South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission Offers Model For Healing And Recovery In Africa

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Nelson Mandela -- perhaps his lasting legacy for Africa can be the lessons he offered for reconciliation and recovery

It is a tragic irony that Africa, the largest continent and the most endowed with natural resources boasts the worst human welfare indices in the world.

However, the extent of human suffering in Africa has not been fully appreciated because it has been camouflaged by the remarkable spiritual strength that has sustained the great majority of people with joyous stoicism against the various hurricanes of crises in the continent.

How are we to understand and grapple with some of Africa’s contradictions?

It is apparent that there are external and internal factors that have converged and contributed to the sorry state of affairs in the continent. Although external factors might by and large be beyond the control of Africans, Africans could tackle the internal factors, if there was political consciousness among the people and enlightened leadership. Arguably the most outstanding internal factor is a socio-political pathology that has undermined Africa’s potential. This is manifested in the deepening social cleavages along ethnic, linguistic, regional and religious lines.

If Africa is to move forward affirmatively, it might have to learn from the rest of the world, as well as draw on her areas of comparative advantage. From history, we know that the world over, when a society has gone through traumatic experience of massive human suffering brought about by politically-motivated and generated conflicts, such as genocides or brutal civil wars, politically enlightened and conscious people have often deliberated about how to fashion a formula to mend the broken ends of politics and bring about social peace and cohesion so that society would heal and move forward. An important and integral aspect of the healing process in a society where bonds that hitherto held together society have broken down more or less irreparably is to ensure that the memories and dignity of the victims are not obliterated or expediently shelved away.

In a perfect society, victims should be entitled to full justice after trials of the perpetrators who, if found guilty, should be given adequate punishment. In real life, however, there has not been a perfect society. Even if there was an ideal society, it would not be possible in the aftermath of massive violence and human rights violations to try all the perpetrators and redress the wrongs suffered by all the victims, as both would be too many.

Clearly, although legal measures are necessary, as they attempt to replace the arbitrariness of violence with reasoned resolution of conflicts and harm done and suffered, they are not sufficient to deal with: many and hidden victims and perpetrators of such massive tragedies as genocides or protracted civil wars; or systemic degradation and destruction of human beings and their dignity.

In modern history, there have been three main approaches adopted to deal with the challenging tasks of unearthing truth, ensuring accountability and fostering reconciliation that lead to social peace and cohesion.

In this essay, I evaluate how the three approaches have been used or applied in Ugandan history, which I have a fair knowledge of.  The same schema, if not methodology, may be used to evaluate other specific African countries.

The first approach is known as the “victors’ justice.” Here, the victors in conflicts set the terms for trying the losers, while exempting themselves from scrutiny. European powers that conquered and plundered Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries employed this approach extensively. Despite the trails of massive human rights violations they left behind, they have never accounted or paid reparation for the incalculable harm done to Africans.  In the Congo, for example, King Leopold of Belgium who ruled the Congo from 1885 until 1908 as a private estate presided over the genocide of an estimated 10 million Africans during the period.  Instead of making amends with Africans and/or paying some form of reparations to Africans, in various books, King Leopold is presented as a great European philanthropist.

The victorious Allied leaders of World War II, namely the USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union instituted this approach after the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945. It was this approach that they used in the International Military Trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo to bring to book members of the Axis Powers who committed unprecedented atrocities during the War, under the heading of “crimes against humanity.” Leaders from the victorious side, however, did not bear consequences for whatever human rights violations they might have caused during the war. From a balanced perspective, the victors’ justice approach seems like a sanitized and legalized form of revenge.

In Uganda, after the usurpation of power on 25 January 1986, by the National Resistance Army (NRA) under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni, the victorious NRA used the logic of victors’ justice to create the Commission of Inquiry into Violations of Human Rights (CIVHR). The terms of the Commission’s work was circumscribed to inquire into “the causes and circumstances” surrounding mass murders, arbitrary arrests, the role of law enforcement agents and the state security agencies, and discrimination which occurred between 1962 and January 1986.” 

Since the terms of reference focused only on “the role of law enforcement agents and state security agencies,” violations of human right committed by the NRA could not be investigated, as the NRA was a rebel or insurgency group. To ensure that no searchlight would be placed on actions committed by the NRA, the Commissioners were appointed mostly on the basis of political criteria. The political goal of the scheme was for the Commission to justify the NRA rebellion against a democratically-elected government and in the process whitewash the role of the NRA in violations of human rights in the country. Indeed, it became taboo to investigate into NRA’s violations of human rights during the civil war from 1980 to 1986 that it instigated. Equally telling, there has been thunderous silence about alleged genocide the NRA committed in the 1980s and 90s in Northern Uganda and gross violations of human rights in other regions of the country.

