Nurturing Civil Society

Lazarus Rising: Civil Society and Sierra Leone’s Return from the Grave

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 1, November 2004

By J. Peter Pham*

By the time Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war received any significant international attention in the late 1990s—in large part through the global broadcast by CNN of the lurid images from Sorious Samura’s Emmy-winning documentary film Cry Freetown with its footage of rampaging child soldiers, drug use, torture, plunder, and diamonds—the conflict had raged for nearly a decade and was itself the culmination of more than three decades of autocratic rule, economic malaise, and social disintegration.[1] However, extraordinarily, the story has not ended with yet another entrant inducted into the growing fraternity of failed sub-Saharan African states. Rather, after years of mayhem, order and peace have returned to the West African country. While not entirely out of danger, it has emerged from the grave to which many observers had, not unreasonably, consigned it just a few years earlier.

After a discouraging series of failed peace deals and broken ceasefires—as well as several military coups, assorted international interventions, and even a few recourses to foreign mercenaries—the United Nations was able to formally declare an end to the conflict on January 17, 2002. Some 45,000 combatants have been disarmed. A UN-sanctioned mixed international-national tribunal, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), has taken up the Herculean task of adjudicating the most grievous offenders against international humanitarian law and other human rights abusers during the long civil war, while a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has just submitted its long-awaited final report,[2] complete with an innovative children’s version.[3] Sierra Leone’s near-miraculous transition from self-destruction to reconstruction can be attributed not only to the interest of and subsequent forceful intervention by the international community, but also to the perseverance of the country’s civil society. Consequently, the recent history of the country contains a number of useful lessons, not only about state collapse and violence, but also how to go about the process of state-building and how to achieve security and development in analogous post-conflict situations.

Background to the Conflict

While the heaviest responsibility is borne by Foday Saybana Sankoh, the leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who died in prison in 2003 while awaiting trial before the SCSL, as well as his chief patron, former Liberian president Charles Ghankay Taylor, who has been indicted by the same tribunal but is still free in his Nigerian exile, it would be more accurate to decline to ascribe a single cause to the war in Sierra Leone. Rather, the conflict’s origins are complex, rooted in the very history of the country.

Founded in 1789 by an eponymous company of British abolitionists and other philanthropists and intended as a haven for freed black slaves (thus the name of the capital, “Freetown”)—including some 1,200 who had supported the loyalist cause during the American War of Independence and had consequently been driven from the thirteen newly-independent United States—Sierra Leone is one of the oldest modern polities in Africa, having become a Crown Colony in 1808. The establishment in 1827 of Fourah Bay College, the oldest university-level institution in sub-Saharan Africa, assured the country its pioneering role in higher education on the continent. Unfortunately, the seeds of political and ethnic division were also sown early, with a marked cleavage between the anglicized “Krio” (the local variant of “Creole”) freedman-settlers of the Crown Colony and the diverse inhabitants of the country’s interior where a British Protectorate was only proclaimed in 1896 and where the colonial administrators exercised indirect control through traditional rulers, designated “paramount chiefs,” until independence.

Sierra Leone received its independence as an independent within the British Commonwealth in 1961 under the leadership of Sir Milton Margai and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). Although the proud scion of a Mende chiefly family from the former Protectorate, Sir Milton was also thoroughly at home in the Westernized world of Freetown’s “Kriodom.” Before venturing into politics, he had been the first native of the Protectorate to earn a bachelor’s degree from Fourah Bay College and the first to qualify as a physician. Sierra Leone inherited from its departing colonial rulers a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy that was the envy of region as well as a healthy foreign reserve account. The new country was admitted to the United Nations as its 100th member state, an event that observers noted for its great symbolism since the country was founded as a haven for freed Africans and the world body was instrumental in bringing about decolonization of the African continent. One prominent American scholar of Africa, Thomas Patrick Melady, later United States ambassador to Burundi and Uganda as well as ambassador to the Holy See, was typical of his contemporaries in his enthusiastic optimism about the future of the new West African state:

Sierra Leone can emerge as a showcase of West Africa, progressive in its politics and forward-looking in its policies. Its prime minister, Sir Milton Margai, is strongly opposed to Communist infiltration. Building on a solid agricultural base, the economy has profited from diamond deposits and growing interest in its promising industries, which range from fish to oil. Sierra Leone is more than a symbol of freedom; it is an embodiment of the aspirations of Africa.[4]

Tragically, the ensuing decades turned this promise on its head and made Sierra Leone the poster child for all that has gone wrong in Africa since the heady days of its liberation from colonialism—the veritable embodiment of the continent’s dysfunctional politics, environmental exploitation, economic misery, and fratricidal conflicts. Today, despite the wealth of both its human capital and its natural resources as well as the billions of dollars in international assistance it has received in recent years, Sierra Leone enjoys the dubious distinction of holding last place in the annual rankings of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI), 177th of the 177 countries surveyed.[5]

The slide began after the hotly contested general elections of 1967, which the SLPP, led by the deceased Sir Milton’s brother, Sir Albert Margai, who had transformed the ruling party from a national institution into one dominated by the southeastern Mende, narrowly lost to the opposition All Peoples’ Congress (APC), which was heavily backed by Temne tribesmen from the north as well as Krio urban dwellers. However, the new prime minister, Siaka Probyn Stevens, had barely been sworn in by the governor-general on March 21, 1967, when he was overthrown in a coup d’état. After a year in exile, Stevens was restored to power in 1968 when a popular uprising overthrew the erstwhile putschists. The experience, however, changed Stevens, who soon evinced signs of paranoia about conspiracies perceived to be swirling about him. In 1971, he used a legally questionable legislative maneuver in order to amend the Sierra Leonean constitution, transforming the parliamentary democracy into a highly centralized presidential republic.[6] Several years later, he held used a farcical referendum to transform it into a one-party state with the APC as the only legal political organization.[7]

Even worse than what Stevens did to Sierra Leone’s political system was what he did to the economy. Having inherited a sound, if not necessarily rich, economy with a diversified base of diamonds and iron mining as well as agriculture—primarily coffee and cocoa production—that expanded between 1965 and 1973 at the respectable, if not spectacular, annual rate of 4 percent against an annual population growth rate of 1.9 percent, Stevens and his cronies gradually destroyed it all. The annual rate of growth dipped to an average of 0.7 percent between 1980 and 1987 before going into negative figures.[8] Dwindling revenues from the government’s diamond monopolies and agricultural marketing boards, compounded by governmental corruption and profligate spending on nonessential “prestige projects,” only served to accelerate the sharp rate of economic decline.

Sierra Leone went from being the model for democratic governance and economic prosperity that it had been under Milton Margai to being the example par excellence of Africa’s post-colonial “neopatrimonial” malaise whereby national resources were redistributed as “marks of personal favor to followers who respond with loyalty to the leader rather than to the institution that the leader represents.”[9] Sierra Leone had degenerated, in terms William Reno first coined to describe the country, into a “shadow state”—that is, a system of personal rule founded on neither concepts of legitimacy nor even governmental institutions but on the control of markets and on the ruler’s ability to manipulate access to resources created by those markets so as to enhance his own power.[10] In short, the shadow state—a patrimonial network working for private interests that is normally, but not necessarily, constructed behind the façade of formal statehood—was the very antithesis of civil society, understood as organizations outside government that function as constraints upon government and as advocates of the common good.[11]

In no sector was the “neo-patrimonial” corruption of the shadow state more evident than in the fabled alluvial diamond fields of Sierra Leone’s east. Before the APC took over, the diamond trade constituted one-third of national output and contributed over 70 percent of Sierra Leone’s foreign exchange reserves. By the mid-1980s, less than $100,000 worth of the precious minerals passed through legal, taxable channels.[12] Most of the rest was appropriated by Stevens and a coterie of his closest associates, who also embezzled profits and other assets from various state enterprises. Having looted an estimated $500 million and leaving a balance of barely $196,000 in foreign reserves in the Bank of Sierra Leone on the day he left office, Stevens retired in 1985 after anointing the army chief, Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh, as his successor. Unfortunately for Sierra Leone, Momoh’s regime did no better than its predecessor, thus perpetuating the already vicious cycle of political, economic, and social malaise. As one former United States ambassador to Sierra Leone, John Hirsch, reported:

