Truth without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana

Truth without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana

Truth without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana

Truth without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana


Although truth and reconciliation commissions are supposed to generate consensus and unity in the aftermath of political violence, Abena Ampofoa Asare identifies cacophony as the most valuable and overlooked consequence of this process in Ghana. By collecting and preserving the voices of a diverse cross-section of the national population, Ghana's National Reconciliation Commission (2001-2004) created an unprecedented public archive of postindependence political history as told by the self-described victims of human rights abuse.

The collected voices in the archives of this truth commission expand Ghana's historic record by describing the state violence that seeped into the crevices of everyday life, shaping how individuals and communities survived the decades after national independence. Here, victims of violence marshal the language of international human rights to assert themselves as experts who both mourn the past and articulate the path toward future justice.

There are, however, risks as well as rewards for dredging up this survivors' history of Ghana. The revealed truth of Ghana's human rights history is the variety and dissonance of suffering voices. These conflicting and conflicted records make it plain that the pursuit of political reconciliation requires, first, reckoning with a violence that is not past but is preserved in national institutions and individual lives. By exploring the challenge of human rights testimony as both history and politics, Asare charts a new course in evaluating the success and failures of truth and reconciliation commissions in Africa and around the world.


In 2007, when I located the records of Ghana’s National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) at the University of Ghana’s Balme Library, my access was limited and closely monitored. Although I could read these records and take notes, the library staff did not allow photocopies or digital reproductions; they kept a close eye on my progress. I wended my way somewhat haphazardly through the overstuffed boxes of files, stopping at times to close the folders and catch my breath. in those days, I would leave the Balme Library feeling disoriented. As I passed by the James Fort Prison, I would no longer look at the sea. Instead, I would stare at the building’s small windows and imagine what it would be like to be detained there indefinitely. While shopping for cloth at Makola Market, a vision of the market aflame would flash before my eyes. When I rode the government transport bus, a sheen of sweat would cling to my back: What would I do if army men boarded the bus? What would I say? Reading the nrc stories day in, day out changed the geography and landscape of my Accra; the past seemed separated from the present by only the thinnest of cotton.

As part of the Ghanaian diaspora, I am no stranger to the country’s political history. My own family’s story of transatlantic migration in the 1980s is tied to the turbulent history of Ghana’s birth and growing pains. However, the library documents described violence of a different magnitude and scope. Although I had heard stories of politicians detained behind prison walls, disappeared high court judges and public executions of former heads of state, I did not know about the taxi drivers, market traders, and security guards who entered and exited Nsawam Prison or Ussher Fort Prison without the fanfare or public regret bestowed on their better-known counterparts. the documents at Balme Library suggested that the trouble in Ghanaian history was both more devastating and more mundane than fixed flashpoints of egregious physical loss. Here, the road to destruction was broad. Violence did not begin with a single soldier named Jerry John Rawlings, but instead with . . .

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