The transitional justice process in Togo has not allowed its citizens to know more about the perpetrators of the violence that has scarred the country ever since the struggle for independence. Togo has been ruled by the Gnassingbé family dynasty since 1967. And reconciliation still seems a long way off.
After 500 people were killed in electoral violence in 2005, the United Nations recommended that Togo launch a transitional justice process. The current head of State, Faure Gnassingbé, had just seized the presidential seat left vacant by the death of his father Gnassingbé Eyadema, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1967.
The UN published a report in August 2005 following an investigation into the post-election violence and the context in which it took place. The report is highly critical of Gnassingbé Senior’s record on human rights and public freedoms. “General Gnassingbé Eyadema ruled Togo for 38 years with a strong hand and little respect for good governance, human rights or democratic practices,” it says. “According to many national and international observers, his rule was marked by ethnic and clan wielding of power, with systematic recourse to violence in the face of opposition. This climate generated permanent political and social opposition and a constant deterioration of human rights in the country.”
The UN recommendation to launch a transitional justice process was approved in a “Global Political Agreement” signed in August 2006 by Togo’s main political groups to calm political rivalry. New President Faure Gnassingbé agreed to the principle of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (CVJR), although he widened its mandate. It would now go back to 1958, two years before independence from France in 1960. The mandate now included not only the first seven years of independence but also the two pre-election years beforehand, which were marked by conflict between the nationalists (who won independence) and “progressives”, considered close to the colonial power. Did the new President just want exhaustive investigations or did he, as many analysts think, want to make sure that his family were not the only ones accused?
A bishop heads the Commission
It took three years for the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission to be set up in 2009. The Commission, composed of university professors, religious leaders, politicians and civil society leaders, then set to work. “Our work was to examine the causes of divisions in Togo and propose measures to overcome them,” explains the Commission president, Monsignor Nicodème Barrigah-Bénissan. “Our mandate was to identify the victims, so as to draw up a programme of reparations for them. It was also to identify the perpetrators of the violence and propose recommendations to the government with regard to them. Finally, we were asked to propose reforms to end impunity and ensure non-repetition of these human rights violations.” Monsignor Barrigah-Bénissan is bishop of Atakpamé, a town some 160 kilometres north of the capital Lomé which was one of the places most affected by the violence in 2005. In three years of work, the Commission held hearings on the ground in all regions of the country and abroad with members of the diaspora. It submitted the first volume of its report to President Faure Gnassingbé on April 3, 2012, with members of the government and diplomatic representatives attending.
“In this same room on May 29, 2009, two years and ten months ago, the Head of State gave us the heavy task of proposing, through transitional justice mechanisms, ways and means to promote national cohesion and cast light on the causes of recurrent violence and conflicts that have marked our history from 1958 to 2005,” Monsignor Barrigah-Bénissan began. But he also talked in his speech about the limits of the Commission’s work, and even admitted some failings. “Now that we have reached this point of assessment, I must recognize that the minimal participation of suspected perpetrators remains one of the most regrettable weaknesses of our mission, and on this front I share the disappointment of many Togolese who wanted to hear words of contrition from those who gave in to their passions, as well as an assurance of forgiveness from those who have suffered in their mind and body,” the bishop declared. “The Commission has not therefore enabled the Togolese people to know more today than they did yesterday about the leaders and executors of the crimes in question.”
Togolese expect firm action from their President
According to Bernard Bokodjin, a member of the Citizens’ Justice and Truth Platform, the first volume of the Commission’s report submitted to the President on April 3, 2012 “is a summary of all the other volumes and contains recommendations”. “The three other volumes submitted by Monsignor Barrigah-Benissan in May 2013 have not yet been published,” he says with regret.
“Whilst we understand that Volume 3, which contains the names of victims and financial estimates for the reparations programme, cannot be made public, there is no reason not to publish Volumes 2 and 4,” says Bokodjin. He shares the view of the UN rapporteurs who said as early as 2005 that “the three prongs of Truth, Justice and Reconciliation should form the central pillars of a sustainable programme to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis in Togo”.
“Truth is the basic first step needed for reconciliation amongst a people profoundly traumatized and divided by a long dictatorship and by the extent and gravity of political violence by the State,” UN rapporteurs said. “Truth needs to be sought by shedding light in a full and objective way on human rights abuses, the nature of the circumstances and the acts in question, establishing lists of victims, disappeared persons, assessing the goods and property that have been destroyed and who is responsible.”
After the Commission finished its work, and on its recommendation, the Togolese authorities set up the High Commission for Reconciliation and Reinforcement of National Unity (HCRRUN). “This is now the body that should allow the government to restore citizens’ trust,” says Bernard Bokodjin. “But if that is to happen, the Head of State needs to take some strong action.”
It remains to be seen if Gnassingbé Eyadema’s son can take enough distance to meet this challenge.