Try traditional methods of reconciliation

June 4, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Kenya – A year has gone by since violence rocked Kenya after the premature tallying of presidential election results. Eighteen months later, leaders across the political divide behave as if nothing of the sort ever happened. Instead, the governors are preoccupied by succession talk, political alliances and remuneration for constitutional office holders.

One thing is not in dispute: Kenyans wanted peace yesterday and any method used in restoring that peace would not be challenged by any right thinking person. On the ground, there are no tangible efforts on the part of the coalition government to get the country back to peace.

Now, Kenya  has set  up  the Truth Justice and Reconciliation  Commission (TJRC)  to probe  past injustices  including the  bloody post election violence  in which  hundreds perished and nearly  half a million were displaced.

The issues at hand are sensitive and delicate. Because of the  stigma  and fear of retribution, the  perpetrators  and victims  may not  be  courageous enough  to appear  before the  commission  set  up in the  country  for the first time in history.

The leadership seems not to be keen on the best method of handling TJRC hearings. Those who may be summoned could appear and swear by the Holy books to tell a pack of lies or deny their roles in crimes against humanity. Lies are not surprises here any more. Leaders swear on oath but do not live up to the vows.

Rwanda could be an example to draw experiences from. So are other countries that have gone through horrors and injustices and established truth commissions. Rwanda set up traditional courts known as Gacaca to hear victims and culprits’ testimonies from which elders delivered judgments based on traditional doctrines. A million   peopled lost their lives in one of the worst genocides in living memory.

After years of senseless ethnic war in Rwanda, the country now stands out as a peace model because the war-fatigued Rwandese said ‘enough is enough’ and chose the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. Leaders took charge and reassured the perpetrators of violence and torture survivors of the need to reconcile and look into the future with hope.  

Murmurs and blame games in the many Kenyan political camps are mere dress rehearsals on how to add fuel to the trails of the haunting post poll flames. Rwandan President Paul Kagame said as much at the National Prayer breakfast hosted by the National Assembly.

Before the  advent  of Africa’s colonisation,  conflict resolution  was not a problem to the elders  because  traditional oaths  administered on  culprits  had irreversible  fatalistic consequences on liars. Oaths were a deterrent to impunity and recurrence.

For the fear of death when one tells lies on oath, land disputes, love-gone-sour complaints amongst others took shorter time to dispose of in the village tribunals than in conventional courts where statutory oaths have no effects on false testimonies. These are no exaggerations.

The effects of traditional oaths that vary from one African community to another are dreaded by even the most learned in society. For instance, one cannot bear false witness under Luo mbira, the Kikuyu muma, the Meru Njuri Ncheke and the Kamba Kithitu. Consequently, African traditional courts tried and penalised perpetrators of crimes against humanity and restored peace.

Law courts recognise the traditional oaths but do not believe that they can be used for the common good or could be complimentary. Before courts, elections have been nullified on account that candidates of no lesser than secondary school certificate holders administered oaths on the electorate to influence the voting outcome in their favour.

Former Chief Justice Cecil Miller, in his grave, shares the belief that traditional vows were respected more than statutory or religious oaths. He said that the administration of such oaths would be an option in arriving at fair judgments in intricate cases. Miller, a native of Guyana presided over the first Judicial Commission of Inquiry in independent Kenya in which he must have come across glaring lies on oath.

In the  absence of traditional  institutions on conflict resolution, parties in dispute  have to seek the  services  of top  diplomats  like  the former UN Secretary General,Koffi Annan whose mediation and conclusions have no effects on the  stone faced  war mongers and criminals.

Without cautious  approach to Kenya’s nagging  governance problems  and adequate  preparations  to face  the post election challenges , the  country may be plunged into one of the  worst  chaos  ever seen in Africa. The only way out of the political quagmire and reconciling communities with their tormentors could be traditional methods on conflict resolution.

(J.J. Kamotho is a former cabinet minister and ex-secretary general of two national political parties)


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