Case Studies on National Reconciliation Processes

These Case Studies may be valuable readings for Ethiopia Today

Anthropological studies of national reconciliation processes
Richard Ashby Wilson
University of Connecticut, USA


This article examines how social researchers have evaluated the rise of
institutions to create ‘national reconciliation’ in countries emerging
from authoritarianism and state repression. Reconciliation has been
counter-posed to retributive justice by new political and religious
elites, who have instead sought to construct a new notion of the
national self and psyche, and in so doing used organic models of state
and society and metaphors of illness and health in the body politic.
Intellectuals such as the legal scholar Minow have applauded these
efforts as attempts to transcend the limitations of law and legal
discourse in order to construct a different kind of public space and
collective memory, and to engage in emotional and psychological healing.
Anthropologists have taken a more mixed and critical view. Some such as
Buur and Ross have asserted that truth commissions are not free of the
positivism which characterizes the legal process and which excludes
certain types of voice and subjectivity and creates silences of its own.
Others such as Borneman and Wilson have criticized reconciliation
strategies for undermining the rule of law and they have asserted that
democratizing regimes must instead attempt to rebuild accountability,
and thereby state legitimacy, through retributive justice.

Key Words
anthropology of human rights • political violence • reconciliation •
retributive justice
• transitional justice • truth commissions

“In justifying the amnesty legislation in South Africa, Tutu writes:
Social harmony is for us the summum bonum – the greatest good. Anything
that subverts or undermines this sought-after good is to be avoided like
the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge . . . are corrosive of
this good. (1999: 35)

The main metaphor of the organic state is the body politic as a sick
body that is in need of healing.”


Since gaining independence in 1957, Ghana has experienced four coups and successive military regimes. Human rights violations occurred under each of the military governments and intensified following the two coups initiated by former President J. J. Rawlings in 1979 and 1982. Respect for rights improved during interim periods of civilian rule; however, most civilian administrations were too short-lived to counter the culture of impunity and disrespect or the rule of law that had become entrenched under former administrations. And here too, civilian administrations abused their powers in order to target officials of former regimes. As a key consequence of this history, a culture of human rights and respect for democratic principles was unable to take root during this time.
In the early 1990s, then President Rawlings initiated a gradual return from military rule to
democracy. A new constitution came into effect in 1993 and democratic elections were held in which Rawlings was returned to power. He remained president of the country until the next elections in 2000. While much democratization was achieved during this period, Rawlings’ continued position of power was a roadblock to investigations into the past and justice for historical abuses. To ensure that this impunity would continue once it was out of power, the Rawlings administration entrenched a self-amnesty in the 1992 Constitution which barred any legal measures being taken against members of either the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) or the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), both military regimes headed by Rawlings himself.

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