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Truth As a Function of the Available Facts: Truth and Reconciliation Amidst a Culture of Silence

By Aaron Sleh (March 18th 2006)    

"...In nearly every case that will come before the TRC, there will be loads of accusations and counter accusations. But somewhere at the bottom of this heap of claims and denials - somewhere at the bottom of it all - will lie the truth. ...”

(A paper commissioned by Civic Initiative as part of its sensitization support to the TR process in Liberia)


The truth is a slippery thing. But the truth can still be grasped. Moreover, truths are absolutes. They do not depend on outside factors before they can be. They simply are, whether we are aware of them or not. Our ignorance of a truth does not negate that truth. The truth continues to exist, even if it has to carry on its existence outside the borders of our knowledge. But a truth we do not know leaves us that much powerless, for knowledge itself is power.

Lack of knowledge about a relevant truth renders understanding of our reality somewhat inadequate. When a people do not have an effective understanding of their own reality, they tend to make many mistakes in the decisions they make and the actions they take. Even worse, they tend to repeat these mistakes over and again, as we have done in Liberia for more than 150 years.

The truth is always worth knowing whether we like it or not. So even if the truth does not reveal itself, it is our duty to “discover” it, to get to know it. To know the truth about something – to know the complete truth about it – is to know everything about everything related to it. This is not always easy. After all, human beings are not gods.

In the end then, since we cannot always know the absolute truth, what we are left with are perceptions of the truth, approximations of it. These perceptions are shaped by our biases, prejudices, and assumptions. Most importantly, they are shaped by the facts we have in hand. Truth then becomes a function of the available facts.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is about to begin the work of confronting Liberians with their bitter past. Along the way, it will try to reconcile them with each other. Crucial to this process is the “truth” about many incidents in Liberian history, remote and recent.

Who committed the Carter Camp Massacre, for instance? A major international report, the Waco Commission Report, blamed the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). But elements of the defunct National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) are said to have boasted in public about the cunning and daring with which they executed the selfsame massacre. So who’s telling the truth?

What is the truth about the Lutheran Church Massacre? Who slaughtered those innocent people and why? Was it Samuel Doe who led the killers? Or was it somebody else wearing a mask to look like Doe as we are told by Leonard and Sadie DeShield? (Deshield, Leonard & Sadie Beneath the Cold War: The Death of a Nation.Professionals Press Publishers.)

Who killed President Tolbert? Was it seventeen half-literate peasant soldiers, or was it a professional assassin unleashed by a world power? In the above cited book, the authors “conclude that the death of Tolbert was orchestrated by the CIA with considerable involvement of the American embassy near Monrovia.” Is this the truth, or a lie? People must know. (Doe, J. Kpanneh “Book Reviews and Commentary”,

Who bears the greatest responsibilities for the gruesome killings at the various checkpoints along the Careysburg-Gbarnga highway? Is it Isaac Musa or Charles Taylor? Is it the individual soldiers at the checkpoints, or is it the men and women of the Liberian political class who are alleged to have negotiated Taylor’s release from American jail and financed his rebel war?

What about the disappearances and summary executions carried out in Monrovia and other places by Samuel Doe’s death squads as the regime teetered on the brink of collapse. Was this a one-man show by Doe? Or are there others among us – officials and operatives from that blood-dripped regime – who are equally guilty?

Who is guilty for the savage slaughter of Liberians in the Grey Stone Compound due to mortar attacks during the LURD assault on Monrovia? Is it the particular LURD fighters who fired the mortars? Is it perhaps Sekou Konneh and his estranged wife, Aisha, joint leaders of LURD? But these were American-supplied weapons, according to the Taylor regime. If this is true, then what were US-issued weapons doing in the arsenal of a West African guerrilla band? Are bigger hands than Sekou and Aisha ultimately responsible for the Grey Stone slaughter?

What about the horrifying mutilation of Samuel Doe? Who orchestrated the setup at Freeport? What was the role of ECOMOG and the Ghanaian general Arnold Quinoo in that setup?

Five American nuns were murdered in cold blood in Monrovia during the infamous “Operation Octopus”. The NPFL of Charles Taylor blamed ECOMOG for this crime; ECOMOG blamed the NPFL. People need to know the unimpeachable, public truth of the case. What is this truth?

Two Nigerian journalists were murdered in 1990 allegedly at the hands of the NPFL. Up to the time of its dissolution, the NPFL remained in denial about this matter. Are they really guilty or not? The issue must be put beyond dispute.

On another level, who is guilty for the murder of student leader Wuo Tappia? Is it the Krahn gunman who is alleged to have pulled the trigger, or the commander who may have ordered the killing?

