Truth commissions building states: Lessons from Africa

In 2023, McGill-Queen’s University Press released a major contribution to the study of truth and reconciliation. Truth Commissions and State Building discusses the role of truth commissions in constructing stable, democratic countries in often fragile contexts. Below is the text of a talk at the book launch, held at McMaster University, by David Webster. 

Truth is a slippery concept. It seems like it would be simple, working out an accurate record of events. But the truth is, it can be elusive. There are many stories that compete to be called the truth. And that competition is about more than who is right. It is about how to address justice, how to build reconciliation, the very shape of nations and states, and how they should look. It is about legitimacy. So truth commissions can act as referees, legitimizers, storytellers, and, yes, state builders. Arbiters of truth are also arbiters of the future.

One truth I am sure about, though – Truth Commissions and State Building is a terrific book.

It is ironic that there are more truth commissions in Africa than any other continent, but the literature is dominated by the study of other areas. There’s just one exception, the foundational truth commission in South Africa that reported in 1998. Yet the first truth commissions were in Bolivia and Uganda, even if they were not successful, back in the 1980s. The concept of “peacebuilding,” though it can be traced back to Johan Galtung’s work in the 1970s, emerged along with the Somalia conflict. It crystalized in Egyptian UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali’s Agenda for Peace in 1992, and gained momentum after the genocide in Rwanda. Was this just the world responding to events in Africa? Is the African Union, and its human rights system, a pale echo of the European Union? As Bonny Ibhawoh and others have demonstrated, no. Very much, no.

So I want to recognize first of all the contribution this book makes in putting Africa at the centre – and also for refusing to limit its lessons by adding the words “in Africa” to its title. Its arguments about the importance of truth commissions in state building, after all, apply much more broadly. Truth commissions build countries after authoritarian regimes end, and after – and even during – war and other forms of conflict.

So why do studies of truth commissions dwell on Latin America and South Africa? Why do studies of Canada’s TRC locate it, rightly, in Indigenous history, but make so few links to the TRC experience elsewhere in the world? After all, the commission opened with a session featuring TRC participants from 10 other countries, and TRC spokesperson, Senator Murray Sinclair, recognized the connection between truth and reconciliation in Canada, and truth and reconciliation globally.

Why, for that matter, have so few journalists and analysts remarked on the way Gambia and South Africa are remaking international law with their genocide cases at the International Court of Justice against Myanmar and Israel, respectively?

I think part of the explanation is the structure of the Western academy, and researchers’ preference for studying places that are easier to get to, places that somehow feel more familiar. So again it is wonderful to see this book centring African voices. And by that, I mean the researchers and the experiences of people in truth processes in the diverse countries of Gambia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa – and on a continent-wide basis. It makes some important interventions, such as Teddy Foday-Musa’s call for the popular UN concept of “peace infrastructure” – the transfer of ownership for peacebuilding from international to national authorities – to lead also to such mechanisms as a “people’s truth commission” that honours local choices in Sierra Leone.

When I edited Flowers in the Wall (free download), I was hoping it might add some Southeast Asian and Pacific island experiences to the broader literature. I can’t say that has happened. Truth Commissions and State Building is a much more thorough and complete book, so I hope it will make a bigger impact.

Our main argument in Flowers in the Wall was that truth and reconciliation had to be understood as a process, not an event, or a project. A process, with phases. There was a pre-truth commission phase, in which civil society mobilized and demanded truth and accountability. As West Papuan activists said, in order to build what they called a “Land of Peace,” or Tanah Damai, there had to be truth-seeking. They called for pelurusan sejarah, meaning to make straight the history of the West Papua conflict. And this led to the passage of a law that promised a truth commission that would seek real truth, not the official non-truth taught in government schools. Yet governments have not been willing to authorize truth-seeking and truth-telling processes. The lack of truth-seeking, the lack of historical dialogue, continues to fuel conflict in Indonesian-ruled West Papua. So, this is a negative example – a territory seeking independence denied its claim to a state, and therefore denied a truth-seeking process.

