By Messeh Leone, President of United Sierra Leone Movement, (Global Human Rights Defender and Advocate for Peace)
Sierra Leone is a beautiful country. It has excellent weather, beaches and islands, mountains and rich biodiversity, interesting wildlife, friendliness and rich social capital among people, as well as a special place in the world history of the anti-slavery movement as ‘the land of the free’. Sierra Leone possesses substantial human and natural resources. Yet, the country is still recovering from a devastating 11-year civil war.
Since hearing news of recent tensions in Sierra Leone, I have been seriously troubled. In this article, I am speaking up for the little ones (the children and youth), recalling myself at age ten, thrown into the pit of hell over a conflict I did not know anything about. I hope Sierra Leone will pay heed to my voice, and engage with our political leaders and our young friends. My firsthand experience of the war growing up as a child in Sierra Leone made me think about the potential magnitude of what is unfolding in Sierra Leone, and its implications for a prosperous and United Sierra Leone. I am very troubled.
The concept of unity, freedom and justice is so central to Sierra Leone that it was enshrined in the emblem of the country’s coat of arms. The founding fathers and mothers who fought for independence in 1961 endorsed this concept of unity, freedom and justice in response to the struggle for independence, and with a keen understanding of the challenges faced by the country. Recognising the unique power of a united and free country, the founding fathers and mothers wisely sought to steer the country on firm footing, with a view to work together to create a prosperous and United Sierra Leone.
Prime Minister Sir Milton Margai, our first Prime Minister, after gaining independence from Britain in 1961, concisely summed up the reasons for and benefits of unity, freedom & justice as prerequisites for creating a prosperous and United Sierra Leone:
“Sierra Leone today becomes a unified and independent nation to take her place as an equal partner in the Commonwealth of nations and as equal entity in the world at large. For this we rejoice, and may your own rejoicing wherever you are be really full of happiness… The Sierra Leone Government in the years to come will depend upon your cooperation and active assistance. You have an especial responsibility to maintain the high standards you have set in past years, to stand by the rules of procedure in the case of disputes, and to avoid conflicts which may be detrimental to the good of your country. And to those of you who are studying at school or college I say: You are seeing history made this day. Work hard, for you are the future leaders of your country. We will lay traditions of which you will be proud. It will be for you to uphold them and to build upon them in the future’’.
The Sierra Leone motto of Unity, Freedom and Justice is a critical prerequisite for creating a prosperous & United Sierra Leone. And because Sierra Leone is failing to meet these prerequisites, we are now faced with a nation engulfed in a crisis that exposes our people to a recurrence of the sad chapter of the war. My position is informed by firsthand experience and engagement with state and non-state actors in the country and a thorough review of important publications/reports on Sierra Leone. I would like to highlight what ought to be done to comply with the fundamentals unity, freedom, and justice, and to suggest proactive steps that should be taken to create a prosperous and United Sierra Leone.
Unity as a prerequisite for creating a prosperous & United Sierra Leone.
For decades, political parties have used their influence and ethnic affiliations to incite tensions and violence among supporters. Sierra Leone continues to experience tribal and political tensions and divisions. However, Sierra Leoneans live side by side in peace most of the time despite real underlying grievances, which are triggered during elections and times of political tension. All efforts to unite post-conflict societies are vexed and will inevitably be met with challenges and face a number of dilemmas: how to bring justice to people who have suffered, how to punish the perpetrators, and how to prevent violence from erupting again. The primary goal of unity is to help people work together regardless of political, tribal and economic status to achieve a prosperous & United Sierra Leone.
We started a movement known as ‘’United Sierra Leone’’, comprising Sierra Leoneans from across the world and from all walks of life. The United Sierra Leone is campaigning on a platform for an ‘’all-inclusive and all-party civic initiative and has called on the APC, SLPP, other political parties and all Sierra Leoneans from home and abroad to tackle the “old trickle-down, divisive ideology” and to advance the cause of political freedom, free and fair elections and national cohesion.’’ At the launching of the United Sierra Leone in Freetown, on the 22 January, 2013, we set out ‘A United Nation’ plan and called for a comprehensive strategy for national cohesion to help tackle the divisions of a multi-ethnic society.
