Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission


Sierra Leone’s South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) finally submitted its long-awaited report to the government last week. The main report is 1,500-pages long, and there is a CD-ROM version (Vol. 4), along with transcripts of testimonies. The transcripts are more than 3,500 pages. Put together, the report is 5000 pages long.

The report is well-organised and reader-friendly. There is an Executive Summary (of about 40 pages), which very well captures the substance of the massive report; and the main report is broken down into several sections dealing with various aspects of the decade-long war that ravaged Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2001: the historical antecedents of the war and other preceding events; the causes of the war, with a particular focus on issues of governance; the conflict itself, including military and political events; its nature, with a focus on such demented atrocities as amputations and sexual slavery; the role of external actors, and circumstances that fuelled the war, such as mineral resources; the impact of warfare on various groups, particularly on women, children, and youths; the relationship between the TRC and the Special Court for Sierra Leone; and the efforts made to help Sierra Leone reconcile with its past, including the proposed reparations programme and the National Vision for Sierra Leone, a still-inchoate project which was the direct offspring of the TRC. A set of well-detailed and cogent recommendations (including, with exquisite fitness, a call for the abolition of the death penalty) constitute a whole chapter: this section should be treated with particular urgency by the government and people of Sierra Leone.

The Commissioners had initially planned to submit the report in October 2003. When this proved impossible—the Commission was handicapped throughout by its poor finances and by the rather serious shortfall in quality personnel—an extension was granted it in September 2003. The TRC was then to submit its report to the President in March 2004, a deadline it again failed to meet. What has been submitted, however, is rather worthy of the long wait, and a read through its thousands of pages will repay many times over. No doubt there will be questions about the report’s methodology, interpretation of events, and its often idiosyncratic political and military analysis, but there is no question that the report is one of the most important documents on Sierra Leone’s recent history.

Congratulations are due to the Commissioners, the diligent staff of the Commission, including its senior staff (notably Ozonia Ojielo, a brilliant human rights lawyer and former civil society activist in Nigeria, who almost single-handedly ensured that the process remained on track even after the Commission ran out of funding), the researchers, and the donor community.

MANDATE AND METHODOLOGY & ANALYSIS The TRC was set up as a result of the Lome Accord of July 1999 (the highly controversial but definitive agreement that ended Sierra Leone’s war), whose Article XXVI states thus: “A Truth and Reconciliation Commission shall be established to address impunity, break the cycle of violence, provide a forum for both parties and perpetrators of human rights violations, to tell their story, get a clear picture of the past in order to facilitate genuine healing and reconciliation.” On 10 February 2000, the Sierra Leone Parliament passed an Act legally setting up the Commission. The Act made provisions to compel persons to appear before the Commission where Commissioners were convinced that this would be necessary to get important statements from them. The Act described the purpose of the TRC as an instrument designed to create “an impartial body of historical record” of the war and to “help restore the human dignity of victims and promote reconciliation.” The TRC was required to conduct a year-long nationwide process of collecting testimonies and research, and to foster “inter-change(s) between victims and perpetrators.” At the end of the year, the Commission was to present a report to the Sierra Leone government, which would then share the findings with the UN Security Council. A budget for the exercise was initially set at $10 million, but this was reduced to $6.5 million after potential donors complained that the earlier figure was too high. The cash-strapped Sierra Leone government was to contribute only a small fraction of this. In the event, it was not until 5 July 2002 that the TRC was finally inaugurated in Freetown.

The Commissioners and staff were from various backgrounds and of various nationalities, and they saw themselves clearly as being above the undue influence of any party to the just-ended conflict. This was an undeniable strength, but in the report they also curiously affected to be above the moral sensitivities that come naturally in such a situation. They write that it was not part of their mandate to “assess the justice of the conflict itself.” This is also the position taken by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, another instrument of transitional justice in Sierra Leone—and it is one of the few things on which these two instruments agree. It is a hugely problematic position, of course. It is not that a fiercely evenhanded approach to assessing the war’s protagonists and responsibility for the destruction and atrocities is inherently bad or misguided; it is just that a report like this should seriously attempt to provide a proper context in which groups emerged or acted they way they did. And this should involve, clearly, assessing “the justice” or rationale for which the various groups resorted to arms and did what they did.

