Togo's do-nothing Truth Commission


Version Française. No one said it would be easy to bring out the truth about Togo’s half-century of political violence that has rocked the country since 1958, culminating in 2005’s controversial presidential election with its 500 people killed and thousands of others wounded, as reported by the UN.

But after one year on the job, Togo's Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (CRVJ) is known more for what is has not accomplished than for anything it has done. And after months of silence and invisibility, the Commission has only recently begun defending itself and its actions to the public.

“I must be honest with you. I share the feeling expressed by some who wonder what the Commission has done so far,” Bishop Nicodème Barrigah-Benissan, President of the CVJR, told a press conference on June 3rd 2010.

“We were very public about our activities at the beginning of our appointment, but we have kept silent in the time since, which is not very understandable. We now want to break our silence and say that in fact, we have not been inactive.”

Barrigah-Benissan was repeating what the Togolese public already knew very well. From September 2009 till June 2010, the Commission seemed to be at a complete standstill. And the Commisson members’ silence during this period was incomprehensible to the press and the population of Togo.

According to Bishop Nicodeme, unexpected “socio-political events” pushed the activities of the Commission onto the back burner.

“Due to the troubling rising tensions around the presidential election, we had to put aside Commission activities and devote ourselves to the electoral process, given that elections in a climate of violence would certainly not have helped the work of our institution,” Bishop Barrigah explained.

Normally in the process of a Commission of this type, there are three to six months devoted to the preparatory phase, Barrigah pointed out. He suggested that this preparatory phase should not even be counted as part of the operational timeline.

“People have the impression that we lost a whole year doing nothing concrete. That’s just not accurate,” Barrigah said. “The results are there!”

According to Barrigah, the Commission’s results included 48 meetings with leaders of political parties and 20 meetings with the UN High Commission on Human Rights in Togo. During the preparations for Togo’s 2010 presidential elections, the Commission organized 24 meetings throughout the country calling for peace during the voting, he added.

In fact, the Commission has now used half of its pre-determined life cycle without getting beyond the “preparatory” phase. According to Article 8 of the decree that established the Commission, all the work should be completed within eighteen months. The Commission may request an additional six months beyond that to carry out its mission.

But to date, the Commission has not been able to give any approximate date by which they will be able to finish their mission.

“We are apprehensive about the time constraint the CVJR is working under,” the Bishop confessed. “Due to the lengthy preparatory phase and the presidential election, it will be impossible for the CVJR to keep to its initial timeline.”

With the growing pressure from the public and time slipping away, the Commission is now pushing ahead with the next phases of its work to collect witness testimonies of violence and abuses. This will be followed by the investigative phase to confirm the testimonies.

The Commission is relying on a new website and a toll-free telephone line to collect and compile testimonies.

The toll-free “green line,” (800 12 12) as it is known in Togo, is for those far away from the Commission or who have no financial means to appear in person. Anyone who wants to be heard will be guaranteed a listening and sympathetic ear, said the Commission president.

The website will be for Togolese living abroad to get into contact with the Commission, as long as they provide evidence of their nationality, Barrigah said.

Despite the renewed commitment of the CVJR team, many Togolese are still doubtful about the Commission’s ability to carry the mission through and bring peace and reconciliation to Togolese citizens and their government.

“I do not believe in this commission and I ask Bishop Barrigah-Benissan to leave this work and to go continue his mission of Bishop”, Nicolas Lawson, head of the Regeneration and Redemption and Party told reporters.

According to Lawson, the solution for Togo is not the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, but in a wholesale change in the government and political system.

Africa, ConflictJerry Johnson