Unpaid civil servants desperate to keep their families fed ransacked their offices, stealing furniture typewriters, and light fixtures…. One observer has noted that the government hit bottom when it stopped paying schoolteachers and the education system collapsed. Without their salaries, teachers sought fees from the parents to prepare their children for their exams. With only professional families able to pay these fees, many children ended up on the streets without either education or economic opportunity.[13]

Bereft of the resources to provide its potential clients with jobs and educational opportunities, the ruling APC lost its base of support and began to unravel altogether at the very moment when contracting services and collapsing infrastructure left the Sierra Leone state itself most vulnerable to attack. The coup de grâce came in the form of a spillover from the civil war in neighboring Liberia.[14] In March 1991, Foday Sankoh, a charismatic former Sierra Leonean army corporal who had been jailed for several years in the 1970s for his part in an alleged plot against the Stevens regime and who subsequently underwent military training with a small group of Sierra Leonean dissidents in Libya (where Liberian warlord and later president Charles Taylor had also drilled his insurgents), invaded eastern Sierra Leone from Liberia. Sankoh, supported by Taylor, issued a call for anti-government uprising in the name of the heretofore unknown RUF. The rebels, initially little more than a few dozen disaffected rural youth whom Sankoh enticed to his cause with promises of free education and medical care, ostensibly fought for a redress of the iniquities of a Sierra Leonean society in which the APC regime continued to exploit the country’s rich diamond resources for the benefit of its elite cadres while the living standards of the rest of the citizenry declined. Despite the banner of justice, however, as they sent the government’s forces reeling and quickly seized control of most of the eastern part of the country, including the diamond fields, the RUF rebels soon proved themselves to be an even worse plague. Before long, RUF terror tactics—including the amputation of the limbs of civilians as a terror tactic, the systematic rape of women and girls, and the abduction of young boys to swell their ranks—provided rich fodder for Robert Kaplan’s sensational article on “The Coming Chaos.”[15]

In April 1992, a group of disgruntled soldiers on leave in Freetown from the warfront, led by a 27-year-old captain named Valentine Strasser, overthrew President Momoh and formed a military junta, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). The coup was popular at the time, as most Sierra Leoneans had grown disgruntled with the APC’s corrupt and ineffectual rule. However, disaffection over the inexperienced ruler’s inability to end the war as well as his increasingly autocratic rule led to his overthrow, in January 1996, by his deputy, Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. Under increasing foreign and domestic pressure, Bio was forced to hold elections, which were boycotted and sporadically disrupted by the RUF. Despite various glitches, the elections took place and were won, after two rounds, by the newly revived SLPP, led by Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a veteran UNDP official, who became the country’s first directly elected head of state.

Given the lackluster performance of its own army and the reluctance of the international community to intervene in the conflict, the Sierra Leonean government had hired a private military company from South Africa, Executive Outcomes, to lead its fight against the insurgents. Executive Outcomes was instrumental in halting the RUF offensives and, in fact, in rolling the rebels back for the first time, driving them out of the Kono diamond mining areas and the Sierra Rutile mines, both assets of great importance to the government, not the least because of their revenue potential. Kabbah’s new government, with the support of the Executive Outcomes mercenaries and its newly organized “kamajor” (traditional tribal hunter) irregulars, pushed the RUF to the brink of defeat, driving Sankoh to the negotiating table.

In November 1996, a peace agreement was signed in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, between the new government of President Kabbah and the RUF.[16] The accord granted an amnesty for all acts committed prior to its signing and called for the transformation of the RUF into a political party.[17] The agreement quickly unraveled, however, as violence resumed after only the briefest lull. When Sankoh was arrested on trumped-up charges while visiting Nigeria in March 1997, allegedly at the urging of the Kabbah government, the accord collapsed altogether. Two months later, however, yet another group of disgruntled Sierra Leonean soldiers led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma drove President Kabbah into exile, replacing his government with an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) that invited the RUF to join it. The country fell into complete chaos as most of the judiciary system—judges, attorneys, police officers, and other law enforcement professionals, all of whom had previously been targeted by RUF rebels—fled the country before what they imagined to be the imminent entrance of the dreaded insurgents into government. The angry populace, fearful not only of the RUF but also of the continuing decline of the country as schools, banks, and commercial services ceased to function, launched a series of civil disobedience campaigns.

The international reaction to the AFRC/RUF coup was swift and, for once, unequivocal. The overthrow of President Kabbah took place on the eve of the annual summit meeting of the heads of state and government of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Harare, Zimbabwe. Despite the fact that many of the leaders present at the meeting had themselves come to power through military coups and in contrast to the OAU’s usual practice of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, the 66th session of the OAU Council of Ministers called for “the immediate restoration of constitutional order” in Sierra Leone and urged “all African countries and the international community at large to refrain from recognizing the new regime and lending support in any form whatsoever to the perpetrators of the coup d’état.” In particular, the African leaders called upon “the leaders of [the regional Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS] to assist the people of Sierra Leone to restore constitutional order to the country” and to “implement the Abidjan Agreement which continues to serve as a viable framework for peace, stability and reconciliation in Sierra Leone.”[18] When, in October 1997, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing economic sanctions against the AFRC/RUF junta,[19] the embargo was scrupulously enforced by a regional military contingent, the ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).[20] Koroma quickly capitulated and promised to allow Kabbah to return to power by April 1998. However, when the junta was slow to cede power, ECOMOG forces under the command of a Nigerian general and supported by yet another mercenary outfit, the British-based firm Sandline International, which had been hired by the exiled President Kabbah, launched an offensive against the now-combined AFRC/RUF forces in February 1998, which restored Kabbah to power the following month.

The restoration, however, was tenuous, the government’s writ extending barely beyond the municipal boundaries of the capital. Increasing numbers of regional peacekeepers were required—by the end of the year nearly a quarter of the entire Nigerian army, some 20,000 men, were in Sierra Leone—to prop up the Kabbah government. The RUF military commander, Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie, backed by Major Koroma, now designated deputy commander of the RUF, threatened to make the country ungovernable if Sankoh, sentenced to death for treason by the Kabbah government, was not freed and included in the government. In January 1999, rebel forces encircled the capital. During this phase, apocalyptic scenes were commonplace at every rumor—at one point, 40,000 people sought refuge in Freetown’s National Stadium. Using women and children as human shields, some RUF units managed to bypass ECOMOG forces and join comrades who had already infiltrated the city. Kabbah fled the country once more.

Eventually, after ferocious fighting, ECOMOG forces managed to reestablish control over the capital and its environs, but at the cost of some 7,000 civilians killed and two-thirds of the city leveled. Compounding the human tragedy, as the RUF units retreated, they abducted some 3,000 civilians, many of whom were never seen again. As a consequence of the mayhem, about 600,000 of Sierra Leone’s estimated four million people sought refuge in neighboring countries, while two-thirds of those who remained were internally displaced. The Nigerians, worn out by the fighting that had claimed an estimated 800 of their peacekeepers and was costing them about $1 million daily, announced their intention to withdraw and forced the two Sierra Leonean parties to enter into negotiations, which resulted in the July 7, 1999, Lomé Peace Agreement,[21] signed in the Togolese capital. The deal made Sankoh the “Chairman of the Board of the Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development” and accorded him “the status of Vice-President answerable only to the President of Sierra Leone.”[22] The accord also promised the rebel leader and his followers a “complete amnesty for any crimes committed … from March 1991 up to the date of the agreement.”[23] The Lomé Agreement was initialed by the two parties as well as by an impressive array of international guarantors, including a special representative of the UN secretary general, although the latter signed with the reservation that the amnesty provisions did not apply to “international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.”[24]

The Lomé Agreement was ratified by the Sierra Leonean National Assembly and initially endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution.[25] A second UN resolution also authorized the creation of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) with 6,000 military personnel charged with assisting in the implementation of the peace agreement and facilitating humanitarian assistance.[26] However, the accord, like its predecessors, quickly fell apart. In several incidents in late 1999 and early 2000, UN peacekeepers were themselves disarmed by RUF forces. In response, the Security Council increased UNAMSIL’s personnel to 11,100 and revised UNAMSIL’s mission to include protecting the government of President Kabbah.[27] The situation only worsened. In early May, the RUF killed seven UN peacekeepers and captured fifty others. The number of peacekeepers taken prisoner soon increased to more than 500 as the UN forces apparently surrendered to the rebels without firing a shot. British forces, operating independently of the UN command structures, then landed in Freetown, ostensibly to help evacuate foreign nationals, but in fact to shore up the Kabbah regime and rescue the beleaguered UN force.