After a truth commission, there is a post-TRC phase. So in Timor-Leste, the truth process is more than a commission, more than a report, more than the quest for reconciliation, even. It is, in the title of a film produced by the post-commission follow-up body, a Dalan ba Damai – a road to peace. I want here to acknowledge the work of Centro Nacional Chega, the follow-up body to Timor’s very impressive truth commission – and a truly impressive institution in its own right, carrying on the work of setting straight history, promoting reconciliation, and promoting a nation grounded in a culture of peace and human rights.

In other words, state building.

Centro Nacional Chega is not in power. Its staff did not all vote for the current government. But that’s a strength – the centre is non-partisan, its leadership named by government and civil society and religious groups, but not beholden to them.

What I’ve been thinking about as I read through Truth Commissions and State Building is how well its argument holds up in non-African cases. Truth commissions, to quote the book’s introduction, are about a lot more than truth-telling, and a lot more than reconciliation. “State building,” the introduction says, “is integral to transitional justice.” That is true even when it’s not written down: as the introduction, again, says, “truth commissions are inherently state building projects … even when this is not apparent from their mandates.” What is not written down can still be true, can still be inherent. Especially if we read against the grain and see what is not stated.

The argument is about Africa, but it works well in Asia.

Timor-Leste’s truth commission and the post-commission follow-up body have both helped to consolidate common understandings of the past, and a common vision of a democratic, rights-respecting Timor-Leste. The truth commission’s public hearings witnessed reconciliation between leaders who had once been in conflict. Village-based ceremonies rolled out “the big mat” to bring survivors and perpetrators together for a truth-telling process that has made living together at least possible, at least imaginable. This has helped to build a stable, democratic state in the aftermath of mass atrocity.

Timor-Leste even held the world’s only joint truth commission sponsored by two governments, with the participation of the government of Indonesia, which occupied Timor for 24 years. Through this commission, Indonesia’s government accepted the Timorese narrative of past oppression, and confirmed the truth of the Timor-Leste truth commission. This has aided the consolidation of the Timor-Leste state. Recognition of the truth, by the former colonizer, helped consolidate the new state.

After a 24-year occupation when Indonesian authorities enforced a different narrative of the past, one that denied the very existence of a Timorese people, this was a powerful antidote. It makes a strong contrast to West Papua, where the absence of a truth process has consolidated conflict. We might equally compare South Korea, which has had a number of truth processes in the aftermath of military dictatorship and which has consolidated a strong democracy, to Myanmar, which in the absence of truth-seeking sees ever worsening conflict and history wars – here I mean literal wars about clashing historical narratives.


THE thwack of a report landing on a politician’s desk – or the silencing of the report, in some cases – is not the end of the story. It is not even the beginning of the end. It opens a new stage in a process of truth-telling and nation building.

I say nation building here, because as the book’s chapters also point out, this is not simply the construction of a strong state, of what Sylvia Bawa in her chapter calls “independent colonial states” that replicate some of the flaws of colonialism. This would be to attempt the impossible challenge, as Aboubacar Dakuto notes in his chapter, of trying to build effective democracy on a foundation of lies about the past. So perhaps the authors are talking about some sort of democracy building. In Baba Jallow’s words: “A politically empowered citizenry is the best guarantee against oppression and political impunity.”

I suppose I am talking about – and many chapters are talking about – the construction and honouring of a strong civil society, which is also central to restoring, or to building and sustaining, rights-respecting countries. What Ibhawoh and Jennifer Wallace call “civic participatory processes” need to be seen much more clearly, in both pre-TRC and especially post-TRC phases. The real work of truth commissions comes in the post-TRC phase.

South Africa has a follow-up body to its TRC, but it is not one that has made a global impact. The South African TRC was founded, out of necessity, with the promise of partial impunity: to get reconciliation, it had to promise that perpetrators might not have to face justice. South African author Gillian Slovo writes that stories shared at the TRC “were shot through with accounts of what had happened to individuals and with lamentations of pain and suffering. People had come to mourn. To be heard. To put their truths on record. There lies the paradox: the wonder of the TRC, and the thing for which it is best known, resides not in its original purpose—to provide amnesties—but in its by-product, the victims hearings.”

