Jean-Claude Tohouri and Mamadou Binate live in the same neighbourhood of Abidjan’s Yopougon district, the site of horrific violence during Ivory Coast’s post-election conflict last year. Yet as they recount those turbulent months, it is almost as if they have witnessed different wars.
The conflict erupted after former President Laurent Gbagbo lost the November 2010 election but refused to step down. This sparked a violent reaction that claimed more than 3,000 lives. Tohouri, a 41-year-old unemployed member of Gbagbo’s political party, contends that the most egregious abuses were carried out by pro-Ouattara fighters. He describes how these fighters looted homes after winning the April 2011 battle for Abidjan, leaving some families with nothing.
Binate, a 34-year-old clothing vendor whose family is from the North, a region that is largely loyal to Ouattara, remembers it differently. He says pro-Gbagbo fighters were the worst offenders, pointing to executions of other northerners and West African immigrants that he witnessed first hand.
They can agree on one thing, though: That a truth commission established one year ago, part of a broader attempt by Ouattara to foster reconciliation among the divided populace, has thus far been a failure. “I think they are pitiful,” Tohouri says. And Binate: “I don’t think they’ll be able to accomplish anything.”
Such views are common. And they aren’t without precedent. Created without widespread consultation and given the vague task of investigating abuses committed “in the past and in recent times,” as one commissioner put it, the Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (known by its French acronym CDVR), has accomplished almost nothing.
With just one year left to produce a final report, commissioners still don’t know how far into the past they will probe. And though the commission includes football star Didier Drogba, a markedly unifying figure in a country bereft of them, it is headed by Charles Konan Banny, a former prime minister perceived by Gbagbo loyalists as an Ouattara ally who will be unwilling to hold the president’s fighters to account.
Ivory Coast’s truth commission is not the first in Africa to run into trouble. Though the South African commission remains the world’s most widely-cited success story, the continent is also home to a spectacular failure in Liberia and others, such as in Kenya, with legacies that are still unclear.
But despite this mixed track record, truth commissions are more popular than ever. “It’s actually more uncommon today to see a country go through a transition and not establish a truth commission or look very closely at doing so,” said Priscilla Hayner, author of Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions, which was updated in 2010 to survey 40 commissions.
This trend raises questions about what truth commissions are best suited to accomplish — and whether governments are setting them up for the right reasons. There is also a nagging sense among some experts including Yasmin Sooka, who served on the commissions in South Africa and Sierra Leone, that some commissions are doomed to fail. “It’s become fashionable to establish truth commissions, but I think it’s a knee-jerk response by some governments, who often at the beginning of a transition don’t really know how to deal with these issues,” Sooka said. “And of course in some cases those governments are unwilling to address real questions of accountability.”
The world’s first truth commission was established some 20 years prior to South Africa’s, in Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1974. Charged with investigating disappearances that began after Amin came to power in 1971, the commission documented 308 disappearances and placed the blame at the feet of Amin’s Public Safety Unit and State Research Bureau. Its report was shelved, however, and the commissioners were hounded by the state – one was sentenced to death after being framed for murder. Amin’s reign of persecution and repression lasted until the end of the decade.
But more successful efforts elsewhere in Africa and, notably, Latin America fostered an enthusiasm for truth commissions that was cemented by the South African commission, which is widely credited – especially by international observers – for easing the country’s post-apartheid transition.
However, there are key aspects of the South African commission that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate today, chief among them the granting of amnesties in exchange for testimony. “The legal standards around amnesty have changed,” Hayner said, noting that it is now considered unacceptable to grant amnesty for serious international crimes, and that many countries have signed treaties compelling them to pursue prosecutions.
So what are realistic expectations for a truth commission today? Perhaps the most significant contribution they can make, Hayner told Think Africa Press, is the documentation of human rights abuses in a way that respects victims and acknowledges their voices, something criminal trials can only do in a limited way because they are restricted by the specifics of a given case. “That is something that is attainable, and that is an important end in itself if it can be done well,” she said. She stressed, though, that commissions should never be seen as a replacement for criminal trials.
Sooka said commissions should provide a roadmap for institutional reforms intended to prevent the recurrence of violence, though she and others noted that the implementation of those reforms fall to governments. Still, commissions can work to create a coalition of voices to pressure governments on their recommendations long after the commissions themselves are gone.
These are not easy feats, as evidenced by the records of past commissions. One frequent challenge is a lack of resources, which can reflect a lack of government commitment to a commission’s work. The commission in Chad, formed in 1990 to investigate crimes committed during the reign of Hissene Habré, was initially given only two small automobiles that were ill-equipped to travel even to the outskirts of the capital, N'Djamena, let alone into the provinces. And a shortage of office space meant its headquarters had to be located in a former secret detention centre where torture and executions had occurred, naturally discouraging victims from coming forward.
Another obstacle has been the selection of commissioners, who can be viewed as compromised due to their past roles in government or their previous political allegiances. A dramatic example of this was seen in Kenya, where the government selected a chairman, Bethuel Kiplagat, accused of involvement in some of the very crimes the commission was set to probe - including the slaughter of thousands of ethnic Somalis on an airstrip in 1984. The commission’s vice chairman resigned as a result of this controversy, which ate up valuable time.
Hayner believes that while issues of political independence and resources are critical, the biggest potential barrier to a truth commission’s success is the sheer magnitude of its mandate. “It’s an extraordinarily large task, and the expectations are for the work to be started very quickly,” she said, adding that this requires organisation and cooperation among the individual commissioners. “It’s actually the internal dynamics which are the most difficult.”
This seems to be in part where Liberia went wrong. Charged with investigating human rights abuses between 1979 and 2003, a period that included an intermittent 14-year civil conflict, the commission produced a final report that recommended prosecutions and political bans without fully documenting the evidence that led to those conclusions. Among those it said should be barred from office for 30 years was President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The report has largely been ignored.
Ron Slye, a commissioner in Kenya who came close to resigning over the Kiplagat affair, said that the commission represented a missed opportunity to show that truth commissions can work alongside judicial proceedings. Like in the Ivory Coast, the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya is being investigated by the International Criminal Court.
“I actually think they both have a role and they can work hand in hand,” Slye told Think Africa Press, referring to both commissions and courts. “What should’ve come out of Kenya was a clear demonstration that the two don’t contradict each other. They have different mandates.”
Whether Ivory Coast can provide that example remains very much in doubt. Beyond the problems that were already apparent, commission officials announced in August that they were unable to work due to lack of funds.
Perhaps more worryingly, a spate of attacks on a military base last month has exacerbated political tensions, with Ouattara’s administration blaming Gbagbo supporters. Sery Bailly, a member of the commission and former leader in Gbagbo’s political party, said he believed the commission would be able to finish its work on time, but only if peace endured. “I don’t see how you can bring people to reconcile on a battlefield,” he said. “You have to first stop fighting and then reconciliation becomes relevant.”
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