Leveraging on Forgiveness and Empathy to Foster Peaceful Social Coexistence and Civic Engagement In Liberia

Leveraging on Forgiveness and Empathy to Foster Peaceful Social Coexistence and Civic Engagement In Liberia

This article[i] is based on the findings of the social cohesion and reconciliation Index (the SCORE Index), a contextual and in-depth study conducted in 2016 and 2018 in Liberia by the Center for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development (SeeD) under joint funding of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission (UNMIL) and the UN Peacebuilding Fund (PBF). The SCORE Index was born out of the Cyprus peace process with funding from the USAID and under the framework of the UNDP program Action for Cooperation and Trust (ACT) in 2012. The SCORE Index has been implemented in a dozen countries including Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nepal, Cyprus, Irak, Afghanistan and Liberia as the first African country.

The history of Liberia from 1989 to 2003 is that of a war-torn country where indescribable atrocities and massacres occurred. According to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), established in 2003, over 250,000 people lost their lives in the civil war that started on Christmas Eve of 1989. After the war, numerous initiatives aimed at bridging the chasms dug by the conflict and towards reconciling different ethnic groups, have occurred. Of these, the most notable is the implementation of the Accra Peace Accord signed in 2003 and countless interethnic dialogue initiatives implemented by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations (CSOs) and government institutions. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established in 2005, during the Transitional Government[ii], conducted a throughout research on the root causes of the conflict, crimes and atrocities committed during the war and subsequently made recommendations to address them in a report known as the TRC Report released in 2010.

Challenges faced when implementing the recommendations from the TRC

The implementation of the TRC recommendations has faced several challenges dissipating the hopes that the report would contribute to justice for victims and address the root causes of the conflict. For example, in 2010, the Supreme Court of Liberia ruled as unconstitutional the recommendation that some public figures, believed to be war and economic crime perpetrators, be barred from public office (Center for Civil and Political Rights 2017 Report in Liberia). The TRC Report also came under criticism for failing to address the then sitting President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who was cited as an aid to Charles Taylor’s rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia when it started the insurgency in 1989. It is even currently debated in Liberia the appropriateness of implementing war and economic crime courts which are some of the recommendations of the TRC report.

Though the failure to implement the TRC recommendations is felt as injustice for many people in the country, Liberia has come a long way with regards to social cohesion and reconciliation. The SCORE Index shows that forgiveness and empathy[iii] are among the key psychosocial assets fostering societal healing and social cohesion. In the context of the SCORE Index in Liberia, forgiveness was assessed through self-assessing questions aimed at determining whether individuals, especially victims, have ceased to feel resentment against an offender, an enemy, a betrayer, during the civil war or with regards to any situation in which the individual has felt offended or betrayed or wrongfully targeted.

In 2018, over 94% of Liberians surveyed as part of the SCORE Index reported that they have forgiven the wrongs of the past. However, the call for public apologies and truth-telling as necessary restorative measures and as conditions for granting amnesty to perpetrators was high (85%). Likewise, in 2016, the score for forgiveness was 8.0 on a scale of 0 to 10 where 10 means everybody has forgiven and zero that nobody has forgiven. This shows the importance of continued social and psychological healing mechanisms through intergroup dialogue, developing a shared narrative on the wrongs of the past and initiating repentance and public apologies from perpetrators.  The scores for empathy was 8.1 in both 2018 and 2016. Both forgiveness and empathy have been found to be the key drivers of several positive outcomes in Liberia.

Forgiveness and empathy as predictors of the sense of civic duty 

Civic duty is a composite indicator assessing civic responsibility and civic engagement. Whereas civic responsibility assesses the propensity of individuals believing that they can change things in their communities based on their commitments, civic engagement assesses the actual commitments of citizens in the civic space of their respective communities.