The capture of Sankoh while he led an incursion in Freetown saved the situation. The UN prisoners were released as the leaderless RUF forces began to disintegrate after their leader’s arrest. Meanwhile the Security Council authorized UNAMSIL to increase its strength to 13,000 military personnel[28] (a limit that was later raised to 17,500, making it the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world[29] ). UN Resolution 1346, approved on March 30, 2001, also stretched UNAMSIL’s brief, already expanded from mere peacekeeping to protection of the government, even further: “The main objectives of UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone remain to assist the efforts of the government of Sierra Leone to extend its authority, restore law and order and stabilize the situation progressively throughout the entire country, and to assist in the promotion of a political process which should lead to a renewed disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program and the holding, in due course, of free and fair elections.”[30]

As the country was gradually pacified during 2001, UNAMSIL celebrated the success of its disarmament program with an arms-destruction ceremony on January 17, 2002, at which the force commander, Kenyan General Daniel Opande, declared the civil war officially over. No one really knows the total number of casualties in the decade-long conflict. It was conservatively estimated that some 70,000 people lost their lives in the fighting, while hundreds of thousands of others suffered amputations or were otherwise maimed. Some 2.6 million Sierra Leoneans were either internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.

The peace culminated with presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14, 2002 (members of the security forces voted four days earlier). The polling was largely peaceful and, despite some irregularities, largely free and fair. Over 2.3 million Sierra Leoneans (approximately 85 percent of the eligible population) registered to vote, a significant increase over the 1.5 million citizens who registered to vote in the elections of 1996. Of those registered, some 2.2 million cast ballots to give incumbent president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah just over 70 percent of the vote. Kabbah’s SLPP won 83 of the 112 parliamentary seats up for grabs (12 other seats are allocated to the country’s paramount chiefs, a relic of the colonial system of indirect rule of the interior), compared with the 27 seats carried by the opposition APC, whose standard bearer, Ernest Koroma, received slightly over 22 percent in the presidential poll. The RUF Party (RUF-P), the new political incarnation of the former insurgents, garnered barely 1.7 percent of the votes cast. The former leader of the AFRC, Johnny Paul Koroma, drew just 3 percent of the vote, although his People’s Liberation Party did gain two seats in parliament.

For a country that had endured more than a decade of civil war, preceded by three decades of political upheaval and stagnation, the first peaceful elections since independence represented an act of hope. Two months later, on July 12, 2002, at the state opening of the new parliamentary assembly, Kabbah concluded: “All Sierra Leoneans, at home and abroad, suffered considerable loss. Some lost their cherished and loved ones, others their belongings, and still others, their dignity and honor. The bitter experience of armed conflict will linger in our memories for as long as we need to remind ourselves of the mistakes that we should never ever make again.”[31]

Civil Society and the Search for Peace

While most analyses of the long road to peace have focused on the international diplomatic maneuvers that first led the Sierra Leonean government and the RUF into the abortive Abidjan and Lomé peace agreements and, when these failed, to the international military interventions that ultimately pacified the countryside, these efforts were both preceded by and facilitated by a series of civil society initiatives aimed at seeking a peaceful settlement to the conflict. These third-sector efforts, originating in a diverse range of groups and individuals, went—like the entire Sierra Leonean civil war—unnoticed before the advent of the “CNN factor” and thereafter attracted little outside interest as higher-profile actors came on the scene. However, despite their apparently limited success, these local civil society efforts ought not to be undervalued. Notwithstanding the handicap under which they labored—most received almost no sustained support from abroad and had few resources at home—these organizations and individuals nonetheless first mobilized public opinion in Sierra Leone in favor of peace and democratization and then pushed successfully for the post-conflict accountability incarnate in the work of the TRC and the proceedings of the SCSL. In the long run, their participation will be essential if the present peace and security are to be consolidated in a way that would make Sierra Leone a true peace-building success.

Regrettably little attention has been paid to one of the earliest civil society initiatives to seek an end to war, which is a good example of some of the grassroots approaches taken. Almost all of the early third-sector efforts originated from below, in large part because the two decades of APC rule had resulted in the systematic cooptation—if not corruption—of the national leadership of most major societal institutions in the country. Using constitutional provisions that empowered him to directly appoint up to seven members to parliament (in addition to members whose election he secured in the one-party state by nominating them as the APC’s candidates for specific constituencies), Siaka Stevens managed to co-opt most potential rivals, but at the cost of weakening Sierra Leonean society’s capacity for dialogue over political and economic differences. For example, the leadership of the Sierra Leone Labor Congress (SLLC), the country’s principal labor union, was closely tied to that of the governing APC, insuring relative calm in the labor market. This alliance was threatened in early 1980s when the SLLC was led by the committed trade unionist James Kabia. In 1983, the government secured Kabia’s dismissal and the appointment of the president’s brother-in-law, Ibrahim Langley, as the new head of the SLLC. That same year, the new SLLC leader sabotaged his members in negotiations with the government and was duly rewarded with an appointment to parliament. At the same time, the restlessness of the teachers’ union came to an end when its president was likewise seconded into the legislature. As Sierra Leonean scholars Earl Conteh-Morgan and Mac Dixon-Fyle observed, these appointments “served as perks or carrots intended to neutralize the institutions by ‘buying out’ their leaders,”[32] thus casting a pall over civil society that was only gradually removed after the overthrow of APC rule.

In December 1994, NPRC head of state Valentine Strasser proclaimed a unilateral four-week truce. Availing themselves of the lull in the conflict, officials of the Soro-Gbema chiefdom in Pujehun District, an area in southeastern Sierra Leone near the Liberian border that was a major staging area for the RUF during the early stages of the civil war, as well as other local leaders acting with NPRC sanction gathered on the Mano River Bridge. Fifteen of the local leaders then walked across the bridge into what was clearly rebel-controlled territory, singing hymns and carrying banners bearing peace slogans. While the parley between the government representatives and those of the RUF lasted after only six hours—in large part because of NPRC preconditions to more substantive discussions—a government radio announcement that threatened the rebels with bombing should they be recalcitrant did not contribute to allaying deep-rooted suspicions. In fact, three members of the delegation—Musu Kpaka, Prince Massaquoi, and Alhaji Emurana Massaquoi—volunteered to remain with the rebels as guarantors of the truce. Although two subsequent meetings were held over the course of the next month, the talks ultimately failed and the three hostages remained RUF prisoners for over two years.

As it turned out this unpromising start, especially the heroism of the three volunteers who stayed with the RUF in order to give the failed talks a chance, led some sixty groups from the religious, civil society, and other non-governmental sectors—including the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leone Labor Congress, and the Sierra Leone Teachers’ Union—to band together in early 1995 to form the National Co-ordinating Committee for Peace (NCCP). During its brief existence, the NCCP successfully organized a number of workshops and other educational forums with the goal of creating a groundswell of public opinion that would force the warring parties to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, its efforts to legitimize the RUF as an interlocutor in eventual national discussions—NCCP spokesman M’ban Kabu even put out a statement urging members of the press to adopt the more respectful designation of “fighters” for members of the RUF, rather than “rebels” or “bandits” as was then conventional—proved too much for the military junta in Freetown. Kabu, along with Philip Neville, the editor of the Standard Times, which had printed his statement on its front page, were tossed in jail. After Kabu’s arrest, the NCCP fell apart, but many of its constituent organizations continued their work.

