Despite Sierra Leone’s transition from civil war to peace, political parties continue to stoke tensions along ethnic and regional lines to gain voter support. New commitments to create a peace commission are a source of optimism, says Teddy Foday-Musa, but the government must ensure it remains politically independent.
This post is part of Njala Writes, a blog series resulting from a writing workshop hosted at Njala University, Sierra Leone in June 2019, in collaboration with the LSE Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa.
It is almost 17 years since the end of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. But has the country achieved political peace? While there has certainly been some superficial political commitment to peace and democracy, as demonstrated by four consecutive peaceful elections – respectively in 2002, 2007, 2012 and 2018 – the country continues to resurface political divisions and other issues that threaten national unity and social cohesion.
This threat is predicated on the potential relapse into violence should such divisions and political tensions not be addressed. Even after the 2018 elections, political interactions between the two major political parties – the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC) and the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) – is expressed in the form of threats to the country’s peace and security. This has been aggravated by social media as a platform for disseminating hate speech and messages of violence.
Disunity among Sierra Leoneans is no more a hidden secret. In explaining local popular responses to decades of disunity, it is widely argued that during periods of electioneering ethnicity and regionalism have fuelled disunity among Sierra Leoneans – a widely shared perception. Civil society activist, Lavalie, notes: ‘The regional and ethnic voting pattern in subsequent elections undermines our national cohesion. It is unfortunate that ethnicity plays a salient role in our national politics both as a source for political organisation and a basis for support’ (author’s interview conducted in Freetown on 15 August 2018). The results of the 2007, 2012 and 2018 elections clearly depict a pattern of ethnic and regional allegiance.
Of particular concern is the hate-driven politics between the APC and SLPP. Their current political tension is the fodder for future violent conflict. Challenging conditions have added fuel to the fire, as disillusioned party supporters, many of them unemployed youth, show a willingness to confront the police and thus perpetuate violence. Instead of seeking solutions to these tensions, party leaders continue to preach divisive messages to their supporters, conditioning them to work against the national government’s agenda.
It is critically important that we understand and address the ways mutual mistrust, suspicion, anger and animosity spill over into priorities of national development, such as the fight against corruption and attracting foreign investment.
The government of Sierra Leone, in contrast to previous administrations, has identified the strengthening of national cohesion as a top priority area. In his address on 10 May 2018, at the State Opening of the First Session of the Fifth Parliament of the Second Republic, the President of Sierra Leone His Excellency Julius Maada Bio noted:
In the last ten years, the building blocks of national cohesion and the feeling of belonging of all citizens have gravely crumbled. The recent governance strategy has been characterized by tribalism, divisiveness, exclusion and the weakening and subversion of state governing institutions. Mr. Speaker, to promote unity and national cohesion, my Government will (i) launch a Presidential Initiative that will be heralded by a national conference on peacebuilding, diversity management and rebuilding of national cohesion. I therefore announce the creation of an Independent Commission for Peace and National Cohesion to be established by an Act of Parliament.
A three-day National Dialogue Forum, dubbed ‘Bintumani-III’, took place at the Bintumani Conference Centre in Freetown in May 2019, which brought together Sierra Leoneans to generate consensus on strategies and a roadmap for the establishment of a National Peace Infrastructure. In his opening speech, His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio expressed his government’s commitment to the process. He said: ‘My Government thus believes that the time has come to host Bintumani-III with the view to eventually establish a commission tasked with turning the vision of a truly peaceful and unified Sierra Leone in reality’.
The Bintumani-III Conference was inclusive and provided the opportunity for citizens and stakeholders to voice their frustration about the failure of governments to fulfil the recommendations of the 2004 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report. Citizens also expressed outrage over the slow pace of establishing an infrastructure for peace in the country, as proposed in the 1999 Lomé Peace Agreement. Johnson, a participant at the conference, noted:
This Dialogue Forum provides us an avenue to express our fears about the current peace, security, governance, political and human rights challenges in the country. It also provides the space for diverse views and opinions about how we can create a roadmap for the establishment of our own Peace Commission and suggest ways for the implementation of the TRC Report recommendations (author’s interview conducted in Freetown on 23 May 2019).
While Sierra Leone has made promising strides in its transition from civil war to peace, the sustainability of these gains is based on cultivating continued stability nationwide. In this vein, giving peace an address by establishing an infrastructure is a vital move by the government. While the Peace and National Cohesion Commission (PNCC) will be established by an act of parliament to address these aims, the government should realise that such a Commission can only thrive with inclusive participation, devoid of political interference.
Photo: TED Conference