that "Prosecution in a court of competent jurisdiction and other forms of public sanctions are [sic] desirable and appropriate mechanisms to promote the ends of justice, peace and security, foster genuine national reconciliation and combat impunity." And it asserts – without careful, deliberative evidence-based demonstration – that a number of groups, entities and individuals were "involved in a joint criminal enterprise or conspiracy, which planned, instigated, ordered, commanded, aided or abetted in the planning, preparation or execution" of crimes against humanity during the Liberian wars. The phrase "joint criminal enterprise" is the reductive, depoliticizing and intellectually slovenly formulation of David Crane, former prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Its use in the TRC report that pretends to weigh the political, economical and social factors that led to the civil war in Liberia is unfortunate – and utterly inapt.
The following, deemed the "Significant Violator Groups" in the category of culpability, are well known and deserve little comment: Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which is found to have been responsible for most of the violations, 41 per cent; Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD); George Boley’s Liberian Peace Council (LPC); Militia [sic]; Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL); United Liberation Movement (ULIMO); Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL); Unknown [sic]; United Liberation Movement-K (ULIMO K); Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL); United Liberation Movement-J (ULIMO J); and Anti-Terrorist Unity (ATU). In all, 106 people, including leaders of all the warring factions, are recommended for prosecution by an Extraordinary Court for "gross Human rights violations and war crimes." But 36 persons, except for Joe Wylie all rather unknown characters, are exempted by the TRC from prosecution "though found to be responsible [for violations] because they cooperated with the TRC process, admitted to the crimes committed and spoke truthfully before the Commission and expressed remorse for their prior actions during the war."
Doubtless the most unexpected, and certainly the most outrageous, recommendation is the one dealing with lustration. The TRC recommended that 52 persons, who were "political leaders and financiers of different warring factions", should be barred from holding public office for 30 years. This category includes – sigh! – the current President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. It also includes the academic Byron Tarr, whose very useful analysis of the early stages of the war has been much cited by other academics. The list seems to come from nowhere: there is little in the entire report to suggest that most of the personalities were culpable in anything; in fact few of the names on the list are mentioned in the actual report – making the recommendation seem rather glib and asinine. President Sirleaf appears a few times in the report, and her name is thrown about rather carelessly: we are told somewhere that "Amongst Doe’s staunchest and most active political opponents in the Diaspora were Dr. Amos Sawyer and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both victims of Doe’s brutality," and that Sirleaf "led the pro Taylor elements while Dr Amos Sawyer led the opposition to any form of engagement or support to Charles Taylor." Again, we read that as Taylor became "increasingly unpopular, he lost the popular support of the Liberian people and his traditional political allies and financiers in Liberia, including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf."
This is about all – Sirleaf was not in leadership position at the time, and she has provided a convincing account of his dealings with Taylor, both to the TRC and in his memoirs, This Child will be Great (Harper Collins, 2009). Her first meeting was when "sometime in 1989" Taylor was presented to a group she belonged to in the US, the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL); the second was in a Paris hotel just before the war started in Liberia, at which Sirleaf suggests buying breakfast for Taylor and Tom Woewiyu, who had unexpectedly visited. Taylor said, ‘The money you spend for breakfast you could give to us’. She gave them the money, adding with a touch of pathos: "It was clear to me that whatever their plans, they were not going well at the moment if they needed the price of breakfast to keep on." And finally when Sirleaf ventured into Taylor territory during the war to present him with $10,000 her group had raised – to feed his troops and civilians trapped on his side of the frontlines. Sirleaf writes that she was appalled by Taylor’s viciousness and lack of a reforming vision for Liberia. She cut her ties with Taylor after that.
This account may well be abbreviated, incomplete; but the TRC does not present an alternative narrative: it simply makes assertions, perhaps convinced that by simply doing so they would be taken at face value. This really in a way defeats the purpose for which more than $8 million was expended on the TRC – Sirleaf’s government, as well as many other donors, was supportive throughout – in a period of two years. In fact this very dull, padded, and somewhat shabby report is rescued from utter irrelevance by its being so outrageous and irresponsible in the recommendations section. Can any sensible person who has seen the immense accomplishment of the Sirleaf government since it came to power in 2006 suggest with a straight face that she is unfit for public office?
More useful and interesting is the statistical data, analysed for the TRC by the US-based charity Benetech. We learn that forced displacement accounted for the most violations, 36 per cent (or 58849 cases), to be followed by killing at 17.1 per cent, or 28,042 direct war-related killings. This should cause some reflections on some of the casualty figures usually bandied about for the war. The TRC accepts these figures, but curiously rejects another set of statistics produced for them by Benetech – which had determined that about 60 per cent of Liberians would rather "forgive and forget" the crimes of the past: in other words, the overwhelming majority of Liberians rejected prosecution for the offences committed during the war. I have myself recommended some kind of prosecution for the egregious crimes committed with impunity in Liberia during the war, but I found this statement by the TRC totally confusing: "The catalogue of violations enumerated [in the report] evidences the distinct nature of violations of human rights that characterized the conflict in Liberia. Rightly so, the TRC has determined that gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws, egregious domestic violations and other forms of violations were very much pervasive in Liberia’s several wars and armed conflict during the TRC mandated period of review." The TRC "determines": so what was the point of the public hearings, the very elaborate effort to collect statements and views from across the board all over Liberia? Are these to be dismissed so glibly? This cavalier approach seriously undermines the relevance the report itself.
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