At about the same time that the NCCP was being organized, the Sierra Leone Association of University Women (SLAUW) proposed that the country’s various women’s groups meet regularly to exchange information and, as appropriate, collaborate toward common objectives. The meetings—which began with representatives of groups such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Women’s Association for National Development (WAND), the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the Women’s Wing of the Sierra Leone Labor Congress, as well as SLAUW, and gradually expanded to include members of Freetown’s women traders’ associations and religiously based women’s groups as well as newly minted groups such as the National Displaced Women’s Organization—led to the establishment of the Sierra Leone Women’s Forum (SLWF). Out of these networking meetings, a new group, the Sierra Leone Women’s Movement for Peace (SLWMP) was formed and became a member of the Forum. The SLWMP’s founders operated on the premise that women were natural peacemakers with unique skills that they could bring to bear to resolve the civil conflict. Led by its president, physician Fatmatta Boie-Kamara, the SLWMP led a “peace march” of women professionals, students, traders, and even soldiers, singing and dancing through the streets of Freetown in January 1995. While the demonstration did not directly affect the course of events in the war, it was a major milestone in Sierra Leonean politics, representing the first time that women’s groups, long a fixture on the nation’s social landscape, had taken a political stance.

Women’s groups took an active part, alongside other civil society organizations as well as trade unionists, journalists, tribal chieftains, and academics, in the National Consultative Conference that met in August 1995 at the Bintumani Conference Center on Freetown’s Aberdeen peninsula, under the aegis of Sierra Leonean diplomat James Jonah, who had just finished his term as UN under-secretary general for political affairs and had been appointed by the NPRC junta as chairman of the Interim National Electoral Commission. While many wanted general elections by the end of the year, Jonah persuaded the majority of the assembly—eventually known as “Bintumani I” to distinguish it from a subsequent national consultation, “Bintumani II”—that elections should be delayed until March 1996 in order to raise funds from international donors to finance the poll as well as to prepare voter rolls. However, the SLWF’s position paper, which stipulated that only another conference could authorize further postponement of the poll, was accepted as the consensus of the assembly.

In the period leading up to the election, the various components of the Forum worked to educate voters, especially women, about democracy and governance. They also called upon candidates to address women’s concerns, including access to education, healthcare, and business opportunities, as well as the need to reform provisions of family and inheritance laws that still reflected the biases of a patriarchal culture. When the RUF increased its campaign of violence and intimidation as the voting neared, the SLWMP organized branches in all accessible parts of the country to intensify democracy-promotion activities.

After the election of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in March 1996, the role of the women’s groups decreased. The Forum had only an extremely limited role in the drafting of the Abidjan Accord, while the SLWMP dissolved in acrimonious disputes between its members over the justice (or injustice) of the agreement. The chaos following the May 1997 AFRC/RUF coup effectively ended the independent role of the women’s movement; thereafter the activities of the surviving groups were indistinguishable from those of other civil society organizations.

With Muslims making up approximately sixty percent of Sierra Leone’s estimated pre-war population of 4.5 million people and Christians—primarily Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists—making up another twenty percent, it comes as no surprise that organized religious groups and their social agencies have always played significant roles in Sierra Leonean society. With the slide of the Sierra Leonean state into neo-patrimonialism under the corrupt rule of Stevens and Momoh, these groups assumed an even more prominent place in the country’s educational, sanitary, socioeconomic, and cultural affairs—a trend that was only accelerated by the war.

Inspired by the example of the Interfaith Mediation Committee (later the Inter-Religious Council) of Liberia, which had attempted to mediate that neighboring country’s civil war and whose existence contributed significantly to the prevention of the opening of a religious dimension in that conflict,[33] as well as intensifying attacks on religious leaders and institutions within Sierra Leone, the country’s religious leaders formed the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL) in early 1997. Muslim groups that joined the IRCSL included the Supreme Islamic Council, the Sierra Leone Muslim Congress, the Federation of Muslim Women Associations in Sierra Leone, the Council of Imams, and the Sierra Leone Islamic Missionary Union. Constituent Christian members of the IRCSL included the three Roman Catholic dioceses in Sierra Leone (the Archdiocese of Freetown and Bo, and the Dioceses of Kenema and Makeni), the Pentecostal Churches Council, and the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, which represented eighteen Protestant denominations. The leaders of many of these religious groups had been active in the Abidjan peace talks in 1996 and saw the formation of the new umbrella group as the natural institutional continuation of their cooperation in using religious influence to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The IRCSL had barely held its first formal meeting with President Kabbah on May 23, 1997, when, two days later, a coup d’état mounted by junior officers acting in conjunction with the RUF sent the government as well as thousands of Sierra Leoneans fleeing for refuge in neighboring Guinea. During the eight-month reign of the AFRC/RUF junta, the IRCSL worked to sustain a campaign of protest and civil disobedience against the regime, both targeting its innate illegitimacy and denouncing its human rights abuses. This stance brought the Council into repeated conflict with the junta. On Sunday, August 17, for example, the IRCSL had planned an evening inter-religious worship service in Freetown’s National Stadium. That morning, however, IRCSL co-chairman Alimamy Koroma, who was also secretary general of the Council of Churches, was arrested by AFRC security services and ordered to cancel the service. While the IRCSL was unsuccessful in its efforts to persuade the putschists to voluntarily return the country to civilian rule—that took a military intervention—most observers credit its presence, when all other institutions in Sierra Leone had either collapsed or fled, with preventing even worse conditions.

Not surprisingly, given its role in mounting nonviolent civil resistance to the brief AFRC/RUF regime, religious individuals and institutions were targeted for attack during the bloody December 1998-January 1999 rebel offensive. The RUF abducted a number of religious figures who were unfortunate enough to find themselves behind rebel lines. Among those taken hostage was Freetown’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Joseph Henry Ganda, an ethnic Mende with close personal ties to his fellow tribesman, President Kabbah. According to his own subsequent account, Ganda somehow managed to escape his captors after a week and found refuge with an ECOMOG unit. Some of Ganda’s fellow hostages were less fortunate: when the ECOMOG counteroffensive forced the rebels to abandon their provisional headquarters, the fighters decided to get rid of some of their prisoners. An Indian nun of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, Sister Aloysius Maria, and an Italian priest, Father Girolamo Pistoni, were shot by the rebels; Pistoni miraculously survived with a chest wound by twisting quickly when he was fired upon. Two other Missionaries of Charity, Kenyan Sister Carmeline and Bangladeshi Sister Sweva, were killed, although the circumstances of their deaths left unclear whether the rebels had executed them or they had died as a result of ECOMOG fire.

Immediately after the offensive was defeated, Ugandan diplomat Francis Okelo, then serving in Sierra Leone as the special envoy of the UN secretary general, invited the IRCSL to try to open a dialogue between President Kabbah and RUF leader Foday Sankoh, then a prisoner of the government. The new IRCSL co-chair Moses Kanu, who like his predecessor was also secretary general of the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, took up the challenge and, after several meetings with Kabbah, led a delegation that was allowed to meet with Sankoh in a military installation near Freetown in March 1999. Sankoh affirmed that he was willing to negotiate a peaceful end to the war on the basis of the Abidjan Accord. To demonstrate his good will, the IRCSL asked Sankoh to order his forces to release some of the children it had recently abducted. For his part, the rebel leader asked for token humanitarian assistance for his fighters in the field. A few days later, the Roman Catholic bishop of Makeni, George Biguzzi, an Italian missionary who holds U.S. citizenship, met rebel forces near Waterloo and handed over twenty bags of rice and two of sugar donated by the government. In return the RUF released to him twenty-three hostages, including twenty children ranging in age from five to seventeen years of age. The precedent being set, the IRCSL became the vehicle for a progressive series of confidence-building measures.

After wide consultations with traditional chieftains, members of parliament, and representatives of civil society groups, as well as Liberian President Charles Taylor, still the RUF’s major patron, the IRCSL again met separately with Kabbah and Sankoh, convincing the president that the only hope for successful negotiations would be a neutral venue. Over the objections of his cabinet, Kabbah released Sankoh and allowed him to travel to Lomé, Togo, where President Gnassingbé Eyadéma held the rotating ECOWAS chairmanship. On May 18, a ceasefire between the government and the rebels was signed by Kabbah and Sankoh. One week later, formal peace negotiations began, which led to the July 7 signing of the Lomé accord. During the nearly two months of difficult talks, the IRCSL played a significant behind-the-scenes role, facilitating communications between the parties during the periodic impasses. Its role was recognized by the parties, which gave the IRCSL the leading role in the Council of Elders and Religious Leaders that was supposed to set up to mediate eventual disputes arising from the peace agreement, although the Council was never established due to the collapse of the accord.[34] In perspective, this may have been a blessing in disguise as it saved the IRCSL from the need to sacrifice its civil society role in the manner that its Liberian counterparts have done through their formal entrance into government after Liberia’s 2003 comprehensive peace agreement.[35] Subsequent to the restoration of peace to Sierra Leone, the IRCSL has continued its role as the country’s most prominent civil society organization, sponsoring human rights training conferences and national days of prayer and reconciliation, promoting religious tolerance, and constantly monitoring the adherence of the different parties to various peace deals.

