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Review of Peace versus Justice? The Dilemma of Transitional Justice in Africa


By Kevin Ward

Peace versus Justice? The Dilemma of Transitional Justice in Africa. Chandra Lekha Sriram and Suren Pillay (eds). University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Scottsville (South Africa), 2009. Pp. xiii+373. ISBN. 978 1 84701 021 6 (pb). £19.99.

The book examines the various kinds of institutions set up in the aftermath of conflicts in Africa to deal with the aftermath of conflict: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa provided the inspiration for other similar commissions. But there are have also been other institutional attempts to enable countries to negotiate the transition to democratic and peaceful regimes, including war crime tribunals, indigenous forms of justice and reconciliation, and, more recently, the intervention of the International Criminal Court. The contributors are often ‘insiders’ who have been officially involved in the processes; many are academics, mostly from within Africa itself. Some are both insiders and academics. All agree that ‘Peace versus Justice’ is a false dichotomy. There are no ideal solutions in the field of  transitional justice; there are always tensions between the desire and need to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes so that full accountability is achieved, and the reality that, in order to end conflict, there will need to be multiple  compromises in which justice can only be imperfectly implemented. By and large the South African TRC is  regarded by the contributors to have been a surprising success, in providing evidence of  past wrongs, in engaging in a public debate in which victims could tell their story and perpetrators revealed information which otherwise would not have been unearthed. But the contributors are also well aware of the limitations of the TRC: the failure to persuade white South Africans to confront the reality of the regime from which they benefited for so long; the tendency to concentrate on individual acts of inhumanity such as torture and illegal killings, rather than to confront the  evils of apartheid in its systematic racial stigmatisation and economic disempowerment (as Soyinke and Mamdani have complained).

In comparison the implementation of transitional justice in Sierra Leone has been much more problematic and the positive results less clear. Partly this is to do with the creation of two parallels institutions: a Sierra Leone TRC set up by the Lomé Accord and subsequently a Special Court under which perpetrators could be tried. The TRC never achieved the level of popular acceptance accorded to the South African TRC, and was involved in a dispute over whether Chief Samuel Norman, already indicted before the court, should testify before the TRC. Norman himself, whatever his involvement in war crimes, remained a popular figure  within Sierra Leone, and his prosecution was a cause of further tensions rather than healing of divisions. The circumstances of Charles Taylor’s arrest and the transfer of his trial to the Hague also did little to endear Sierra Leonians to the institutions set up to secure transitional justice. On the other hand, the seriousness with which the Sierra Leone institutions have regarded violence against women and children, has been seen as admirable. In Rwanda there have been  different tensions:  between the international court set up in Arusha, outside the control of  Rwandan authorities; and the local gacaca courts set up later within Rwanda itself, which for different reasons, have also been criticised, not least for prolonging stereotypes of ‘Tutsi’ as only victims, and ‘Hutu’ as only perpetrators.

Two of the most interesting articles in the book concern Mozambique, which has had neither truth commission nor court. Despite this, Mozambique has been, in some ways, a model of reconciliation. Victor Igreja is critical of the decision in the peace negotiations to employ a strategy of ‘amnesia and impunity’. But he has shown how traditional (or adaptations of traditional) rites of healing and cleansing have played an important part in societies learning to cope with the past. The magamba spirits of fallen soldiers are invoked in acts of disclosure and reparation, which can be seen as having therapeutic implications for post-conflict society.

The final section looks at the relatively recently created International Criminal Court, and its operation in relation to the indictment of Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army (active in Uganda, and subsequently in the Congo and Central African Republic). This is seen as problematic as potentially it obstructs actually coming to a peace accord, and is regarded with active suspicion by local people who are most concerned to get peace.

This is a long book, with 16 contributors. Too long - there is a considerable amount of repetition of basic facts. The extent to which the contributors explore methodological and conceptual issues, or provide genuinely new information about the operation of transitional justice in a particular country, varies greatly. The chapter on Mozambique by Igreja is a model of conceptual clarity and fascinating details in this regard. Some of the others tread well worn paths in a rather desultory way. With the exception of Igreja, this book is mainly useful in providing a general discourse on the problem of transitional justice in Africa as a whole, rather than in any in-depth consideration of individual cases. 

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 81-83]

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