She is talking about South Africa. It’s not that far from the stories told, for instance, in the regional truth commission for Jeju Island, South Korea, where people had been clamouring to share their stories and be recognized for the pain of their past.

Are there other models, other lessons?

Okafor and Ngwaba, in their chapter, argue that there is an emerging African model of truth commissions that seeks not just transitional justice, but transformative justice. Perhaps the problem of weak institutions they identify would be addressed partly by regional civil society networks. If so, truth commission participants form a potential border-crossing constituency. Rather than the International Centre for Transitional Justice, based in New York, I will point to  a regional transitional justice network, Asia Justice and Rights, or AJAR. Mutual learning and support within the region has been vital to rights building efforts.

Outsiders may paint Africa as a land of “big men” and weak rights for women, but authors in this collection are rightly stressing the role of women. Sylvia Bawa offers a fascinating discussion that goes some way to rehabilitating the much-vilified Winnie Mandela, showing her as more than keeper of her husband’s slippers while he was in jail or at work. Sidelining women has led to bad analysis, in other words, and has gone some way towards removing the lens of blame from apartheid as a system, as Bawa persuasively argues. I am thinking again here of Gillian Slovo’s centring of victims with stories “shot through with lamentations of pain and suffering.” If the problem in South Africa was truth processes’ tendency to stress the individual at the cost of the system, do collective stories allow the system to re-emerge? Are approaches over the longue durée, such as that taken in the Truth and Justice Commission of Mauritius, part of the answer? The commission in Mauritius looked at the legacy of slavery and indentured servitude. Its example has been followed too rarely. Canada’s TRC may have come the closest in exploring historical justice issues. Guatemala’s commission may have centred history and systems the most, in ways that may also be worth another look.

In any case, a gender lens is needed. As Jean de Dieu Sikulibo points out, it is the right thing to do, but it also makes truth commissions more effective. I am thinking of the little-known TRC in Solomon Islands, which deserves much more attention despite the burying of its final report (we have it thanks to an Anglican bishop now living here in Hamilton). Betty Gigisi, one of its staffers, has identified a disconnect between the matrilineal land inheritance system of her country and the male-centred, almost celebrity nature of the initial truth commission design, launched with great fanfare by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Gigisi was, in effect, trying to “Solomonize” the Solomon Islands truth commission, to pull it away from the powerful narrative of South Africa as global template. You could make similar cases drawing on many of the chapters in this book. Community based justice, according to Okafor and Ngwaba, is more suited to African contexts. The Gambian case seems to show the value in a democratic, local and diverse selection process for truth commissioners. Initially unpopular, Baba Jallow writes, Gambia’s commission “captured the imagination” of the population and launched a national conversation.  Thus Geroid Millar’s call for ethnographic peace research – rather than one size fits all approaches – drawing from his research in Sierra Leone. I’d note here in passing that Timor-Leste’s truth commission saw the many community-based reconciliation sessions in local areas as one of the more successful aspects of the truth process there. People valued those community hearings. People remember them.

Unsurprisingly, there is also a focus on stories noted by authors such as Paul Ugor. Wallace and Ibhawoh recognize this is not uniquely African, and they mention Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. I think this is important and links back to contesting ideas of truth. “Our government has lied to us,” Papuans say when they call for straightening out the history. Another narrative is needed, they argue, a truer narrative.

At the same time, truth commissions that disrupt old narratives and craft new ones are writing a new nation into being. Yes, this is also state building, building in the realm of the imagination. The danger is that powerful outsiders and would-be dictators can shape new stories that entrench the powerful. I have written about how the Timor-Leste truth commission tried to write a new nation into being, based on a very Catholic narrative of disunity as original sin, then increasing unity leading to a nation worthy of freedom through its suffering and its ability to redeem itself. The Rwanda chapter in this book shows the constructive use of memorialization and curriculum change to promote the regime’s goal of “social harmony.” This is state building that entrenches the government in power, even as it reduces internal divisions. In Timor-Leste, the current prime minister used a national history museum as a back-drop to his campaign, seeking votes on the basis of his contribution to national liberation.

