When truth and reconciliation get political

It’s not very surprising that Liberia’s opposition party is taking advantage of this opportunity to call for the country’s president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to resign. “This opportunity” is the recent recommendation by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that Johnson-Sirleaf, because of her early support for the rebel group led by eventual dictator, current indicted war criminal, and recent convert to Judaism Charles Taylor, be banned for politics for 30 years.

As unsuprising as the political reaction to the TRC’s report are the facts underlying the case. When Johnson-Sirleaf was elected, she made no secret of her earlier support for Taylor. Without imputing any comparison of the justness of the two causes, think of the Robert Mugabe case in Zimbabwe. Current prime minister and political rival Morgan Tsvangirai has said that he admires Mugabe’s rise to power, qua rebel, in 1980 — but that this does not excuse the crimes committed by Mugabe’s regime since then.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s tenure, moreover, has decidedly not resembled Mugabe’s, and her support for Taylor did not involve her in the human rights abuses that characterized the dictator’s modus operandi. The TRC, then, seems to be injecting itself pretty clearly into the country’s political debate. The suggestion that a sitting president should be banned from politics can’t really be anything but political.

This may or may not be pushing the boundaries of what a truth and reconciliation commission is meant to achieve. It’s good to have the truth out there — even if everyone already knew it — if only because, as Chris Blattman reasonably argues, many in the West have a tendency to over-canonize Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. But there’s not much that calling for a popular sitting politican to abandon office is going to do other than provide an arrow for the politically opportunistic opposition.