Over the years, we have been working with local communities to build a culture of unity. Following the difficult 2018 elections, we organised the United Sierra Leone Peace Festival, designed to create a space for artists to work with communities on issues of community interest in support of the national cohesion and reconciliation process. We witnessed an unexpected reconciliation between two longstanding rival hip hop musical leaders, Kao Denero and LAJ, which provided an opportunity for reconciliation. This was a welcome development for many Sierra Leoneans who had grown accustomed to a bitter cycle of violence between the two. Part of the strategy is to use music as a tool to disseminate peace messages and bring together diverse interest groups to identify a common goal and action plan. The Festival was also a platform on which the various supporters of political parties and people in the communities, who are most times in competition or adversarial, could work successfully together, interact and dance together to the same music in the same room for the first time after the elections. This project was supported by the European Union, ECOWAS, Africa Union, Government of Sierra Leone, Messeh Leone Trust, AMNet, AYV Media, Independent Radio Network, Leone Entertainment.
A national focus on national cohesion and reconciliation is critical for the people of Sierra Leone to move forward. For example, in the context of the TRC, perpetrators were able to confess and ask for forgiveness, and the survivors were encouraged to grant forgiveness and move on with their lives. A sincere apology at the individual level, as occurred during the TRC, can be a very powerful gesture because an apology acknowledges that something wrong was done, and takes responsibility for the wrong without finding excuses, indicating that the harm will not be repeated. If the offender shows remorse, there is a chance that the victim and survivor can accept the apology and grant forgiveness. But the victim and survivor also have the power to not accept the apology because what was done is considered unforgivable by this victim or survivor, or because the apology or remorse is not considered sincere.
If the Commission for National Cohesion and Peace were to be instituted, it should take place in a bipartisan democratic setting in order to be successful, but the government’s way of governing has recently been criticised in the wake of the recent political clashes, and the opposition party accused the present government of despotism and intimidation. It is this government that will be implementing the Commission for National Cohesion and Peace, a government that has ignored efforts made by both the TRC and the Special Court. This also illustrates how unity, freedom and justice are questions that reflect political circumstances on the ground. At the moment, these circumstances at the national level make reconciliation between individuals even more difficult.
Freedom as a prerequisite for creating a prosperous & United Sierra Leone
The struggle for the rights and freedoms of all Sierra Leoneans was always at the very heart of the fight for independence from Britain. The people of Sierra Leone deserve freedom so that everybody can live in peace and without fear of intimidation.
Freedom of association is one of the most basic rights enjoyed by all human beings. It ensures that every individual is free to organise and to convene and participate in groups, either formally or informally. People should be free to join any political party or group without intimidation regardless of their tribe or political affiliations. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It is important to note that in as much as people have the freedom of speech, society must be guided not to abuse this right. While, from a legal perspective, hate speech can be covered by freedom of expression, we cannot tolerate such vitriol, as it attacks the core values of our collective unity, freedom and justice. According to the United Nations, hate speech is: ‘’any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor’’
There are great expectations in Sierra Leone concerning the repeal of Part V of the 1965 Public Order Act dealing with libel laws. Successive governments and politicians used the laws mainly against journalists and activists and the prospect of their use instilled fear in the minds of media practitioners across the country. There is an urgent need to end the powerful criminal defamation laws, which unduly restrict freedom of expression. This would end the use of criminal sanctions to provide redress for reputation, thus yielding relatively increased freedom of expression in the country.
The Constitution of Sierra Leone guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and movement. Sierra Leone has ratified international treaties which guarantee these rights. To achieve freedom and respect for human rights, state and not state actors must implement key human rights covenants, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) among others.