Sense of civic duty was found to be a strong mitigator of violent tendencies. Violent tendencies also termed the culture of violence, is a composite indicator assessing aggression, readiness for political violence and endorsement of sexual and gender-based violence. In Liberia, the SCORE for violent tendencies was 1.8 in 2018 and 2.0 in 2016. With regards to violence, a score of less than 1.0 is considered to be normal given that no human society can eradicate violence totally. The study found that individuals with high forgiveness and empathy scores reported fewer tendencies to use political violence, endorse sexual and gender-based violence or display aggressive behaviours.

Likewise, empathy and forgiveness are great contributing factors in constructive citizenship. The study identified three categories of citizens. Passive citizens who do not want to commit to anything within the country and their communities; violent citizens who would not refrain from using violence as a means of action for changes in their communities and constructive citizen who use non-violent and constructive means of action for the betterment of social, political and economic conditions of people in the country.

In a nutshell, despite the fact that many Liberians still feel the trauma of the past, as revealed by a PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) of 1.9 in the 2018 study, forgiveness and empathy can be leveraged to foster peaceful social coexistence, constructive citizenship and civic engagement. In so doing, the restorative measures recommended by the TRC report, notably memorialisation, palava hut[iv] dialogues, truth-telling, and public apologies could be good entry points.

[i]   Opinions expressed in this article are that of the authors and do not represent the positions of SeeD and that of its partners, notably the UNMIL, UNDP, PBF, the Peacebuilding Office of Liberia (PBO) and the Government of Liberia.

[ii] As a recommendation of the Accra Peace Accord signed in 2003, a Transitional Government formed with all the warring factions and other civil society organizations was established and ruled in Liberia from October 2003 to January 2006 after the election of President Elen Johnson Sirleaf.

[iii] Empathy is defined as the ability to place oneself in another’s position, to understand their perspective and/or feel what the other person is experiencing.

[iv] According to the Liberian Independent Human Right Commission, Palava Huts are traditional conflict resolution method wherein respectable members in the community mediate in matters of grave concern in the community and seek to resolve disputes amongst or between individuals and or communities.

About the author

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Ako has worked in the fields of peacebuilding, conflict management and community development. Before joining SeeD in December 2017, Ako worked as a Researcher with Interpeace Côte d’Ivoire and as a Project Manager for Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in the former conflict zones of Western Côte d’Ivoire. Ako started his professional career in 2008 as a broadcaster in a community radio station and subsequently rose to the position of Managing Director. The radio station gained a strong reputation in Côte d’Ivoire in 2013 and 2014, reflecting Ako’s commitment to promoting intergroup dialogue, reconciliation and community resilience. In 2015, he was selected as part of President Obama’s flagship program, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (MWF-YALI). He attended a Civic Leadership Institute at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in 2015 and completed a Professional Practicum at the Accra-based Media Foundation for West Africa in 2016. Ako holds Master degrees in Peace Culture and Conflict Management and Linguistics. AKO works currently as a Project Manager with Search for Common Ground in Bukavu, Eastern DRC

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Ako Emile

Ako has worked in the fields of peacebuilding, conflict management and community development. Before joining SeeD in December 2017, Ako worked as a Researcher with Interpeace Côte d’Ivoire and as a Project Manager for Search for Common Ground (SFCG) in the former conflict zones of Western Côte d’Ivoire. Ako started his professional career in 2008 as a broadcaster in a community radio station and subsequently rose to the position of Managing Director. The radio station gained a strong reputation in Côte d’Ivoire in 2013 and 2014, reflecting Ako’s commitment to promoting intergroup dialogue, reconciliation and community resilience. In 2015, he was selected as part of President Obama’s flagship program, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative (MWF-YALI). He attended a Civic Leadership Institute at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey in 2015 and completed a Professional Practicum at the Accra-based Media Foundation for West Africa in 2016. Ako holds Master degrees in Peace Culture and Conflict Management and Linguistics. AKO works currently as a Project Manager with Search for Common Ground in Bukavu, Eastern DRC

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