Post-Conflict Reconciliation in Sierra Leone

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Sierra Leone — The United Nations Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) defines post-conflict reconciliation as, “the process of addressing the legacy of past violence and rebuilding the broken relationships it has caused.” In short, reconciliation is the means by which a country becomes self-aware of the damage caused by conflict, and internally reconstructs its own society. Post-conflict reconciliation in Sierra Leone is an example of a successful process.

Functionalist anthropologists view reconciliation as a dynamic social process, implying the reintegration of individuals into a community they left behind. They also believe that reconciliation cannot succeed through forceful implementation. It must come from the people impacted by the conflict. Reconciliation in Sierra Leone was a grassroots process led by the civilians who were impacted by war. It helped bridge the gap between two formally conflicting groups within the nation.

Origins of the War

Sierra Leone has a long history of conflict and corruption stemming from the control of diamonds in the country. Diamonds are the country’s most prominent natural resource. They were referred to as “conflict diamonds” because of the level of conflict they have caused in Sierra Leone. The beginning of the civil war can be traced to Joseph Momoh’s rise to power in 1985. That same year, illegal diamond mining grew significantly. Momoh came to office promising the elimination of diamond smuggling, government corruption and abuse of power.

Momoh fell short of his promises since corruption was still widespread throughout the nation and the economy was still deteriorating. His popularity with the people declined greatly as many lost their faith in his ability to rule a nation. As a consequence of weak leadership, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), backed by Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), gained support. The RUF funded their wartime weapons and supplies through illegal diamond sales. RUF reaped the profits of approximately $70 million worth of diamonds from 1999 to 2001.

The war lasted from March 1991 to January 2003. It left an estimated 70,000 dead and more than a million displaced from their homes. After the war, Sierra Leonean society was faced with a difficult question: How do the victims and perpetrators proceed to coexist? In response to this question, local civil society organizations, governmental programs and cultural traditions came together to reconstruct their society.

Fambul Tok

The local non-profit organization Fambul Tok played a huge role in advancing reconciliation in Sierra Leone. Its aim was to bring together perpetrators and victims of the civil war through rituals that draw from local indigenous traditions. Fambul Tok (meaning Family Talk) is a grassroots organization built on the tradition of discussing and resolving issues in a familiar, secure environment. The ceremony takes place around a bonfire where victims and perpetrators meet to discuss wartime events.

Fambul Tok views reconciliation much in the same way as functionalists do. Its approach originates from the belief that successful reconciliation cannot be imposed by outside sources that do not understand the culture or traditions of a society. Reconciliation in Sierra Leone must come from within, implying a method that takes into account the impact on local cultures, ethnicities and people. Internal reconciliation encourages local communities to realize that they have the power within themselves to return to a fully functioning society.

When the perpetrators and victims meet, they must acknowledge the different sides of the war. Both sides come from extremely different backgrounds and their stories differ drastically depending on what side of the war they were on. When two previously conflicting sides meet in a peaceful environment, they are forced to realize that there are different perspectives in war. This discourages blaming and encourages a peaceful understanding that aids each side in moving on. The process of reconciliation used by Fambul Tok is made up of five steps: consultations, implementation, training, the reconciliation ceremony and follow-up activities.

Success of Reconciliation in Sierra Leone

The community-oriented methodology implemented by Fambul Tok is part of why Sierra Leone has had one of the most successful social reconciliations. The programs used by Fambul Tok have led to an increase in social connectivity and community. Fambul Tok has also successfully increased trust between victims and perpetrators as well as reintegrated ex-combatants into their original communities.

The story of reconciliation in Sierra Leone is the most successful reconciliation movement to date. The division between perpetrators and victims has been mended. All conflict relating to the civil war has ceased. This is all thanks to organizations such as Fambul Tok that have implemented grassroots programs in order to bring peace to Sierra Leone.

Grassroots peace processes are a form of empowerment. Empowering nations to seek peace and to reconcile the conflict within their societies is a large step in not only resolving their conflicts but also in preventing future ones. Sierra Leone’s post-conflict reconciliation provides a successful strategy upon which other countries can draw.

Laura Phillips-Alvarez
Photo: Flickr

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