Central Africans discretely consulted on Truth Commission

Without publicity, national consultations have been taking place since June 2019 in (almost) the entire Central African Republic to help define the future Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission.

Central Africans discretely consulted on Truth Commission©Gaël GRILHOT
For many Central Africans, justice must come before reconciliation. A criminal session in Bangui, on 16 July 2018.
4 min 38Approximate reading time

The planned Truth Commission has always had very vague outlines. This transitional justice mechanism prescribed in May 2015 by the Bangui National Forum has a steering committee, set up by decree in 2017 and placed under the authority of the Prime Minister. Appointed in March 2018, the steering committee of politicians, international experts and members of civil society is responsible for organizing popular consultations and drawing conclusions from them so as to draft a law establishing the "Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (TJRRC)".

It is difficult to organize such consultations in the climate of insecurity that has reigned since the Bangui Forum. But the idea came back in force when the so-called "Khartoum Agreement" was signed in Bangui on 6 February. The accord provides for "accelerating the process of establishing the TJRRC, with the launch of national consultations as soon as possible, and the adoption of a law". It even said that the Commission must start its work within 90 days. At the beginning of September, although the Commission was still not in place, consultations had indeed been held in the seven major regions of the country (Bangui, counting as one region, organized one consultation per district). They were officially launched by the head of state Faustin-Archange Touadéra on 6 June at a presidential palace ceremony, with the aim of "giving popular legitimacy to this last transitional justice system".

“Great opacity”

Since then, the greatest discretion has surrounded these "popular" consultations. Ghislain-Joseph Bindoumi, Central African League for Human Rights delegate to the steering committee, notes "great opacity" of the Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Reconciliation, which is in charge of setting up the Commission. Since the Khartoum agreement and the establishment of a government including leaders of armed groups "we have not been involved in organizing these consultations," he said. "We were only invited to the launch, like all the other guests." At recent meetings of the committee, he says, "we had drawn up a timetable and a draft budget of around 200 million CFA francs (more than 300,000 euros) for the functioning of the committee and the organization of the consultations." It is impossible to know whether these recommendations have been followed. Bindoumi says it is a "small team within the ministry", which has convened at its discretion representatives of Central African society (victims, women, youth, religious denominations, etc.) and political parties.

"We are not informed of what has been done," adds a source at the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), which provides technical support to the government. However, she points out that it is "the steering committee that mandated the ministry, and it is therefore normal that the ministry takes charge of this”.

And in many associations, including the Coordination of Muslim Organizations in the Central African Republic (COMUC), people are not happy. "I was invited to the consultation in Bangui 3rd district, but I don't even know if it's on behalf of COMUC or on my own behalf," says Ali Ousmane, its president. “In the rest of the country, our organization was not invited. They do not want to deal with the roots of the crisis." Malick Karomschi, representative of the Organization of Muslim Victims says they are not represented and there is a lack of professionalism. Victims are nevertheless having a say, he adds.

Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, finds this information worrying. "The TJRRC could be an important mechanism for truth telling around the conflict and how to ensure that mistakes from the past are not repeated. In this regard, the work of the CVJRR should be conducted in the most transparent and inclusive way possible. If there are doubts as to the commission’s motives and how it operates, it could cast doubt on any final conclusions.”

“Popular” consultations?

The consultations can hardly be called "popular". In Berbérati, in the western region, there were hardly more than 100 participants at the meeting, although people came from all over this area, which is among the most populated in the country. While the total number of people consulted remains unknown, it is clear that - as was the case at the Bangui Forum in 2015 - these consultations concerned only a few hundred citizens considered representative.

Organizing such consultations in a country like the Central African Republic is nevertheless remarkable. The central Bria zone, for example, covered one of the biggest (191 350 km2) and least secure parts of the country. Some representatives from far flung towns were unable to come but the consultations “generally went well”, according to MINUSCA sources.

Enthusiasm of victims in Berbérati

Affiche CVJRR (Commission vérité) en Centrafrique
Poster promoting the Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation Commission (CVJRR) distributed in the regions by the Ministry of Humanitarian Action. © DR

Alain Kizinguere, vice-president of the LCDH and facilitator of the Berbérati consultation, says people were engaged and enthusiastic. "People wanted to talk, especially the victims. We were there to try to channel this. It was a complex exercise. On the question of the period to be covered, some wanted to go back to the death of Barthélemy Boganda [father of Central African independence, who died when his plane crashed in 1959], others to Jean-Bedel Bokassa [president then emperor from 1966 to 1979]. Still others wanted the Commission to concentrate only on the most recent crimes.”

The questionnaire itself contained some 30 questions with “examples of answers” and was not well adapted to “popular” consultations. Should alleged perpetrators of serious acts of violence be prosecuted? Who should be a member of the TJRRC and by whom should they be appointed? What kind of cooperation and complementarity between the Special Criminal Court and the Commission? The complexity and diversity of the topics addressed raises questions. However, the facilitators were given training in how to use this questionnaire, which was developed by a committee of national and international experts.

"The majority want justice first"

Some questions were controversial. "On the issue of reparations, several victims expressed the wish that the State rather than the perpetrators compensate for harm caused by criminal groups,” continues Kizinguere. “One of them had nearly 600 heads of cattle stolen. The man wanted the State to provide him with a new herd." Despite the difficulties, Kizinguere found it satisfactory on one point. "What I saw in the western part of the country reassured me. I saw that people living far from the capital love their country, which augurs well for social cohesion.”

Thematic and group workshops with feedback in plenary sessions allowed some conclusions to be drawn, according to Kizinguere, although he admits that the time allotted - five days - may have been too short to adequately cover the scope of the issues and guide the Commission's future mandate. "The four pillars of the TJRRC are all considered very important,” insists the facilitator. “Everyone wants reconciliation, but the majority want justice first.”

The results of these consultations are to be followed by a feedback workshop, followed by another meeting of experts responsible for drafting the bill, the timetable for which is not yet known.

Les résultats de ces consultations doivent donner lieu à un atelier de restitution, qui sera suivi d’un autre rendez-vous d’experts chargés d’élaborer le projet de loi, dont le calendrier n’a pas été communiqué.