Sierra Leone, looking for peace
By Charles Davies
Freetown - Sierra Leone has been making strenuous efforts to maintain the peace regained at the end of the ten-year-old civil war and by all indications it looks like it would hold for the foreseeable future with the watchful eyes of the international community.
The very first paragraph of a briefing paper by HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH on Sierra Leone is instructive. It reads:
«….After (10) years of brutal war the people of Sierra Leone went to the polls on May 14 and re-elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) for a further 5-year-term. That the elections could be held nation-wide and were conducted peacefully indicates that Sierra Leone entered a new, more optimistic phase after years of conflict, destruction and abuse. Yet the peace remains fragile, deep-rooted issues that gave rise to the war – a culture of impunity, endemic corruption; week rule of law; crushing poverty and the inequitable distribution of the country’s vast national resources remain largely unaddressed. The new government with the support of the International Community must take urgent steps to tackle these problems if Sierra Leoneans are not again to be plunged into the misery and destruction that blighted so many lives in the 1990’s …….»
That is the immediate post war scenario but how far has Sierra Leone come away from that abyss? The government has continued to distance itself from that horrendous past.
Since 1991 Sierra Leone has experienced a civil war, two coup d’etats, murder on a guard scale, mayhem, unbelievable brutality, rape, arson, looting, homelessness, helplessness and abject poverty and it is now common place for our severe backwardness to be blamed on the war and all that went with it. But this is not so. Our leaders have only been taking refuge in the factors listed above to perpetuate what is wrong.
At the end of the war and even before the end plans were put in place to look into the disarmament of ex-combatants and to seek their welfare and that of the general citizenry.
Consequently, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Rehabilitation (D.D.R) organization was put in place. Thousands of ex-fighters were disarmed and paid money in exchange for surrendering their arms. That exercise was successful to the extent that the Sierra Leonean head of the project has been appointed to oversee a similar programme in The Sudan.
This exercise was carried out under the supervision of UNAMSIL in tandem with the International Military Assistance and Training Team (IMATT), who are still trying to ensure that peace reigns after their departure. These two military groups have gone one further than their peace keeping mandates by participating in social and community development projects.
In order to make assurance of peace double sure after their final exit from Sierra Leone on the 31st December 2005, UNAMSIL has again gone outside their normal mandate to settle squabbles within the main opposition party the All People’s Congress (APC) knowing that a fragmented opposition will be the beginning of a return to a de facto one party state. And in that case the work of UNAMSIL would be undone. That would also be a recipe for injustice, and instability sowing the seeds of a resumption of civil war.
The SLP which was politicized and almost a non-force after the war has been rehabilitated retrained and equipped by the commonwealth. With the last batch of police in training the force will be ready to take over fully from UNAMSIL with strength of over 9,000 personnel.
THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION (T.R.C.)
The commission set up at the behest of the Sierra Leone Government in conjunction with the United Nations heard submissions from a variety of authoritative sources that the war in Sierra Leone was largely the result of failures in governance and institutional processes in the country. Successive governments diminish the state’s capacity to meet such crucial challenges as the security and livelihood of its citizens, let alone to provide for democratic participation in the decision making process, the Commission noted. They share the view that unsound governance provided a context for the interplay of poverty, marginalization, greed and grievances that caused and sustained the conflict.
Many ex-combatants testified that the conditions that caused them to join the conflict persist in the country and if given the opportunity, they would fight again. Yet distressingly, the Commission did not detect any sense of urgency among public officials to respond to the myriad challenges facing the country. Indeed, the Commission noted that the perception within civil society and the international community is that all efforts at designing and implementing meaningful intervention programmes, such as the national Poverty Recovery Strategy Paper (PRSP) or Vision 2025 are drawn by donors rather than the national government. This they noted is lamentable
RECONCILIATION PER SE
So far there are no major problems of reconciliation of the ex-combatants with the rest of the community. It cannot be said whether this is due to the efforts or work of the T.R.C. or the natural tendency of the people to forgive or both. It would be recalled that at the end of the war there were several trauma healing sessions organized by various non-governmental organizations and religious bodies which went a long way towards peace building.
As suggested by the TRC the reconciliation process is already being advanced by the committed support from all actors involved: the government, other public officials, communities, victims and perpetrators. What has not been seen to be done is the recommendation by the TRC that acknowledgement of wrong-doing, recognition of suffering and the apologising to victims by national and political leaders, government representatives and other stake holders in the national reconciliation process.
But reconciliation has indeed taken place within the security forces and in particular the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) which has integrated ex-combatants from different former fighting forces into their ranks.
Like in every post- war situation armed robberies persist as they never did before the war. This is because in spite of disarmament not all weapons were handed in moreover, porous land borders between us and our neighbours especially Liberia which has most recently undergone disarmament does not help the situation.
