Truth Comission tallies success, failure


LOME – Togo’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission has begun the “unavoidable" phase of collecting eyewitness testimonies of the violence the country has endured since 1958. After an entire year on the job and almost nothing concrete to show for it, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Togo (CVJR) had succeeded only in convincing Togolese citizens of its inability to move the mission forward and make any progress toward reconciling the nation.

On June 3, 2010, following more than a year of silence about the Commission’s invisibility and inaction since its installation in May 2009, Archbishop Nicodème Barrigah (pictured above), Chairman of the Commission, finally spoke publicly.

“Due to the lengthy preparatory phase and the presidential election, it will be impossible for the CVJR to keep to its initial timeline,” Barrigah said.

Many then abandoned the mission entrusted to the Bishop and his team to failure. A few critics even called on the Bishop to “leave this work and return to his role in the church.”

However, on June 10, an obviously pleased Bishop Barrigah unexpectedly announced on Togolese Television (TVT) that the first results obtained by the CVJR had far exceeded forecasts and expectations.

"1212 people made witness testimony statements,” Barrigah declared.

“I should mention that other truth commissions (in other countries) have registered between 7,000 and 20,000 depositions in total. So, if after just two weeks…we’ve already recorded so many testimonies, I think it is rather an encouraging figure," Bishop Barrigah reported with elation.

Speaking on the TV program "The CVJR in question: Issues of the depositions,” Barrigah focused on the importance of collecting the eyewitness depositions.

"This phase of collecting witness testimonies is not fun for anyone - not the victim, nor the witnesses, nor the alleged perpetrator," Bishop Barrigah emphasized. "But it is unavoidable.”

These depositions will take a national inventory of the electoral violence and violations of human rights in Togo since 1958, Barrigah said, and at the same time, it will help release victims and presumed perpetrators from their anguish and trauma.

The 13 Statement Collection Centers, which include eight regional offices across Togo’s five regions and five in the capital Lomé, are generally busy places, and many are crowded, according to Bishop Barrigah. Some Centers have just "average participation,” he added, saying the media has not succeeded in making everyone aware of the truth campaign.

In truth, blame for the low mobilization – or “average mobilization” according to the Bishop – should not be placed only on the media. The political context in which the commission is carrying out its activities has a disastrous impact on its work.

"I must express my disappointment - it's sad to say- that our Commission does not have the ideal working context,’ Bishop Barrigah lamented.

Tensions unfortunately are not decreasing, said the Bishop. The violence continues, and this discourages the Commission because the conflict must be over for a truth commission to work effectively, he said.

"This is one of the four conditions that I repeat most often," Barrigah continued. “According to the prelate, for the Commission to continue and complete its mission, there must be ‘cessation of conflict, political commitment, popular adhesion and resources’.”

And forgiveness seems increasingly unlikely now in Togo in light of on-going violations of human-rights and freedom of the press in a climate of near total impunity.

In a radio talk show hosted by Eric Gato on Fréquence 1 last month, a panel of journalists asked whether even Bishop Nicodéme himself could forgive if he were arrested, beaten, stripped, and thrown in jail just for speaking the truth or peacefully claiming his rights. This was the plight of many supporters of Jean –Pierre Fabre, who organized demonstrations against the controversial presidential elections of March 2010.

Barrigah, aware of current events, recognized the power of the impasse paralyzing the country's politics and process of reconciliation.

“I must confess that the reconciliation will be easier said than done because it's the result of a process where the personal commitment of everyone is paramount,” he said. “If there is no change, it will be difficult to achieve reconciliation that we all expect so much."

Barrigah Bishop echoed the famous phrase from South Africa’s truth commission, “Before turning a page, it should be read. And to forgive, one has to know who is forgiven.”

To accomplish that goal, said the Bishop, the country must “show great moderation in the way we manage our political tensions. These tensions should not last for too long, because it will only but surely complicate the life of our Commission."

As if the political situation does not complicate Bishop Barrigah’s work enough, Liberté reported that there are growing administrative obstacles as well. The CVJR personnel on the ground collecting testimonies are dissatisfied with their salaries and are about to launch a protest.

Africa, ConflictJerry Johnson