Africa After War: Paths to Forgiveness – Mercy vs. justice as Liberia heals itself
Liberia's new Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeks a balance between punishment and forgiveness.
(Page 2 of 3)
Yet in addressing even the most brutal wrongs, Kulah says, it's important to consider extenuating factors. "There are always reasons" for misdeeds, he says. In Liberia they included commanders' orders, drug use, fear, and previous mistreatment. And redemption is always possible, he says: "A good person can act bad, but if you forgive him, his God-nature can resurface." Yet, true repentance, he warns, requires admission, remorse, and transformation on the part of the wrongdoer. Turning stern, he has these words for any perpetrators who might fake regret to try to gain leniency from the TRC: "The grace of God is not cheap."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
He hopes to shepherd Liberia's victims toward forgiveness – for their own good, and the country's. Unlike South Africa's TRC, Liberia's cannot grant amnesty. As its charter was hammered out in 2003, Western donors and Liberian civil society groups successfully blocked efforts to give it amnesty powers, which weren't seen as appropriate, given the severity of the atrocities. Nor were Westerners – who are heavily involved in Liberia's reconstruction – as supportive of amnesty as Africans tend to be.
So, the TRC's major function is to gather testimony – and decide whether to recommend prosecution for individual perpetrators. In doing so, it must consider each victim's desires. Consequently, whether victims are willing to forgive their perpetrators is crucial to the TRC's broader aim of reconciliation.
Kulah hopes Liberia's victims will take his approach, which he describes as, "forgive and forget – but remember." Indeed, he may have forgiven and forgotten the misdeeds visited on his family, but, especially on each anniversary of his father's death, he says, "I will always remember him."
* * *
Massa Washington was far from ready to leave America to come back here to Liberia. She didn't want to give up her beloved cat, or forgo the raise she'd just gotten at her job as a journalist in Philadelphia, or stop attending graduate school, or say goodbye to American friends who'd nurtured her after she fled Liberia in 1999.
But in November 2005, after a process that involved public nominations and extensive winnowing, she was picked as a TRC commissioner.
At first she resisted. She loved a lot about the US, including its rights-based, justice-focused culture. "Even the least-educated American will tell you they have rights" – and defend them in court, she says, in awe. Even debtors, she marvels, have the right not to be harassed by creditors.
By contrast, Liberia has a "culture of impunity" that routinely "violates peoples' rights." Liberians either "don't know about their rights" or don't defend them, she says, because they believe, often rightly, that "nothing will happen."
Indeed, it was the realization that she could put her five years of experience in the US to work for her homeland that finally helped her decide to come back.
But it has been a big adjustment. Once, when a Liberian colleague was phoning incessantly to argue a point with her, she finally blurted out, "If you call me again, I'm going to sue you for harassment." She quickly realized such a suit wasn't possible in Liberia's rights-anemic legal system. "It was my American-ness coming out," she says with a resigned smile.
She does see positive elements in Liberia – and Africa's – communal-based culture. In her family, as in many families, "We were taught to look after everyone else." Since her arrival, her brothers and cousins have treated her "like a queen." They constantly ask if she needs a meal cooked or clothes ironed.
Yet this community-based ethic has downsides, she says. When a woman is raped, for instance, she's often seen as a blot on her community and cast out – ostensibly for the good of the community, which is often male-dominated. Or if a father sexually abuses a child, and the mother tells others in an attempt to prevent it, the mother is typically told by elders to keep quiet – to preserve family and community honor. Such lack of justice is an outrage, Washington says, and, "Indirectly the community should be held liable."