The other danger that academics need to be alive to, I think, is that outside researchers can also shape stories. They “use their data as a pillow,” as one Papuan elder told a researcher. Researchers can be too extractive, digging through individual narratives to impose a new narrative. “What will you do with our stories?” one Solomon Islander asked Australian researcher Louise Vella. We are more than data, they imply. We shared our stories as a gift, but also in hopes of change and action. In Solomon Islands, we can criticize the government for not publishing its truth commission’s report, but we should also criticize researchers who are simply looking for stories as data.

Truth Commissions and State Building does not fall into that extractive trap. Thankfully.

So what of the future, of the states being built?

Truth Commissions and State Building offers a terrific contribution in its section on archives. Abena Ampofoa Asare points out that for all their weight, truth commission reports are not the full archive – and thus, not the full story. The “preservation, processing and publication” of archival records helps to build democratic space. They need to be accessible, not, in effect, “disappeared.” Janine Lesperance notes that one problem in Mali was that the commission report was not published. There are less stark examples, of course, where some information is selectively withheld, whether to serve the interests of powerful men, of researchers, or even of truth commission participants.

Secrecy makes sliding back away from democracy more likely, hampering state building. The election of atrocity-denier Javier Milei as president of Argentina is one example. South Africa is a bad example here, as Proscovia Svard argues. I would agree with American archivist and activist Trudy Huskamp Peterson, whose guide to preserving truth commission records argues that preservation “completes the commission’s work…. Saving the records makes sure that amnesia does not prevail.” Saving them, and I would add, making them accessible on a relatively open basis, while being careful to protect victims’ privacy, is vital to truth-seeking over the longer period – and thus to consolidation of the gains made possible by truth commissions. More open archives could even help combat the resistance by groups such as white South Africans, the subject of Roger Southall’s chapter, to full admission about the truth of past, collective, complicity. (And perhaps white Canadians, too.)

Since many truth commissions in Africa are too recent to have follow-up bodies, I want to suggest that there are two examples from Asia that may be relevant. Centro Nacional Chega is a follow-up body with a powerful mandate to promote historical understanding and human rights thought and practice, and a mandate to seek the implementation of the Timor-Leste truth commission’s recommendations. Its mandate is also international, and it has advised on truth processes in other countries. One example is Aceh province of Indonesia, where a provincial government authorized a truth commission that would never close its doors. It reported in December 2023, but its work continues. The commission is envisioned as its own follow-up body.

I’ll start to wrap up with a word on reparative justice. Joanna Quinn has divided transitional justice models into retributive, restorative, and reparative types. This book, like many, includes truth commissions as a form of restorative justice. Desmond Tutu weeping, or survivors of Canadian residential schools embracing, are iconic images in the restorative justice tradition. And yet, look at the statistics shared by Robert Ame and Seidu Alidu in their chapter on Ghana. What people sought was reparations: monetary compensation for suffering, material compensation, and to set the record straight – truth, in other words. Reparations are literally about repair. Not restoring anything, and certainly not restoring a situation that was itself unjust. Instead, the goal is to fix what was unjust. Hakeem Yusuf is making a related argument in his chapter about the need to transform the judiciary from agent of government repression into something more fair and accountable.

Reparations can be financial, but they may be, at root, about recognition. Hear my story, really listen to it, take it in, and repair the injustice. Straighten out the history, in the Papuan demand. Reparations, Dakuyo writes, “give a sense of justice that can indirectly have a strong impact on democracy” by building trust between state and victims. Gambia’s successes, it seems, were helped by the commission’s mandate allowing it to grant reparations directly. Timor-Leste’s follow-up body, while carrying out a range of symbolic reparations, is moving increasingly to centre material reparations to survivors of mass violence and their families. I am wondering, as I read, whether the most successful truth commissions are those that take on a relatively high degree of reparative justice, even of collective reparation to identified groups – as stressed in Canada and Mauritius, for instance. And yes, ending here as the book does – this means a right to truth. Truth about the recent past, and also truth about the deeper past.