The Role of Civil Society in Post-Conflict Accountability

The Lomé Peace Agreement stipulated that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be established “to address impunity, break the cycle of violence, provide a forum for both the victims and perpetrators of human rights violations to tell their story, [and] get a clear picture of the past in order to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.”[36] Although the Sierra Leonean parliament ratified the peace accord on July 15, 1999, not until February 22, 2000, did it adopt legislation establishing the commission to

create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, from the beginning of the Conflict in 1991 to the signing of the Lome Peace Agreement; to address impunity, to respond to the needs of the victims, to promote healing and reconciliation and to prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered.[37]

The renewed fighting in early 2000, however, not only stalled the actual establishment of the TRC, but revived the debate over the amnesty provisions of the Lomé accord and forced both the Sierra Leonean government and the sponsors of the peace agreement to rethink their options, opening the way to a different approach, albeit one that does not necessarily preclude the work of the TRC.[38]

On August 9, 2000, Ambassador Ibrahim M. Kamara, the permanent representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations, delivered to the president of the Security Council a letter, dated June 12, from Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in which the Sierra Leonean president requested that the international body “initiate a process whereby the United Nations would resolve on setting up a special court for Sierra Leone” to “try and bring to credible justice those members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and their accomplices responsible for committing crimes against the people of Sierra Leone and for the taking of United Nations peacekeepers as hostages.”[39] Citing both the precedents of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the gaps in Sierra Leonean law that failed to encompass some crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses, as well as the collapse of the judicial system in Sierra Leone wrought by the conflict, Kabbah invited the Security Council to send a fact-finding mission to assess the situation and enclosed a suggested framework for the eventual tribunal. Solomon Berewa, at that time attorney general and minister of justice in Kabbah’s cabinet, explained his government’s changed prise de position in terms of force majeur at the time of the Lomé Peace Agreement:

  1. After the atrocities of 6 January 1999, what every Sierra Leonean wanted most was peace and reconciliation. If, as we had hoped, we had achieved sustainable peace as a result of the Lomé Agreement, Sierra Leoneans would have grudgingly settled for this and gone about mendig their shattered lives.
  2. We needed a Peace Agreement with the RUF, which alone would have enabled the international community to come here as they have now done and to do things they are now doing.
  3. We needed to have an agreement with the RUF on having a permanent cessation of hostilities. The need for a Peace Agreement at the time became obvious from the panicky reaction of Sierra Leoneans to a threat issued in Lomé by Corporel Foday Sankoh that he would call off the talks. I had to make a radio broadcast from Lomé to assure the Sierra Leone public that there was every probability that the Peace Agreement would be concluded….
  4. Most importantly, the RUF would have refused to sign the Agreement if the Government of Sierra Leone had insisted on including in it a provision for judicial action against the RUF and had excluded the amnesty provision from the Agreement.[40]

In response to Kabbah’s request, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1315 on August 14, authorizing the Secretary General to negotiate an agreement with the government of Sierra Leone to create a special tribunal to try “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, as well as crimes under relevant Sierra Leonean law.”[41] Consequently, a team led by Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs Ralph Zacklin visited Freetown from September 18 to 20. On October 4, Secretary General Kofi Annan presented the Security Council with a report containing proposals for setting up the court, including a draft agreement between the UN and the Sierra Leonean government and a draft statute for the tribunal.[42] Thereafter, although some of those slated for trial by the eventual court were already in custody, various events diverted the world’s attention and prevented any action on the proposals until the end of 2001 when, in a letter dated December 26, Annan informed the Security Council that he was authorizing the commencement of operations for the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), beginning with the dispatch of a planning mission to the West African country.[43] During a twelve-day tour of the war-torn country in January 2002, the new UN delegation was joined by Under-Secretary General for Legal Affairs Hans Corell who, on behalf of the United Nations, signed an agreement with the government of Sierra Leone, represented by Solomon Berewa, on January 16, formally establishing the SCSL.[44] The agreement was essentially the one contained in the Secretary General’s October 2000 report, albeit with several notable amendments, including the abandonment of two trial chambers in favor of one. Annan communicated the agreement, along with the Statute of the Special Court, to the Security Council on March 6.[45] Meanwhile, the implementing legislation for the tribunal was passed by the Sierra Leonean parliament on March 19 and signed into law by President Kabbah on March 29.

While copious references were made to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda during the discussions leading to the establishment of the SCSL, there are notable differences between the bodies.[46] The former two tribunals are subsidiary organs of the United Nations, having been established by resolutions of the Security Council.[47] According to Corell, the SCSL, while endorsed by Resolution 1315, “is different from earlier ad hoc courts in the sense that it is not being imposed upon a state. It is being established on the basis of an agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone—at the request of the Government of Sierra Leone.”[48] As a consequence of the government’s accord with its establishment, the SCSL would differ from the earlier tribunals in that it would sit within Sierra Leone, whose government would, according to the statute, appoint one of the three judges in the trial chamber and two of the five judges of the appellate chamber as well as the deputy prosecutor.[49] The UN Secretary General was empowered to appoint the other judges and the prosecutor.[50]

Civil society’s contribution to and collaboration with both the TRC and the SCSL has been significant. The Truth and Reconciliation Act of 2000 mandated a transparent selection process for the selection of the seven members of the Commission, four of whom were to be Sierra Leonean citizens while three would be non-citizens.[51] While the search for the three international commissioners was entrusted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that for the national commissioners involved wide consultation. In response to public notices in February 2001, some sixty-five nominations were received, and twenty names were included in a shortlist considered by a selection committee containing representatives of President Kabbah, the RUF leadership, the governmental National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights, the nongovernmental National Forum for Human Rights (NFHR), and the Inter-Religious Council. The same selection committee was also consulted by the UN High Commissioner with regard to the international appointments.

In August 2001, the NFHR, a coalition of twenty-seven local human rights organizations operating with assistance from the Open Society Institute and in cooperation with the Human Rights Office of UNAMSIL, mounted a national sensitization campaign aimed at informing paramount chiefs and other traditional rulers about the work of the TRC. One-day workshops were held in Bo, Kenema, and Freetown to encourage the chieftains, who continue to play a significant role in the social and political lives of Sierra Leoneans, especially those outside the major urban centers, to facilitate the voluntary giving and documentation of testimonies in their respective chiefdoms and to assure the protection of victims, perpetrators, and other witnesses during the eventual process. An observer at these seminars found particularly fascinating the fact that the traditional leaders highlighted some of the traditional methods for conflict resolution, including offering sacrifices and performing purification and cleansing ceremonies for both perpetrators and victims. There are instances where these acts are done on community property, such as the “washing of the bush” and the pouring of libations for the appeasement of the spirits and ancestors. Many communities in Sierra Leone believe that all offenses committed always have the potential of angering the spirits and forefathers who community members believe continue to play a role in their daily lives. Likewise of interest was the discussion that some crimes committed during the civil conflict, such as amputation, were unknown to their communities, making it difficult to identify traditional methods of reconciling the perpetrators. For these abuses, the eventual TRC was looked upon as a possible response. A similar outreach was made to religious leaders with a meeting, convened under UNAMSIL sponsorship, in November 2001.

As a result of these meetings and other consultations, it was decided that the TRC’s work would be carried out in two phases: a preparatory phase lasting three months from the formal inauguration of the commission, scheduled for July 5, 2002, and an operational phase that was to last twelve months. In anticipation of this enterprise, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights created an interim secretariat for the TRC in late March 2002 with an eye toward jump-starting the process. This interim secretariat, under the direction of Yasmin Jusu-Sheriff, a Freetown barrister and longtime advocate for women, established headquarters in Freetown that doubled as the provincial office for the Western Area while provincial offices for the Northern, Southern, and Eastern Provinces were opened, respectively, in Makeni, Bo, and Kenema. Other areas particularly affected by the conflict—including Kailahun, Kambia, and Kono—also had offices opened.