GENERAL ELECTIONS: the 1996 elections during the war were held as an act of dare devilry under a hail of bullets. But the 2002 elections were generally peaceful and also approved by the international community which witnessed it. Thereafter local government elections which had not been held for the past 30 years or so were held in 2004, also under a peaceful atmosphere and its results accepted even though the ruling party lost almost all the local council seats in the capital to the opposition party the APC. All these point to a state of uneasy calm until UNAMSIL departs and the Sierra Leone Police with the backing of the army is seen to be fully in control of the security situation.
INTER PARTY RELATIONSHIP
Fortunately for the country what is being witnessed is not acrimonious inter-party relationship but rapid intra-party rivalry as party members fall over one another for the respective leadership positions.
THE SPECIAL COURT
It was created to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for crimes committed in the territory of Sierra Leone during the war. Though the Special Court was created by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations it is independent of those who created it. The indictees are represented by lawyers and have a right to a fair and public hearing.
In spite of the efforts of the court some of those who were the foremost among those who allegedly bore the greatest responsibility have either died or have been difficult to access for trial. Corporal Foday Sankoh who was leader of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that started the war is dead along with his able Lieutenant Sam Bockarie.
The activities of the Special Court first attracted the attention of the public in a big way when Captain (Rtd) Hinga Norman who was the deputy minister of defence was arrested in his office on the orders of the court. Captain Norman during the war had been head of the pro-government Civil Defence Forces set up to counter the activities of the RUF.
That arrest was so surprising to the public that it caused some discontent among the public. Some were of the view that if anything the minister of defence, Tejan Kabbah, who is the Head of State, ought to have been the person to be indicted.
Another factor which has caused some public indignation is the fact that the Special Court has not been able to get former President Charles Taylor of Liberia arrested as perhaps the person who bears the greatest responsibility for the war.
It is public knowledge that he had been offered political asylum in Nigeria by international agreement. As at now there is international and national wrangling over the turning over of Charles Taylor to the Special Court as the new government of Liberia is being formed.
RELIGION AND PEACE
As far as Sierra Leoneans are concerned one religion is as true as the other. Sierra Leone is one of the few places where practical expression has been given to the fact that Christianity and Islam hail from the same rods and therefore need not have friction. During the war the Inter-religious Council composed of Christians and Muslims played a crucial role in the peace agreements and the final peace. Even before the administration of President Tejan Kabbah who is a muslim, inter-religious tolerances had been enshrined in the minds of Sierra Leoneans.
From their leaders the people are expecting that they would heed off potential situations that may upset and reverse the yet-fragile peace.
In a political sense they expect that the possible pursuit and conviction of Charles Taylor and Hinga Norman may not have a boomerang effect. They expect that a modus operandi will be worked out between the government of Sierra Leone and the new government in Liberia wherein old wounds would not be opened over the Charles Taylor issue. They expect government to concentrate on security and bread and butter issues like the vaunted food security. They also expect a stepping up of the fight against corruption.
From the international community they expect continued assurance of security in the wake of the departure of UNAMSIL at the end of December, 2005. Many youths are at present unemployed and the people expect more investments that could provide much needed jobs.
RELIGIOUS LEADERS AND PEACE IN SIERRA LEONE
The role of religious leaders in the Sierra Leone peace process was indirect but significant. According to recent statistics the country has about 60 percent Muslims about 35 percent Christians and the rest of the populace who are non-believers in any of the two main religions.
During the war the Council of Churches of Sierra Leone (CCSL) which comprises of most of the main stream churches in the country made trips to Liberia to talk to ex-president Taylor to see reason to stop his support to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which was the rebel group fighting against the Sierra Leone government. Religious leaders participated actively in the Lome talks which brought about the Lome Peace Accord which ended the war.
Earlier members of the Inter-religious council of Sierra Leone comprising Christians and Muslims had been holding regular talks with President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah on ways and means of ending the war. Their efforts mainly concentrated on the ethics of forgiveness. They were able to convince the President to opt for forgiveness and peace rather than winning the war through fighting the time of the peace offer the governments forces along with their ECOMOG allies were at a military advantage.
Messages of peace were preached in churches and mosques including the need to end the war. These were obviously followed by prayers for the end of the war. The trauma of the war led to a number of trauma healing workshops organised mainly by Christian organisations for war victims as they came out of the bush.
The Truth and Reconciliation commission was a seven-man body with only one of them representing religious bodies but fortunately for religion that person was the commission’s Chairman. He was the RT. Rev. Bishop Joseph Christian Humper of the United Methodist Church. Bishop Humper who is also Chairman of the Christian Council of Sierra Leone ably articulated the religious concerns of the people towards peace in addition to setting the tone of the TRC on forgiveness and reconciliation.
Many of the recommendations of the TRC have led to successful integration of ex-combatants in their communities with little or no hitches enabling the peace to be sustained so far.
(This article originally appeared in Mondo e Missione in March 2006)