What of Dr. Stephen Yekeson? Who murdered Robert Phillips? How did Charles Gbeyon really die, and who killed him? Who murdered R. Vanjah Richards? Who killed Nowai Flomo? Who killed Samuel Dokie and his family? Someone murdered Johnny Nah and his family. Who did? What about all those other people who were raped, tortured, and whose homes were burned? What are the truths in these many cases?

In nearly every case that will come before the TRC, there will be loads of accusations and counter accusations. But somewhere at the bottom of this heap of claims and denials - somewhere at the bottom of it all - will lie the truth.

But the TRC may not be able to uncover this truth if it does not have all the facts. It may give us an official truth which turns out to be an actual lie. It may hold the wrong people accountable for certain crimes, while the actual perpetrators are rolling on the ground from laughter because someone else is going to hell for their sins. The TRC may do these things if it does not know the truth.

The truth must be told. But before that, the facts must be known. The question is, who will tell us these facts?

Liberia is a society in the grips of the culture of silence. People feel guilty about talking. They are also afraid to talk. Perhaps equally important, they believe it is pointless to talk because nothing will change anyway. This is as true of those who have walked the corridors of power all their lives, as it is of the most timid and illiterate peasants in the remotest part of Liberia.

Many Liberians have been brought up to believe – through secret societies, fraternities, and other socialization mechanisms - that it is wrong to give testimony which could expose someone you “know” to imprisonment or public disgrace. It is this tradition which has provided sanctuary for rapists, child molesters and other criminals in our communities. It has also provided sanctuary for the most corrupt elements in our schools, our churches and the workplace.

Generally, people resort to “talking it the family way”, which is effectively a euphemism for pretending that nothing bad has happened. Other times, they call on the aggrieved party to forget the matter “for the sake of peace”. This is just a nice way of saying, “go and lick your wounds in private, please!” All this has the effect of leading people into the thinking that truth is incompatible with peace. In the end, people are conditioned into the mindset that it is better to keep quiet and maintain a surface tranquility than to speak up and cause a ripple of disquiet. When they are forced to do otherwise, they start to feel a false sense of guilt.

On the other end of the spectrum is the question of fear for one’s own safety. Retribution is a palpable fact of life in an impunity culture like Liberia. This, after all, is the country that has rewarded mass murderers with some of the highest offices in the land. This is the same society that has inducted members of kill squads and death gangs into its police and armed forces, practically turning what should be the security forces into “insecurity forces”. In the face of such realities - coupled with a very weak criminal justice system and a highly corrupt judiciary – many people are understandably afraid to speak up and say the truth.

Despite all these odds, there are still a courageous few who are prepared to say what they know for the sake of justice. But some of these may be turned off by their perception that all of this speaking up and telling the truth will lead nowhere; that things will stay just as they have always been in Liberia, where the strong prey on the weak with impunity, and evil men and women hold sway.

But whatever their reasons, we cannot afford for people to submit to the rule of silence during this truth and reconciliation (TR) process. Everybody who knows anything must come forth and say all that they know to the TRC.

Former and current diplomats, ministers, presidential aides and advisers, as well as other public figures and officials must come forth. Bodyguards, confidantes, spouses, lovers, and relatives of former warlords, military commanders, and political leaders must come forth as well. So too must journalists, aid workers, human rights activists and everybody else. We owe this to ourselves and our children.

The truth commissioners will need to know all the facts about each and every case that is brought before them, before they can make the sort of interpretations that will mirror the truth. Anything less than the full facts would put the Commissioners in a dangerous position. They would be forced to make judgment on the basis of insufficient facts.

Naturally, such judgments are apt to fall short of the truth. The likely consequences of such an outcome do not bode well for Liberia. First of all, it would discredit the entire TR process, casting it in the same light as other failed TR projects around the world. The Uruguayan TRC, for example, is one of the most discredited in the world. In part this is because, for lack of sufficient evidence, the Uruguayan TRC “could not find conclusive proof to blame the military for the murder of two parliamentarians”, although the view was widely held that the military was responsible for the crimes (Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths. Routledge p. 54).

Another consequence that could follow if the Liberian TRC were to make wrong judgments due to insufficient facts is this: people would walk away from the TR process more bitter and aggrieved than before. The truth would have eluded us, and reconciliation would still be a mirage. We would have opened old wounds without healing them. People would go home to lick these wounds, but they would go home seething with rage and resentment for being denied the truth which is so crucial for restorative justice. It is this same kind of rage and resentment that catalyzed the bloodbath of the 1990s.

In case we do not realize it yet, let it be clear to all Liberians now that each “truth” handed down by the TRC will be only as good as the facts that inform it. If the facts are inadequate, the “truth” may turn out to be an outright lie. Then instead of a Truth Commission, we may have on our hands a Lies Commission.

May God spare us that disgrace

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