Wednesday, January 14, 2009



Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

It was in the interest of national reconciliation and the promotion of an environment of genuine coexistence that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established as part of resolutions at the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra in 2003. Since the commencement of its activities in the country, we have witnessed the appearance of victims, perpetrators as well as witnesses or individuals who have experiences or involvement with certain events during the conflict. In that direction, we have heard the testimonies of key actors, including the leaders of the NPFL, INPFL, ULIMO-K, ULIMO-J, MODEL, LURD, LPC, and other smaller groups that were duped as ‘defend forces’ for tribal or geographical settings. Individuals associated with the People’s redemption Council and the mass citizen-driven revolutionary groups of PAL and MOJA have also appeared and vivid accounts of their experiences during the internecine political decadence our country went though were delivered publicly. It is also of interest to state that children, civil society actors, women advocates, and media practitioners and historians delivered presentation on their own experiences. This indicates the relevance of the reconciliation process, and the resolved commitment of the people of Liberia to reconcile history and set a stage through structural and institutional change to avoid recurrence of conflict. Even those that were directly affected (those whose families were broken apart, homes and properties destroyed, loved ones killed) have embraced the process and are mustering the courage in true spirit of nationalism appearing before the Commission.
At this critical and terminal point of public hearings in the work of the Commission, the attention of this series has been drawn to a very simple issue – the appearance of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - that have turned to be controversial due to misinterpretation, misinformation, sycophancy, and the traditional Liberian style of favor-buying from the power-that- be. This edition of the series intends not to further deepen the controversies of the debate, but to emphasize the need for the President to appear, and not ignoring her right to an alternative appearance as provided by the TRC ACT.
Since the debate concerning the public appearance of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf surfaced in the intellectual gymnasium, many commentators have argued that the President should not appear in public, some have campaigned for her public appearance like main perpetrators have done, but others, like the Attorney General of Liberia, have argued against any form of appearance by the President. The legal premise of those who are against public appearance and non-appearance have been based on Article 61 of the 1986 Constitution: “The President shall be immune from any suits, actions or proceedings, judicial or otherwise, and from arrest, detention or other actions on the account of any act done by him while President of Liberia pursuant to any provision of this Constitution or any other laws of the Republic. The President shall not however, be immune from prosecution upon removal from office for the commission of any criminal act done while President”.
At the same time, this argument has been buttressed by what they call ‘protecting the reverence of the office of the presidency’. As for the Attorney General, he had warned that the President should not appear on the basis of his assumption that some commissioners ‘could seek to also use the opportunity to embarrass or humiliate the presidency and this most noble office’. But this is a sheer sycophancy and a direct attempt to undermine the credibility of the Commissioners and their efforts in reconciling this country. The office of the presidency has no ounce of reverence to lose by appearing before the TRC to willingly make presentation on experiences, and answering questions from Commissioners which may primarily be drawn from testimonies of previous witnesses concerning the role of President Sirleaf in the civil crisis. Giving the office of the Presidency the noblest reverence, it remains prudent that as a person her position should not bereft her of her humanity and personality. That is, her position as a president should not restrict her from doing what she has openly expressed willingness to do in the national interest (not violating the constitution), and should also not deny her the opportunity to clear doubts of her involvement in the civil crisis as there are numerous claims on this subject.
The misinterpretation of Article 61 by those pseudo-constitutionalists is the belief or assumption that the TRC is a court, or proceedings at the TRC are forms of prosecution. An invitation to appear before a truth commission to give accounts of experiences is in no way an indictment, a suit nor an arrest. And statements at a truth commission, like the Liberian TRC, cannot be used in any court of law against the person making them (TRC ACT-Article VII, Section 30). The Commission’s sole mandate, according to its Act of 2005, is to promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation. It is pursuant to that mandate that hearings are held to document the historical occurrences and the experiences of key players of the civil crisis, victims, witnesses, experts and individuals of interest to the process.
Another erratic and blatant bias on the part of the pseudo-constitutionalist is their deliberate refusal to interpret Article 97 of the 1986 Constitution which protects members of the People’s Redemption Council from answering questions at any proceedings regarding their roles in the change of government in 1980, and all other actions taken by the Council thereafter. Interestingly members of the PRC have appeared and their appearances in the eyes of those pseudo-constitutionalists have not contradicted any constitutional provision since they have kept silence on it. If history were to accidentally make President Sirleaf a member of the PRC, the basis of their argument would have been on Article 97 (but glory be to God she survived that historical accident).
President Sirleaf had promised to lead by example, and initiatives in her regime are manifestations of the fulfillment of that promise. She has taken bold steps to kickoff many national projects intentionally to encourage her fellow Liberians to follow. This was demonstrated when she took the HIV/AIDS and other Tests. Her mini agriculture project in her back yard and many other initiatives are resounding examples of leadership by example. In like manner, had President Sirleaf being the first to testify before the TRC, considering results yielded from initiatives she had launched, could make one to believe that the TRC would have had more witnesses than it currently have. And those threatening to boycott the process, particularly ministers in government, would have thought twice.
Her appearance before the Commission, no matter what is never late as she will be treated like any other witness as a prominent Liberian during the war years and not as the President of Liberia. Some witnesses have alleged that she directly participated in the. One witness claimed that he saw her in military outfits in rebel control areas; another witnessed linked her to the 1985 abortive coup. The veracities of those claims are yet to be established. There is also a statement attributed to her concerning the dismantling of the Executive Mansion during the heat of the war. The TRC public hearing is a ‘one-stop shop’ opportunity for every Liberian including President Sirleaf to perforate the rumor-balloon of their involvement with the civil crisis.
There are alternatives to appearing before the TRC. A witness could chose to appear in Camera by an application for proceedings to be held in camera by victims, perpetrators or witnesses and such application shall be considered and passed upon as the commission deems fit (TRC ACT – Art. VII Sec. 26, ii). President Sirleaf like any other Liberian has rights to all available alternatives.
But considering Liberia as a rumor- based society, where rumors, rather than facts spread quickly, we see it prudent and expedient that President Sirleaf muster the courage to appear before the TRC in public. This will not only promote her leadership by example campaign, but will help to clarify the doubts that many Liberians have concerning her involvement with war in this country. At the same time her failure to appear publicly will indirectly gown the claims of the previous witnesses as fact. Finally, this is a call to President Sirleaf, that for the sake of the national good, for the interest of those that admire her and willing to know about her involvement with the crisis, and for the clarifications of public doubts, and for the defense of her humanity she must disregard all ill-advices and make a public appearance at the TRC. If possible this must be broadcast live on all radio and television stations for many Liberians to have the opportunity to obtain first hand information.
It is a Liberian parable that says ‘the kojologbo (bitter medicine) is too bitter, but you must close your eyes to drink it with courage, and you will be healed”.

-In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice, the Pen Shall Never Run Dry-