Reconciliation in Sierra Leone

by padraigcolman

In 1787, a settlement was founded in Sierra Leone in what was called the Province of Freedom. A number of “Black Poor” arrived off the coast of Sierra Leone on 15 May 1787, accompanied by some English tradesmen.

Some of these “Black Poor” were American slaves who had fought with the British in the American Revolution. They also included West Indian, African and Asian inhabitants of London. A settlement called Granville Town (after the British abolitionist Granville Sharp) was eliminated by a combination of disease and hostility of the indigenous people.

In 1792, the Colony of Sierra Leone was established and the capital, Freetown, settled. The Settlers introduced architectural styles from the American South as well as Western fashion. In the 1790s, the Settlers, including women, voted for the first time in elections.  Some of the Settlers revolted in 1799 when the Sierra Leone Company refused to allow them freehold  of the land. Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, thousands of slaves were liberated in Freetown. They assimilated into the culture of those  already established but there continued to be conflict, as in Liberia, between Settlers and indigenous people.

Sierra Leone developed into a constitutional democracy until Siaka Stevens became prime minister in 1968. As well as mismanaging the economy, he executed many of his political opponents,  some of whom were formerly close associates. The Internal Security Unit, a gang of unemployed urban youths fuelled  by drugs, was deployed as Stevens’s personal death squad. He and his cronies looted state resources, to the point that the state was unable to supply basic services. He retired in  1985 and  chose  Major-General Joseph Saidu Momoh,  the commander of the Sierra Leone Armed Forces, as his successor. The impact of Stevens’s  political, social, and economic policies directly contributed to the civil war.

The civil war began on 23 March 1991 when the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), with support from Charles Taylor’s NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) attempted to overthrow Momoh’s government. Taylor was recently convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the RUF and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The Special Court for Sierra Leone previously convicted a total of six members of armed groups for their involvement in these crimes. The judgment has significance for people across West Africa, Human Rights Watch said. Taylor is implicated in human rights abuses and fomenting instability in countries throughout the sub-region.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the majority of crimes in Sierra Leone were perpetrated by rebels from the RUF and the AFRC. The RUF profited by between $25m and $125m per year during the war by delivering rough gem-quality diamonds to the world’s market. Families were gunned down in the street, children and adults had their limbs hacked off with machetes, and girls and women were taken to rebel bases and subjected to sexual violence. As many as 257,000 Sierra Leonean women and girls may have been raped.


A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began its public hearings in April 2003. “Truth hurts,” announced the TRC’s posters and leaflets, “but war hurts more.”


The mandate was: “to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses . . . , 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.” In so doing, the TRC would help rebuild the nation: “Sierra Leone, can arise again!” declared the chair of the Commission, Bishop Joseph

Humper, at the closing ceremony of the TRC’s Bombali district hearings in May, 2003.


Despite pressure from local NGOs and human rights activists for a TRC, there was little popular support.Most ordinary people preferred a “forgive and forget” approach. What is truth in this sort of context? Social memory is a process (and always a contested and debated one) rather than a specific and fixed  set of facts. Remembering contested “facts”  might keep the wounds festering. As one official involved in Sierra Leone’s TRC put it, “In Sierra Leone, initially, people were not interested in what happened and didn’t happen. They just wanted peace. But there was a very strong vocal minority that thought that people needed to talk about what happened.”


Rosalind Shaw, Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology at Tufts University, carried out a study in Sierra Leone. According to her findings, in northern Sierra Leone, social forgetting is a cornerstone of established processes of reintegration and healing for child and adult ex-combatants. Speaking of the war in public often undermines these processes, and many believe it encourages violence. People in both urban and rural locations were divided about the TRC, and in several communities people collectively agreed not to give statements.


There were many factors contributing to a wish to forget: fear of retaliation by perpetrators; fear of government reprisals; and concerns arising from the concurrent operation of different transitional justice mechanisms. Ex-combatants were fearful that information they gave to the TRC would find its way to the Special Court. Ex-combatants went into hiding when the TRC hearings arrived in their districts.


According to Shaw, there is a need to build on grassroots practices of reconciliation, reintegration, and healing to develop a new generation of commissions that are more locally effective in dealing with the aftermath of conflicts. One such initiative is Fambul Tok , Krio for “family talk”. The programme works at the village level to help communities organize ceremonies that include truth-telling bonfires and traditional cleansing ceremonies. It is not rooted in Western concepts of blame and retribution, but rather in African communal sensibilities that emphasize the need for communities to be whole, with each member playing a role, if peace and development are to be achieved for the nation at large.

Kailahun was the first district to be attacked in the war, and the last to be disarmed. Seventy five per cent of youths in Kailahun District were actively involved in the war. Many of them will have been involved in rapes and amputations. Many will have been drugged and had little choice. Now they are being re-integrated by means of a biker project in which they provide a taxi and courier service. They  are working hard and making a contribution to local business. One of the reasons for the war was that such youths were idle, without education or prospects.

Former combatants are still vulnerable. Fighting is what they know best. Poverty, corruption, weak rule of law – have not been adequately addressed by government and civil society. Much of the country has no electricity, unemployment is extremely high, corruption remains systemic. All of these things impact negatively on youth. There is still fuel for future conflict however much truthy-telling talky-talk  goes on through whatever forum.