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Reviewed by:
  • Truth without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana by Abena Ampofoa Asare
  • Jeffrey Ahlman
BOOK REVIEW of Asare, Abena Ampofoa. 2018. Truth without Reconciliation: A Human Rights History of Ghana. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 243 pp. $79.95 (cloth).

Abena Ampofoa Asare’s Truth without Reconciliation is a difficult book; it is also an extremely powerful book. Framed around the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) established in 2002 by the New Patriotic Party government of President J. A. Kufuor, it forces a rereading of Ghana’s postindependence history from the perspective of Ghanaian men and women harmed by the country’s postcolonial governments. At its heart is the methodological question of how scholars are to make sense of the archive created by the NRC. Eschewing a straightforward reading of the archive, Asare skillfully guides her readers through many nuances, hidden meanings, and contradictions that mark the petitions and testimonies collected by the NRC. In doing so, she untangles questions of power, gender, memory, family, and community, creating a compendium of narratives of Ghanaian postcolonial history. The narratives that she constructs, however, do not necessarily turn on their head the conventional narratives that surround the country’s recent history, but instead personalize and complicate them, injecting into them the depth and messiness of personal experience often lost in scholarly discourse.

Asare opens the book with a short history surrounding the creation of the NRC and the partisan controversies it generated. She moves on to chapters focused on the violence inflicted on market women, families’ experiences with detention and political violence, the nonjurisdictional claims of those who lost property and their livelihoods to the country’s development schemes, and the blurred lines between perpetrators and victims in the stories of soldiers and citizens. Each of these chapters is organized around the personal accounts of individuals who petitioned and came before the NRC.

Asare is not only meticulous in her presentation of these individuals’ stories, but deeply empathetic, as she weaves the individuality of each petitioner’s narrative into the complicated scaffolding of Ghana’s national histories. For instance, in her chapter on market women (chapter three), she turns to the long history of demonization the country’s market women have faced at the hands of its postcolonial governments, for which the market women regularly served as scapegoats for national economic troubles, leading most tragically to the 1979 burning of Accra’s Makola Market and additional attacks on markets in other major Ghanaian cities and towns (75). What Asare adds to this narrative is not simply an accounting of the [End Page 137] injuries sustained by these women due to the government’s actions: more importantly, she emphasizes the ways in which the market women who petitioned the NRC understood and articulated the social and professional bonds shaping their roles as traders, women, mothers, and caregivers—roles disrupted and, in some cases, destroyed by governmental actions.

Exhibited in all of Truth without Reconciliation’s chapters is a rethinking of what a history of human rights could or should look like. For Asare, the question of human rights history is ultimately a methodological question: it is a history that extends beyond the institutional artifice of truth-and-reconciliation commissions like the NRC to the act of archival creation, negotiation, access, and silence, for embedded within archives like that of the NRC are the voices of those affected by governments’ actions. As Asare emphasizes throughout her book, too often questions of human rights are constrained to vague and abstract platitudes, yet, as she shows, a much richer and more authentic contestation of what human rights comprise is found in the archival voices of those who have come before commissions like the NRC, as individuals from nearly all walks of life engaged in debates over the rights and obligations shaping their relationships with the state. Asare’s book is thus a must-read for any student of Ghanaian history, as well as those interested in the history of human rights. It is one of those rare books whose theoretical and methodological interventions are equally matched by their empirical rigor.

Jeffrey Ahlman
Smith College


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pp. 137-138
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