After entrenching himself in power for nearly 30 years, President Yoweri Museveni has added a lethal cocktail of Machiavellian cynicism and a mafia-gangster twist to the victors’ justice approach. The Museveni’s peculiar contribution is in the form of triumphalist mockery of the dead. This he has done and continues to do in stages. In the first stage, through crude propaganda, he demonizes the eventual victims. Second, he persecutes and if possible he ensures the elimination of the victims. Third, he boasts about eliminating, or as he often puts it,  in his own documented words, "massacring them." Fourth, he impoverishes the survivors of his cunning inhumane deeds. And then finally, he mocks relatives of the victims by offering them bribes and organizing burials for their loved ones he had persecuted but are now dead. But in an Orwellian double-speak language, President Museveni presents this last ritual as a gesture of “reconciliation.” It is rather bizarre how he reconciles himself with the dead. John Ogole, one of his ardent critics, termed it as “peeing on the dead”; an act of final humiliation of the victims and their loved ones.

The second approach is to ignore outstanding problems that bedevil and bring about severe social human agony in society. In this approach, usually ruling elites try to induce national --collective-- amnesia in the people by the use of political rhetoric and other gimmicks to make people forget violations of massive human rights in the past.

This approach is predicated on the presumption or wish for historical injustice to simply disappear. In other words, leave the dead to bury the dead. This approach might be termed “the ostrich head in the sand approach.” Rwanda used this approach after the massive social dislocations and human rights violations in 1959 and the mid-1970s. This approach probably contributed in some measure to the double genocides of 1994.

To some extent, the British colonial authorities and the Baganda ruling elites adopted the “ostrich head in the sand approach” in ignoring the festering issue of Bunyoro’s lost counties of Buyanga and Bugangaizi. These two counties that hosted all the tombs of the former Abakama (kings) of Bunyoro and sat in the geo-strategically significant Nile Basin to the north of Buganda were given to Buganda in 1894 by Colonel Henry Coleville of the British colonial force. The gift of the two counties by the British colonial authorities to Buganda was in gratitude for the valuable assistance Baganda military auxiliaries rendered in the war to conquer the once powerful kingdom of Bungoro-Kitara in the north of Buganda.

At best, both the British colonial authorities and Baganda ruling elites wanted the Banyoro from the two strategic lost counties to assimilate into Buganda. And at most, they wished the problem of the lost countries would be forgotten. Neither happened. Perhaps they had forgotten that rarely do historical wounds heal without meaningful and conscious action directed at treating such wounds with the proper socio-political concoctions.

Typical of British imperial modus operandi, whether in Hong Kong or Uganda, instead of tackling the problem, the British colonial authorities placed it on ice for decades. Then on the eve of their departure from Uganda, they shifted it to the incoming post-colonial administration to grapple with. Accordingly, a provision was inserted in the Independence Constitution of 1962 that a referendum should be carried out within a prescribed period in the lost counties to determine where the inhabitants would prefer to belong.

Milton Obote, the Prime Minister, in being faithful to the Constitutional provision, sought to organize a referendum as provided for in the Constitution. This, among other issues, contributed to the breakup of the coalition between the Uganda People’s Congress led by Milton Obote and the Kabaka Yekka led by Kabaka (King) Edward Mutesa of Buganda. Although Prime Minister Milton Obote solved the problem of the lost counties, when people in the lost counties voted overwhelmingly to return to Bunyoro, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Because, it was to culminate not only in the ouster of Kabaka Edward Mutesa and in him fleeing into exile in Britain where he died in mysterious circumstances; but also, most tragically, it ended up in the UPC government abolishing the Buganda kingdom, which should have been regarded as an historical jewel of African heritage.

The abolition of this organically-evolved African kingdom in Uganda was both unnecessary and an affront to an African heritage of enormous historical significance and value; the political differences between the two parties should never have led to such a disproportionately drastic action.