In accord with the authorizing legislation, seven commissioners—four Sierra Leoneans and three international members—were appointed: the Right Reverend Joseph Christian Humper, Bishop of the United Methodist Church of Sierra Leone and President of the IRCSL; Justice Laura Marcus-Jones, former judge of the High Court of Sierra Leone; Dr. John Kamara, a veterinary surgeon and former Principal of Njala University College; Sylvanus Torto, a teaching fellow at the Institute of Public Administration and Management of the University of Sierra Leone; Yasmin Louise Sooka, Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa and a former member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Ajaaratou Satang Jow, a former education minister in The Gambia; and Dr. William Schabas, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland. Bishop Humper was designated as Chairman of the TRC with Justice Marcus-Jones as his deputy. In his inaugural address, Bishop Humper outlined his expectations for the commissioners’ work:

All over the country, the scars of the conflict are refusing to heal. The indomitable spirit of our people is enabling them come to grips with the physical reconstruction that is required to rebuild their lives. The social and psychological reconstruction has been less successful. The question many people are asking is, why? Why were we visited with the conflict? Why were civilians the objects of attack rather than opposing armed forces? Why were our women and children made objects of pleasure and abuse in the course of the war? Why were our buildings and other infrastructure deliberately and systematically targeted? What happened to our loved ones who are yet to return home even now that the war has ended? People need answers to these questions. Even if the loved ones were killed in the course of the war, the families and relatives need to know, so that at the least, they can give them a decent burial. These are no mean expectations. But our people are entitled to these explanations and more. It is only by grappling with these issues that we can chart an acceptable road map for the future and say, “Never Again.”[52]

Despite the bold commitment, the TRC faced severe funding difficulties. Just one month before the operational phase of the commission was to begin, the body had received just over $1.1 million of the $1,580,739 that the international community had pledged to it.[53] The principal donors were the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, with smaller amounts contributed by the Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) cited funding competition with the Special Court as part of the difficulty: “Money is not diverted per se away from the TRC and to the Special Court, but as one Western diplomat told ICG, the Special Court, although established well after the TRC, is far ahead in approaching donors and requesting funding.”[54]

The lack of means notwithstanding, the TRC began deploying statement-takers across Sierra Leone on December 4, 2002. These workers collected stories from all citizens who wished to come forward, regardless of their affiliation (or lack thereof) during the conflict. This testimony became the basis for the public hearings that began on April 14, 2003, and was to facilitate the creation of an official history of the war. At the official start of the statement-taking at Bomaru, Chairman Humper noted:

It is in the desire to construct this new Sierra Leone that the authors of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act charged I and my colleagues: create an impartial historical record of the violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict; to investigate and report on the causes, nature and extent of the violations and abuses to the fullest degree possible including the antecedents; to investigate the context in which the violations and abuses occurred; to investigate whether the violations and abuses were the result of deliberate planning, policy or authorisation by any government, group or individual, and the role of both internal and external factors to the conflict.

This is an historic occasion not just because it marks the start of our statement taking programme; and not just because this was the place where it is accepted that the conflict began; and not just because we and all these other dignitaries have come here to start this process; but because for the first time in our history our people will be able to approach an official structure that has the mandate to listen and record the stories of all who were affected and all who participated in the conflict in order to acknowledge and record the wrongdoing that has been done. This marks the beginning for our nation of a difficult journey, that of looking inwards not because we want to apportion blame or act in vengeance, but because we want to acknowledge the experiences of those who suffered and to take account of those who participated in the atrocities so that we can learn from what happened it and make sure that we can prevent it from happening again.[55]

During the two-week pilot phase of the statement-taking process, some seventy statement-takers, worker under three regional coordinators, took a total of 1,371 statements, containing information on approximately three thousand victims, including more than one thousand killings and two hundred sexual assaults. Approximately one-third of those who gave testimony were women. On the basis of a review of these initial statements, subsequent statement-taking was organized to remedy groups and areas where statements had not been collected. By the end of 2003, more than eight thousand statements had been taken, a preliminary analysis of which showed that approximately ten percent involved child perpetrators.[56]

Meanwhile, public hearings began in Freetown on April 14, 2003, with President Kabbah and members of the diplomatic corps in attendance. This first hearing was broadcast live on national radio. Subsequently, on those days that the commission held hearings, a half-hour program summarizing the day’s proceedings—all of which were recorded with both video and audio tapes—would be presented on national television and radio in the evening. These broadcasts were thus widely followed by the population. Because of time limitations, only a small number (approximately three hundred) of the over eight thousand individuals who gave statements to the TRC were invited to testify in the public hearings that the commission held in Freetown and other locations throughout the country. By and large, the hearings were organized thematically around issues, including women, youth, mineral resources, corruption, and the role of international actors in the conflict.

Borrowing heavily from the example of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission,[57] the hearings where women testified about sexual abuse—as well as those where minors were involved—were closed. In fact, the TRC showed particular sensitivity to gender issues, arranging for the women’s hearings to be conducted by the three female commissioners with only female staff members present. Likewise, the video recording of the proceedings hid the identities of the women testifying.

Unlike the South African commission headed by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was criticized by some for its almost religious nature, the Sierra Leonean TRC placed less emphasis on personal repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. When victims named their abusers, the TRC made some efforts to locate the accused and to facilitate some sort of dialogue between victim and perpetrator, if the victim so desired. In a few instances, mainly outside the capital, the TRC commissioners held “reconciliation ceremonies” at the conclusion of their hearings which featured traditional rites adapted to “cleanse” the crimes away. However, the “reconciliation” element of the TRC was been more or less delegated to the Inter-Religious Council.

The final public hearing of the TRC was held on August 5, 2003, with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah appearing before the commission to give more than two hours of testimony.[58] Missing several deadlines, the TRC finally submitted its final report—some 1,500 pages plus 3,500 pages of transcripts—on October 5, 2004. While it will take some time to digest the four volumes, its very existence is a tribute to the perseverance over the years of human rights advocates and other third-sector exponents in Sierra Leone, including the TRC commissioners and their long-suffering senior consultant, Ozonia Ojielo, a human rights lawyer and civil society activist from Nigeria who almost single-handedly ensured that the process remained on track even after the Commission ran out of funding in 2003.

While institutionally the role of civil society groups in the other post-conflict accountability mechanism, the Special Court, is almost nonexistent, civil society nonetheless has a considerable stake in its success, a sentiment that has been appreciated by the SCSL. In fact, although it is too soon to make definitive judgments—the first trials are still underway—indications are that the SCSL will provide a model for other post-conflict justice mechanisms, standing in contrast to the experience of the International Criminal Court for Rwanda, which has often been at odds with the Rwandan government and been received apathetically by the populace. In fact, it could be said that its activity has made the SCSL itself something of a de facto civil society institution within Sierra Leone.

Shortly after their appointments, prosecutor David Crane, an American who served most recently as the senior Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense, and registrar Robin Vincent, a career British civil servant, undertook extensive efforts to reach out to Sierra Leonean civil society groups and the population in general. On September 27, 2002, Crane traveled to the Kono region, one of the centers of the conflict, to hold the first in a series of “town hall” meetings to explain the SCSL’s mandate and receive input from citizens who participated in the encounters. In December, shortly after the tribunal was formally inaugurated, Crane, together with Vincent, met with students at Fourah Bay College to encourage their involvement with the university’s Human Rights Clinic. Subsequently, the SCSL has become perhaps the first international tribunal to create its own nongovernmental organization, the “Accountability Now Clubs,” a student-based program supported by the Special Court’s outreach budget. The main objective of the clubs is to promote understanding among students and their communities of the tribunal, as well as to study broader justice-related issues, including the rule of law, human rights, good governance, and accountability. The clubs will exist after the SCSL has concluded its work, and they represent an important part of the Court’s legacy.

Together with the Sierra Leonean branch of No Peace Without Justice, the international NGO made up of parliamentarians, mayors, and other local leaders promoting accountability for violations of international humanitarian law, the SCSL held “Train the Trainers” seminars to prepare 1,500 Sierra Leonean community leaders and activists to inform their constituencies about the work of the tribunal. The office of the Registrar has also organized regular meetings with representatives of civil society organizations and other stakeholders in the process to formally brief them on the progress of the SCSL’s work and to receive feedback.