Shifting through thousands of testimonies, mainly from victims but also from some perpetrators, the TRC sought to establish what it called “social truth”, by which it meant the establishment of a kind of “consensus…about the nature of the conflict.” This obviously involved making judgments about the “personal or narrative truths” that were collected from individual testimonies, although the report is rather coy about this. It emphatically submits its findings as largely a matter of statistical truism, which is reasonable and fair, as far as it goes. We read: “The Commission finds the RUF [Revolutionary United Front, the group that initiated the war], the AFRC [the Armed Forces Ruling Council, the junta, actually a coalition of the RUF and rogue government soldiers, that ruled Sierra Leone from May 1997 to February 1998, and continued its depredations even after it was unseated] and the SLA (the Sierra Leone Army, when it operated with the AFRC) to be the primary organizations that committed violations against children. Of the violations known to the Commission with a victim with known age and alleged to have been committed by the RUF, 15.4% (3090 out of 20125 violations) was against a child. The corresponding statistic for the AFRC, (including the SLA when it operated with the AFRC), was 10.7% (603/5610). The leaderships of these organisations are held responsible for permitting the commission of gross human rights violations against children. There are no mitigating factors to justify such inhuman and cruel conduct.” The report states that overall the RUF committed 60.5 % of the atrocities; the AFRC 9.8 %; the SLA 6.8 %; the Civil Defence Force (mainly Kamajors) 6 %; and ECOMOG, the Nigerian-led West African intervention force, 1 %.

As stated earlier, this statistical apportioning of blame for the violations appears reasonable and fair, as far as it goes. But since the report evokes the concept of “just war”, one would expect certain judgments, of a broader more cosmic nature, to be made about responsibility for the war itself, and therefore for the atrocities that resulted from it. The war was started by the RUF, and it is arguably true that only the RUF ensured its continuation and even its character. The RUF was a predatory and self-interested, even criminal, organization, and the report’s statement that some people may argue that “those who initiated the attempts to overthrow the Momoh regime were justified in taking up arms” (an obvious reference to the RUF), betrays a certain lack of insight into how the RUF was organized and inflicted on Sierra Leone.

The TRC in fact does make strong judgments, and not only in the matter of naming prominent names and assigning responsibility (the RUF leadership is held responsible for RUF’s actions; the government of Sierra Leone, including the President, is held accountable for the depredations of the CDF etc). It also makes pronouncements on what it considers “caused” the war, although the broadness of culpability it assigns makes such pronouncements of rather little value. It dismisses the “commonly held view, both within and outside Sierra Leone, that the Sierra Leone conflict was a war fought over diamonds” as “only partly true.” The report stresses that issues of bad governance, endemic corruption and poverty, disenchanted youth, a dictatorship that closed legitimate avenues of political expression, the dubious policies of the former colonial administration, uneven development in the country, capital punishment, a sclerotic elite, autocratic chiefs, a demented gerontocracy, patrimonial politics—all of these “laid the grounds for the war which would have taken place even without the existence of diamonds in the country.” The report concludes that the “exploitation of diamonds was not the cause of the conflict in Sierra Leone, rather it was an element that fuelled the conflict,” and that “diamonds were used by most of the armed factions to finance and support their war efforts.”

Isn’t there a non sequitor here? Did anyone ever doubt that other “armed factions” benefited from diamonds or used them in their war efforts? The government of Sierra Leone certainly used profits from the diamond trade to fund its war effort, as well run the government; and the Civil Defence Force (CDF), which fought to protect civilians, also mined diamonds and used the profits to fund its activities. To make this recognition, however, is different from attempting to blur the distinction between the various groups by arguing that the RUF was just another “armed faction.” The war was the RUF’s war, and diamonds for the RUF were more than simply an available resource to fund its war effort: they were also a principal motivation for its crucial external supporters, particularly Charles Taylor and various arms dealers, as well as most of its core fighters.

These are only preliminary comments, and the criticism here certainly do not detract from the overall value of what is, in my view, a profoundly important and well-researched document, one that should be read and evaluated with great care by all Sierra Leoneans and those interested in Sierra Leone. Below, I reproduce some important findings made by the Commission; I highlight them because they are rather fresh, in some ways surprising, but ultimately rather reasonable and intriguing:

WHAT THE REPORT SAYS, IN ITS OWN WORDS: “Most of the violations reported to the Commission were committed against adult males (59.6%, 6816 violations out of 11429). Of the victims reported to the Commission for whom age and sex are known, 66.5% (7603 out of 11429 victims) are male while 33.5% (3826 out of 11429 victims) are female. Female victims reported to the Commission comprised 31.9% of adult victims (3186 out of 10002 victims) but made up 44.9% (640 out of 1427) of the child victims.”