For an analogous historical situation, we should remember that in August 1897, about three years after Colonel Henry Coleville gave away the lost counties of Bunyoro to Baganda, the British colonial authorities, when they realized that Kabaka Mwanga was not going to be their puppet, tried to arrest him. Rather than be captured by the British colonial forces, he fled his capital. He later joined up with Omukama (king) Kabalega of Bunyoro in Lango and Acholi where they were given political sanctuary. In his place, the British colonial authorities put his one-year infant, Daudi Chwa, as Kabaka. In the context of colonialism imperialism, although it was good that they did not to abolish the kingdom, it was clear who held real power behind the throne in Buganda.

It is reasonable to argue that the UPC administration could have exercised wisdom and not abolished the kingdom. The fact of the matter is that the abolition of Buganda kingdom has since then hovered over Uganda’s political landscape like a permanent nightmare. Certainly, it has left enduring historical wounds and sincere grievance in Buganda in particular and among historically conscious Africans in general. Politically enlightened and conscious Ugandans should deliberate on how to bind and heal the wounds for the sake of social peace in the country and a better future.

The third approach in dealing with massive violations of human rights that have fragmented societies is to admit and confront the demons of the past and for individuals to own up to their contributing roles in politically-motivated and generated conflicts, which left human suffering of various types and dimensions in society. This approach has been achieved through Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.  To date, there have been more than 20 Truths and Reconciliation Commissions established in various parts of the world to deal with post-conflict socio-political problems.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa has arguably been the most notable and successful in recent world history. It was established under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela in July 1995, with the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act.  It operated with three committees. The first was Committee on Human Rights Violations. The Committee’s main task was to investigate gross human right violations committed within political context between March 1, 1960 and May 10, 1994. Victims of such violations were people who were: killed, tortured, abducted, or severely ill treated; and family members or dependents of people who were killed or who disappeared.

The second Committee was on Amnesty. This was arguably the most important committee, as it was assigned the task of determining whether perpetrators of gross human rights violations should be granted amnesty. Amnesty could be granted only if violation was committed within a political context and perpetrators told the truth.

And the third Committee was on Reparation and Rehabilitation. This Committee was given the tasks of assisting the victims of gross human rights abuses to restore their dignity, compensating them for damages, and attempting to prevent such abuses from being repeated.

Why has the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had the best record of work and results and been regarded the world over as the most successful in history, which should make it serve as a model not only for Africa but for the entire world?

To begin with, it was ecumenical if not democratic in that it was established after wide consultation and debates. Second, the Commission had authority to subpoena witnesses and power to offer amnesty in exchange of truth. Third, it acknowledged that retributive justice would be sacrificed for truth in order to promote national unity, reconciliation, reconstruction, and social peace. Fourth, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission used the principles of restorative rather than retributive justice to guide its deliberations. And last but not least, its process was perceived by a cross-section of South Africans to be fair and for the greater and common good of the country, not particular parties or social groups.

What are some of the outstanding achievements or outcomes of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission? First, it achieved social peace and a semblance of cohesion on a scale not imagined possible before 1995. The stability today in South Africa can to some extent be attributed to the work of the Commission. And second, South Africans know much more about the past than would have been possible.

There is no doubt that although not perfect, the manner in which the Commission worked and the results it achieved, have been outstanding and have enduring significance. By its work and results, it has made a great contribution to world civilization. It is therefore rightly regarded as a model for tackling human rights issues in post-conflict societies.

Africans should be proud of the achievements of, and the ethical standards set by, the South African Truth and Commission. But beyond being proud of the work and results of the Commission, Africans should commit themselves to emulate the work of the of the Commission in every country in the continent.

In Uganda, where there have been growing deepening socio-political cleavages along ethnic and regional lines brought about by politically-motivated policies and conflicts; the viability of the State is under increasing threat. As such, there is an urgent need to marshal courage and embark upon an ecumenical approach similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to bring about social peace and cohesion in the country.

With respect to Uganda, it is obvious to keen observers and those who genuinely care about the future of the country and the welfare of her people that President Yoweri Museveni’s victors’ justice and ostrich head-in-the-sand approaches are not tenable.

The fact of the matter is that the lack of courage to face the historical truths will fester and continue to haunt the country with devastating consequences. This is because historical wounds and injustices never heal unless consciously and forthrightly addressed in an effective manner that fulfills the maxim that justice must not only be done but that it must be seen to be done.

To secure the future of Uganda in particular, and of Africa as a whole, there is an urgent need to fashion a new ecumenical social contract for society to make progress affirmatively.


Professor Amii Omara-Otunnnu,

UNESCO Chair in Human Rights,

University of Connecticut.



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