In response to criticism about access to the proceedings, the SCSL’s Press and Public Affairs Office has produced weekly summaries of the proceedings that have been aired on local radio stations as well as the government-owned Sierra Leone Broadcasting System. When the trials started earlier this year, the press office also began producing weekly video summaries that it has been sending on tour around with mobile video units. These screenings have become something of a routine in many localities, further strengthening civil society through a sense of participation and ownership in a judicial system after years marred by lawlessness and fatalism.

While the SCSL will, in end, probably prosecute fewer than one dozen individuals, its real impact on Sierra Leone, especially the civil society sector, will probably be well beyond the tribunal’s statutory mandate, through its capacity-building contribution to the country as well as its revitalization of the war-torn populace’s sense of the rule of law. From the Appeals Chamber to the custodial staff of the courthouse, Sierra Leoneans are involved in every aspect of the tribunal’s work. The Sierra Leonean personnel—who, overall, account for half of the SCSL’s staff—have acquired significant skills that they will undoubtedly carry over, not only to eventual local prosecutions of lesser offenders, but to civic life in general. For example, unlike other international tribunals, members of the local bar have worked on all defense teams before the Special Court due to a requirement that at least one member of each team have experience in Sierra Leonean law. These attorneys have, in turn, acquired considerable experience in international and criminal law.

The Road Traveled and the Path Ahead

While it is not easy to isolate the specific impact of Sierra Leone’s civil society sector on the resolution of the country’s conflict, it nonetheless remains that, notwithstanding a lack of sustained outside support and its own internal organizational difficulties, the West African nation’s third sector contributed constructively to its eventual democratization and pacification, indeed to its very salvation. At a time when the NPRC military regime viewed peace proponents as rebel sympathizers worthy of suspicion, it was civil society’s voice that rendered negotiated peace an acceptable option in public discourse. Civil society groups participating in the National Consultative Conferences (Bintumani I and II) helped facilitate the holding of elections whereby the military handed power back to civilians in 1996. Likewise, the Labor Congress’s campaign of non-cooperation with the AFRC/RUF junta after the May 1997 coup—advising its public-sector members to stay home, citing the state of insecurity and the non-payment of their salaries—helped erode the regime’s claims to de facto control of the country and strengthened the hand of President Kabbah’s government-in-exile. The participation of civil society not only facilitated but to a certain extent legitimized the tack adopted during the negotiations leading up to the Abidjan and Lomé peace accords. Since 2000, civil society groups have been an integral part of Sierra Leone’s post-conflict transformation, engaging in advocacy, training, and capacity-building collaboration with both the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Despite this not insignificant record of achievement, Sierra Leone’s civil society faces a number of challenges both from postwar conditions within the country and from persistent weaknesses on the part of third-sector organizations. While international intervention has addressed the country’s immediate security concerns, its long-term security is intrinsically linked to development: the civil conflict arose, after all, out of a context of political failure, economic malaise, and social alienation. Consequently, a coordinated strategy is needed to address, among others, the following issues:

Former Combatants. Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration into society of former combatants, especially child soldiers, is perhaps the most pressing challenge facing Sierra Leone. While UNAMSIL has successfully disarmed and demobilized most of the fighters, the international community has been less forthcoming with the wherewithal to provide the former combatants with the means of supporting themselves lest they return to pose a threat to hard-won stability. On the other hand, where such support has been available—former combatants who turned in their weapons received a one-time payment of $150, a sum equal to an average family’s annual income—there has been a noticeable resentment of the “special treatment” of the former fighters on the part of victims and other non-combatants who received nothing. While there are no easy solutions to this dilemma, civil society groups—especially the faith-based and women’s groups—can play an important role both in administering the reintegration process and in conciliating potential conflicts. As Mary Anderson has noted, in all civil conflicts there are elements that connect the people with the fight.[59] It would seem that the role of civil society in such a context is to preemptively identify those points of tension, as well as those that offer opportunities to creatively conciliate the interests of different groups.

Increasing Participation in Government. Despite the literal revolutions that the country has been through in the course of the past decades, the government is remarkable for its almost unchanging cast of characters. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has been an on-again-off-again fixture in Sierra Leonean politics since his service as a political organizer for Sir Albert Margai’s SLPP in the 1960s. The octogenarian leader of the opposition, Dr. John Karefa-Smart, has enjoyed an even longer run: he first entered parliament as a member of the colonial legislative council four years before Sierra Leone was granted its independence. While civil society and the international community have played a great role in fostering the democratization of the Sierra Leone, insufficient attention has been paid to the need to infuse “fresh blood” into the country’s leadership. Nor is it just a question of age; there is likewise the question of gender. Notwithstanding the contributions of the Women’s Forum and other women-led civil society initiatives, women are still comparatively underrepresented in the political process. International NGOs, partnering with local organizations, could do more to address these areas.

Maintaining Government Accountability. While civil society groups in Sierra Leone have long served as watchdogs against abuse by successive military and other autocratic governments, there are disturbing indications that many third-sector leaders have been less critical of the current civilian-led government. While the transgressions of the Kabbah government in no way approach those of its predecessors, it is not entirely free of blemish. The current SLPP-dominated regime has certainly not shied from using the Public Order Act passed by the SLPP government of Sir Albert Margai in 1965 to silence its critics, especially those in the media. This legislation allows for the criminal prosecution of newspaper printers and vendors as well as journalists for libel. On October 7, 2004, for example, Paul Kamara, founder and editor of the daily For Di People newspaper, was found guilty by a Freetown court of “seditiously libeling” President Kabbah and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Kamara had previously served a six-month sentence after being convicted in November 2002 of “criminal libel” for allegedly defaming a judge. The court also ordered For Di People closed for six months. While Sierra Leone’s press is notoriously sensationalistic, the cure for that malady is the development of a training program for journalists rather than the criminalization of activities that, however eccentrically, serve the public good of maintaining government accountability. Again, Sierra Leonean civil society organizations that already have relations with organizations abroad could serve as a bridge between international educational and journalistic organizations and members of the local press. The establishment of a free and responsible press corps will play a crucial role in consolidating democracy, and this deserves greater attention and commitment.[60]

Expanding Economic Opportunities. To date, efforts aimed at economic development have focused on debt relief—Sierra Leone has received assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative—and increased transparency—under pressure from its British supporters, the government established an Anti-Corruption Commission. However, the key to the country’s economic reconstruction lies not in fanciful schemes involving its diamond riches—diamond taxes need to be kept down to avoid giving incentive to the wholescale smuggling that fueled the low-intensity conflicts of the late 1980s—but in creating a business climate that encourages serious investment. A key to this is reversing the “brain drain” that has driven an estimated 80 to 90 percent of all Sierra Leonean professionals into the diaspora. A model for this might be found in the International Organization for Migration’s successful Return for Qualified Afghans (RQA) program, which is co-funded by the European Commission and offers comprehensive assistance packages to highly qualified Afghan professionals residing in the European Union who wish to return to their home country and work in the public and private sectors. The RQA program also offers a “Self-Employment Option,” whereby grants of up to five thousand euros per person are awarded to Afghans who want to start their own small businesses.[61] In turn, the expansion of the private sector lays, as the Ghanaian-born political scientist E. Gyimah-Boadi has pointed out, the material basis for a civil society that is truly independent of the state.[62]

Assuring Justice. Sierra Leone is in the historically unique position of having both a post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with promoting societal reconciliation through the documentation and recognition of past abuses, and an internationally sanctioned tribunal, the SCSL, with the mandate of adjudicating those “most responsible” for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and other serious violations of humanitarian law during the conflict. As noted, civic groups have been involved with both processes. However, if the rule of law is to be restored, Sierra Leone also needs to have a working national judiciary. Sierra Leone’s courthouses—the ones that were not razed altogether during the conflict—are dilapidated, and most of its legal professionals—the ones not slain—have long since dispersed. While the SCSL will have some “spillover” effects to the benefit of the domestic court system—not the least of which will be the eventual handover of the SCSL’s multi-million dollar complex of buildings—more resources, both human and material, need to be dedicated to local justice institutions. Not only will the local judiciary be called upon to provide accountability beyond the limited SCSL prosecutions, it will be the foundation on which Sierra Leonean society’s commitment to a legal order will rest.

