One of the trickiest questions the TRRC has to deal with is the question of reconciliation. Very often, one hears the persuasive refrain, no reconciliation without justice. Or, we want justice, not reconciliation. The two realities are juxtaposed as mutually exclusive. It is either justice or reconciliation and, in this context, reconciliation is largely understood as injustice. It is assumed that reconciliation is an obstacle to justice; a smokescreen behind which truth commissions and governments hide to deny victims their right to justice. In this sense, reconciliation is understood mainly as something that happens between an aggrieved party and their offender; a victim and a perpetrator; an oppressed and their oppressor.
Yet, it is the difficult task of the TRRC to promote exactly that kind of reconciliation. The centrality of reconciliation in our mandate is demonstrated by the presence of the word in our name. It is therefore a central task of the TRRC to promote reconciliation, here understood as the virtue of forgiveness and the restoration of peaceful relations between victims and perpetrators. We are comfortable with our mandate to encourage forgiveness and reconciliation because we believe forgiveness and reconciliation breed peace and healing. Where reconciliation is possible, the result is relief from bitterness for the victim and release from guilt for the perpetrator. A good measure of humanity is restored when people let go of their anger and hatred, and when people are relieved from the unrelenting burden of a guilty conscience. For the perpetrator, forgiveness and reconciliation offer a chance for a rebirth and hopefully, an opportunity to henceforth live an exemplary life of kindness and sensitivity for the feelings of other human beings. In some cases of course, perpetrators may go right back to their bad old ways after seeking and receiving forgiveness, and will inevitably end up paying a high price for their duplicity. On the other hand, the person who forgives feels a fund of peace in their hearts, replacing the space that bitterness hitherto occupied. When peace occupies the heart of a person, it inevitably radiates and spreads out, touching the lives of their nearest and dearest and to some extent, the wider society within which they live and interact. If for that reason alone, reconciliation is a worthy task to pursue, even it is the single most unpopular subject in truth commission processes.
Come to think of it, even retributive justice represents a form of reconciliation. To reconcile is to right a wrong, to put things or situations that are out of order back into order, to create a fair balance between two or more parties. If someone is tried in a court of law, found guilty of a crime and sentenced, justice is done, the disorder created by the commission of a crime is corrected, guilty people are reconciled to the consequences of their actions, the law is placated, and offended parties feel a sense of being reconciled to their right to justice. But what will be missing in this form of justice as reconciliation will be the truth, or at least part of the truth. This is because unless accused persons confess and commit to full disclosure, systems and practices of retributive justice generally focus on finding enough evidence to convict or enough evidence to avoid conviction. Such evidence may or may not be the truth or the entire truth. To this extent, retributive justice partially defeats a cardinal purpose of truth commissions which, as their name implies, are profoundly interested in discovering or at least acknowledging and establishing the truth or as much of the truth as they possibly can.
It is generally agreed that most truth commissions do not successfully manage to bring about widespread reconciliation in their societies. In spite of the great efforts of Bishop Desmond Tutu and his colleagues in the South African TRC, many in that country feel that they were cheated of justice in the name of reconciliation. And, judging by the reported levels of racism and racially motivated violence in that country, the inter-racial reconciliation achieved by the South African TRC is certainly modest. The reality is that reconciliation between victim and perpetrator may only happen in a limited number of cases, however significant, within the context of transitional justice. One of the TRRC’s challenges is therefore to explore other forms of reconciliation to supplement whatever number and degree of inter-personal and communal reconciliation the commission manages to bring about in the end. We are trying to do this by thinking of reconciliation not only as bringing about peace or restoring right relations between victim and perpetrator, but as a concept and social practice that may be understood and actualized in a wider variety of ways.
Promoting reconciliation requires that we explore the concept in as many ways as possible. For example, all truth commissions represent a society’s efforts to get reconciled with a past of human rights violations and abuses through understanding what happened, how it happened, why it happened, and how to prevent its recurrence in the future. Also, beyond interpersonal reconciliation – or reconciliation between victim and perpetrator, we notice that the practice of reconciliation is surprisingly pervasive in our daily lives. We come to the startling realization that most of our day to day activities are actually acts of reconciliation in one way or the other. When we wake up in the morning and take a shower, we are seeking reconciliation with our normal functional state of being. When we pray, we are seeking reconciliation with our creator. When we go out to work, we are seeking to earn something that would reconcile us to our daily needs. When we get sick and visit the doctor or take medications, we are seeking reconciliation with our normal healthy state of being. And among many other examples, when we help somebody, we are helping them reconcile with their needs at that material time. And when we seek help, we are seeking to be reconciled to our needs, whatever they are at the material time.
The ethic of reconciliation is also pervasive in religious scriptures and the teachings and practices of great thinkers across time and space. All prophets, saints and philosophers are engaged in an endless quest for reconciliation – with their creator, or with themselves and their belief systems, whatever these are. Most are in search of nirvana, the ultimate reconciliation with an eternal state of peace and tranquility. In the teachings of all three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation are widely highlighted and emphasized. All three religions often cite the story of Joseph and his brothers to emphasize the virtue of forgiveness and reconciliation. Central to the Christian tradition is the anecdote of Jesus asking God to forgive his enemies, even as they were nailing his body to the cross. In Islam, the story is told of how the Prophet Muhammad marches triumphant into Mecca and immediately forgives his former tormentors, those who wanted to kill him and drove him into exile. In essence then, reconciliation represents an overlapping consensus in all three religions, which makes it that much more appealing for the TRRC to promote, especially since the majority of Gambians are Muslims, Christians, Jews or adherents of other faiths based on piety.
So far, the prospects for the TRRC’s reconciliation mandate look fairly promising. The Afrobarometer survey conducted several months ago found that 34 percent of respondents wanted reconciliation while 28 percent opted for prosecution of perpetrators. Both are significant numbers, but the fact that reconciliation scored higher than prosecution offers some cause for optimism. Moreover, a few among the witnesses that have appeared before the Commission so far have freely and openly declared that they have forgiven those who unjustly arrested, jailed and tortured them. Of course, no one can be forced to forgive or reconcile and the TRRC will certainly never attempt such a thing. But considering the pervasive essence of reconciliation in our daily lives and in our religious traditions, and the healing and peace-enhancing values of the ethic, the TRRC will do everything within our means to promote reconciliation. Yes, the truth must come out; yes justice must be done; but yes, in the interest of a Happy New Gambia, we must explore ways of promoting forgiveness and reconciliation in our community.
And then finally, there is the need for reconciliation between political perception and political reality. The great majority of Gambians and Africans perceive government as kingship within the context of a constitutional nation-state system. The failure of successive colonial and postcolonial governments to correct the anomaly between the reality of our governments as constitutional republics and their perception as kingships (mansa kunda, ngurr, laamu, etc) has represented a recipe for abuse of power, corruption and civil disorder in Africa since independence.
This chronic anomaly is worsened by the fact that the word “president” has no equivalent in our local languages and hence heads of state are called kings just like they were in precolonial Africa. In themselves, these titles are harmless and probably indispensable under the linguistic circumstances. But they carry a plethora of negative and counter-productive connotations that must be identified and discarded. The TRRC is actively addressing this form of reconciliation between political perception and political reality through our Never Again campaign.