“The Commission finds the RUF, the AFRC and the SLA (when it operated with the AFRC) to be the primary organizations that committed violations against children. Of the violations known to the Commission with a victim with known age and alleged to have been committed by the RUF, 15.4% (3090 out of 20125 violations) was against a child. The corresponding statistic for the AFRC, (including the SLA when it operated with the AFRC), was 10.7% (603/5610). The leaderships of these organisations are held responsible for permitting the commission of gross human rights violations against children. There are no mitigating factors to justify such inhuman and cruel conduct.”

“The Commission has identified an astonishing “factional fluidity” among the different militias and armed groups that prosecuted the war. Both overtly and covertly, gradually and suddenly, fighters switched sides or established new “units”. These “chameleonic tendencies” spanned across all factions without exception.”

*” The factional fluidity that defined this conflict was drawn into its sharpest focus in the latter stages of the conflict. Many of the early members of the RUF on its Southern Front in the Pujehun District reappeared as Kamajors under the banner of the CDF after 1997. Theirs was not so much a switching of sides as the identification of a new vehicle on which to purvey their notions of empowerment as civil militiamen.”

*“The Commission finds that the RUF was responsible for more violations than any other faction during the period 1991 to 2000: 60.5% (24353 out of 40242) of all violations were attributed to the RUF. Furthermore, the RUF committed more violations than any other group during every individual year between 1991 and 2000.”

*”The AFRC was responsible for the second largest number of violations during the period 1991 to 2000. Some 9.8% (3950 out of 40242 violations) of all allegations made in statements to the Commission were attributed to the AFRC.”

*”The Sierra Leone Army (SLA) was responsible for the third largest number of violations during the same period. Some 6.8% (2724 out of 40242) of the allegations made in the statements were levelled at the SLA.” *” 6% (2419 out of 40242) of violations alleged by the statement- makers are attributed to the CDF, and 1.5% (of violations alleged by the statement-makers are attributed jointly to the SLA and AFRC during the second quarter of 1997.”

*”Other groups such as ECOMOG, the Special Security Division (SSD) of the Sierra Leone Police and the Guinean Armed Forces (GAF) account for less than 1% each of the recorded violations. 5.0% of the recorded violations are considered to have unknown perpetrators.”

*Knowledge of CDF Atrocities ”The Commission finds that the Government was aware of human rights violations and abuses carried out by the CDF, through the role of its Deputy Defence Minister, Chief Samuel Hinga Norman, who served as CDF National Co-ordinator and members of the War Council at Base Zero. The Government was further kept informed through its Security Committee briefings and through reports received from ECOMOG, but failed to take steps to stop them. The Commission, accordingly, holds the Government responsible for the violations and abuses of human rights committed by the CDF.” *”Of the various groups that comprised the CDF, the Kamajors received the most scrutiny by the Commission as they were responsible for largest number of violations committed by the CDF after 1996…. A defining characteristic of the CDF is the initiation ceremony, described by many witnesses before the Commission as entailing gross abuses and violations of human rights.”

*”The War Council in Exile established by President Kabbah struggled to assert its mandate. Indeed, the War Council’s efficacy depended largely on the extent to which its directions converged with Hinga Norman’s own views.

*”Nonetheless, the Commission finds that the War Council and the President were fully and timeously apprised of events that were taking place on the ground in Sierra Leone during their period in exile. They did not act to stop the violations being carried out by CDF elements nor did they speak out against them. As such, they are held responsible for the acts of their agents on the ground. *”The failure of the pro-Government forces to halt the AFRC advance on Freetown in January 1999 represents a blunder on the part of the Government of Sierra Leone and ECOMOG. Both parties had multiple prior warnings of the impending disaster. Their joint neglect and poor analysis of the situation culminated in the wanton destruction of Freetown by bands of thugs and hooligans.”

*Citizenship should be acquired by birth, descent or naturalisation. Race and gender must not be a consideration in the acquisition of citizenship. The Sierra Leone Citizenship Act should be amended accordingly. This is an imperative recommendation.

*Prosecution of corruption cases should be free of any scope for political interference. The Commission recommends that the Anti- Corruption Commission (ACC) should be permitted to pursue its own prosecutions in the name of the Republic of Sierra Leone. The Commission recommends that the ACC Act 2000 should be amended to include a provision deeming prosecutions undertaken by the ACC to be in the name of the Republic.”

*”The Commission calls on the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and the Media Commission to be more proactive in monitoring standards of journalism practiced in Sierra Leone and to establish mechanisms for effective self-regulation. These organisations can do much to advance a culture of human rights in Sierra Leone.”

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