Civil Society Dynamics. Given the vicissitudes of the country’s recent history, it is not surprising that Sierra Leone’s civil society groups have developed unevenly. Despite the successes of their earlier mass campaigns, many local NGOs have gradually become professionalized as a result of the resources becoming available through the international intervention. While this reliance on full-time, salaried professional staff led to a noticeable improvement in the reliability of many third-sector organizations that previously had depended on part-time volunteers, it has also served to isolate the same groups from the constituencies from which they had derived both their legitimacy and dynamism. Many organizations have become top-down, Freetown-centered institutions dominated by the competing agendas of their leaders rather than representing concerns on the street. Over time, with the inevitable donor fatigue of the international community leading to a drying up of resources, the failure to build strong institutional ties to local communities could seriously undermine the viability of many civil society organizations.

While the forceful intervention of an international military force, seconded by a not inconsiderable civilian presence, ultimately turned the tide in the protracted Sierra Leonean conflict, the groundwork for recovery had been laid by the patient—albeit at times seemingly ineffectual—efforts of the country’s civil society organizations. This gives rise to the hope that Sierra Leone might indeed break free of the endemic cycle of frustrated expectations, economic stagnation, social alienation, government collapse, and communal violence that has plagued it and many other African states since independence. If it can fully avail itself of the rare opportunity that the fortunate juncture of international attention, donor interest, democratic politics, and civic spirit has given it, Sierra Leone might not only return from the dead, but also live up to the aspirations of the liberated Africans who endowed the very name of its capital with its true meaning two centuries ago.

* J. Peter Pham, Assistant Professor of Justice Studies at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the author of Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004) as well as the forthcoming Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy. Dr. Pham served as an international diplomat in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea in 2001 and 2002. Copyright 2004 by J. Peter Pham.

[1] The entire episode was a classic illustration of what Geoffrey Robertson, a barrister and human rights advocate who currently serves as a judge of the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, has called the “CNN factor”—“the collective anger produced by [war crimes and other human rights abuses publicized by CNN] and its application to the conduct of one side in a foreign war which serves … to tilt international opinion towards intervention on behalf of the opposing side.” Geoffrey Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice 168 (1999).

[2] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report for Sierra Leone, available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[3] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report for Children, available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[4] Thomas Patrick Melady, Faces of Africa 39 (1964).

[5] United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2004: Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World 142 (2004).

[6] See generally Bankole Thompson, The Constitutional History and Law of Sierra Leone (1961-1995) 107-108 (1997).

[7] See generally id. at 145-146.

[8] See generally Michael Chege, Sierra Leone: The State that Came Back from the Dead, Wash. Q., Summer 2002, at 148, 151-153.

[9] Paul Richards, Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone 34 (2nd prtg. 2002).

[10] See William Reno, Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone (1995).

[11] See generally Christopher Clapham, Africa and the International System: Politics of State Survival 248 (4th prtg. 1996).

[12] See generally Fred Hayward, State Consolidation, Fragmentation and Decay, in Contemporary West African States 165-180 (2nd ed.; Donal Cruise O’Brien et al. eds., 1989).

[13] John L. Hirsch, Sierra Leone: Diamonds and the Struggle for Democracy 30 (2001).

[14] See generally J. Peter Pham, A Nation Long Forlorn: Liberia’s Journey from Civil War to Civil Society, 6 Int’l J. Not-for-Profit L. (2004).

[15] See Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation and Disease are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet, Atlantic Monthly, Feb. 1994, at 44.

[16] Peace Agreement Between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (Nov. 30, 1996), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[17] Id. art. 12-13.

[18] Organization of African Unity Council of Minister, Decisions Adopted by the Council of Ministers, 66th Sess., at 28-29, CM/Dec. 356 (1997), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[19] U.N. SCOR, 3822nd mtg., at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1132 (1997), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[20] See generally Adekeye Adebajo, Building Peace in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau 87-93 (2002).

[21] Peace Agreement Between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (Jul. 7, 1999), available at 07071999_toc.html (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[22] Id. art. V.

[23] Id. art. IX.

[24] See Seventh Report of the Secretary General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, U.N. Security Council, at 2, U.N. Doc. S/1999/836 (1999), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[25] U.N. SCOR, 4035th mtg. at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1260 (1999), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[26] U.N. SCOR, 4099th mtg. at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1270 (1999), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[27] U.N. SCOR, 4099th mtg. at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1289 (2000), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[28] U.N. SCOR, 4145th mtg. at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1299 (2000), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[29] U.N. SCOR, 4168th mtg. at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1306 (2000), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[30] U.N. SCOR, 4306th mtg. at 2, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1436 (2001), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[31] Inaugural Address on the Occasion of the State Opening of the First Session of the First Parliament of the Third Republic (Jul. 12, 2002), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[32] Earl Conteh-Morgan & Mac Dixon-Fyle, Sierra Leone at the End of the Twentieth Century: History, Politics, and Society 106 (1999).

[33] See Pham, supra note 14.

[34] See Peace Agreement, supra note 21, art. VIII.

[35] See Pham, supra note 14.

[36] Peace Agreement, supra note 21, art. XXVI.

[37] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act, Art. 6, available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[38] See generally William A. Schabas, The Relationship Between Truth Commissions and International Courts: The Case of Sierra Leone, 25 Hum. Rts. Q. 1035 (2003); also Elizabeth M. Evenson, Truth and Justice in Sierra Leone: Coordination between Commission and Court, 104 Colum. L. Rev. 730 (2004).

[39] The correspondence, with its annexes, was published by the United Nations Security Council. Letter dated 9 August 2000 from the Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council, U.N. Doc. S/2000/786 (2000).

[40] Solomon Berewa, Addressing impunity using divergent approaches: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court, in Truth and Reconciliation in Sierra Leone 55-56 (UNAMSIL ed. 2001).

[41] U.N. SCOR, 4186th mtg. at 2, U.N. Doc. S/Res/1260 (1999), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[42] See Report of the Secretary-General on the establishment of a Special Court for Sierra Leone, U.N. Security Council, at 1, U.N. Doc. S/2000/915 (2000), available at  (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[43] See Letter dated 6 March 2002 from the Secretary-General addressed to the President of the Security Council, U.N. Doc. S/2002/246 (2002), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[44] Agreement Between the United Nations and the Government of Sierra Leone on the Establishment of a Special Court for Sierra Leone, available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[45] Statute of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[46] See generally Celina Schocken, The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Overview and Recommendations, 20 Berkeley J. Int’l L. 436 (2002); Stephanie H. Bald, Searching for a Lost Childhood: Will the Special Court of Sierra Leone Find Justice for Its Children?, 18 Am. U. Int’l L. Rev. 537 (2002); and Nancy Kaymar Stafford, A Model War Crimes Court: Sierra Leone, 10 ILSA J. Int’l & Comp. L. 117 (2003).

[47] See, respectively, U.N. SCOR, 3217th mtg. at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/827 (1993), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004); and U.N. SCOR, 3453th mtg. at 1, U.N. Doc. S/Res/955 (1994), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[48] Quoted in Sierra Leone News (Jan. 16, 2002), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[49] Statute, supra note 45, art. 12, 15.

[50] Id.

[51] Truth and Reconciliation Act, supra note 37, art. 2.

[52] Joseph Humper, Address on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Jul. 5, 2002), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[53] Briefing by TRC Commissioner William Schabas (Sept. 11, 2002), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[54] International Crisis Group, Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Fresh Start? 9 (2002).

[55] Joseph Humper, Address at the Commence of the Official Statement Taking by the Commission (Dec. 4, 2002), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[56] See Priscilla Hayner, The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Reviewing the First Year 3 (2004).

[57] See generally Lyn S. Graybill, Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? (2002).

[58] Statement of President Kabbah before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Aug. 5, 2003), available at (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[59] See Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—or War 23-33 (1999)

[60] See generally Ross Howard, International Media Assistance: A Review of Donor Activities and Lessons Learned (2003).

[61] See (last accessed Oct. 25, 2004).

[62] See E. Gyimah-Boadi, Civil Society in Africa, 7 J. Democracy 129-130 (1996).