Justice as a prerequisite for creating a prosperous & United Sierra Leone
All efforts to build post-conflict societies are vexed and will inevitably be met with criticisms and face a number of dilemmas regarding how to bring justice to people who have suffered, how to punish the perpetrators, and how to prevent the violence from erupting again. The people of Sierra Leone can choose from a number of different judicial and non-judicial methods designed to help them come to terms with their recent past. The Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission represents one such method that is non-judicial and restorative, rather than judicial and retributive, in nature. The primary goal of the TRC was to help the people of Sierra Leone reach the truth about past human rights abuses and to achieve reconciliation. The United Nations backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was established to deal with crimes against humanity and were mandated to prosecute those who bore the greatest responsibility for the war in Sierra Leone.
There are many forms of justice with the main differentiation between restorative and criminal justice. Criminal justice was promoted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In restorative justice, the focus is not so much on punishment, but on restoring the relationship between the parties to a conflict.
The report of the TRC highlighted the government corruption during the years leading up to the conflict, the desecration of the constitution, the perpetuation of injustice and the pillaging of the country’s wealth. The Commission called upon the Ministry of Justice, including judges and lawyers, to defend the rule of law (paragraph 176 of the TRC). The Commission’s findings challenge us, as a nation, to learn the past and to reinforce the belief that the past cannot, and must not, be forgotten.
The TRC gives us all hope that we can work to end human rights violations and put an end to a culture of impunity. Noting that the ensuing violence ignited a wave of grave human rights violations and abuses for which victims and their families required justice to address impunity and to break the cycle of violence, allowing the people of Sierra Leone to enjoy all their rights as citizens of this beautiful country. For justice to work, the people need to feel that the legal system is working, and not just in favour of the select few.
A culture of impunity is a root cause of conflict. As long as only a few people enjoy justice, any effort to pursue justice will be viewed with suspicion. If this does not change, other members of the public who feel their human rights have been violated, will be faced with injustice, which is another breeding ground for disquiet. The courts have an important role to play, and the judiciary can be seen as a better, although far from perfect, alternative to speed up the process of handing down justice to the perpetrators of crimes and freeing the innocent.
The government has been criticised for failing to take action to address existing and emerging human rights violations in the country. There are also reports of mass arrests. The continued detention without charge is a flagrant disregard of the rule of law and an affront to justice by the Sierra Leone Police.
Some people have already accused both the Sierra Leone Government and political parties of mounting nothing more than a political expedition, to disturb peace, to attempt to criminalise some of our politicians, on both sides of the political divide, and to destabilise our country.Is this the case? Are the people of Sierra Leone afraid to say wrong is wrong for fear of intimidation or because the political status quo is powerful – very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, Sierra Leone is our nation! We live in a democratic world of the 21st century. Some leaders were once very powerful, but today they no longer exist. Much of our country’s governance has been a racket – a game in which a handful of people are lavishly paid to mislead and exploit poor and disadvantaged people. And if we don’t lower the boom on these practices, the racket will just go on. Those who are powerful have to remember the implications of their action and inaction: what will come of the mistreatment of the poor, the hungry, the voiceless, youth, women and children? On that basis the people will pass judgment during national elections. Sierra Leone now needs a future based on the recognition that, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is needed to come on board and have a voice in the governance of the country, regardless of tribal and political affiliations. If any efforts at national cohesion and peace are to prove sustainable, the people of Sierra Leone need to come together starting with the leaders – they must put aside their differences and together create a prosperous & United Sierra Leone. This is the time for the country to come together to promote a better and United Sierra Leone.
Some relevant excerpts/references from Messeh Leone’s article published in the Open Democracy, at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/healing-sierra-leone-challenges-facing-commission-of-inquiry/
About the Author:
Messeh Leone was a child during the civil war in Sierra Leone and experienced firsthand the brutal impacts of the war. In 2003, he served as President of the Children’s Forum Network of Sierra Leone and chaired the input to the children’s version of the TRC report. He has worked for international institutions, including the Commonwealth, the European Union, the African Union and the United Nations.