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Will Sierra Leone ever achieve peace and reconciliation?

Abdul R Thomas
Editor – The Sierra Leone Telegraph

13 October 2011

  It is ten years since the end of a brutal war in Sierra Leone that took the lives of over 200,000 people. But peace and reconciliation is looking ever so elusive.

The idea that sustainable peace and reconciliation – founded on forgiveness, has taken root, is now fast giving way to a loud call for retribution and justice.

There is no doubt that the immense loss of life and suffering caused by various factions during the war, has left a wound that is refusing to heal, and politicians are conveniently exploiting the pain of those wounded by that loss.

The call for 'justice' by the APC government of president Koroma and families of 29 senior military officers and civilians executed by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), which took power through a military coup in 1992 - at the height of the rebel war is growing louder. They want an inquest into the death of The 29.

Some are even calling for the arrest and court trial of one man – the presidential candidate of the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party (SLPP), who was the information minister of the NPRC at the time of the
arrest and execution of The 29.

There are many surviving members of the NPRC in the country today, including the former chairman and leader of the military coup. Others are serving ministers, senior security and public officials of the present Koroma led government.

The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report into the causes of the war, makes for sober reading. But in fairness, does not give closure to the families of the bereaved. What it does achieve however, is to put into the annals of history an official account of what took place during those dreadful years.

And each time one reads the evidence and testimonies given to the Commission, the painstaking search for names of those bearing the greatest responsibility - who are still alive today, becomes more urgent.

Sadly, on each occasion one is left disappointed. But perhaps it is also encouraging to note that the APC government itself does not seriously believe that there is any one alive in the country today, against whom criminal charges for war crimes can be safely brought - based on available evidence, so as to promote an end to impunity.

Yet, the pain of the bereaved families after almost twenty years is being made difficult to heal by a society and political class, which seems intent on fuelling the very culture of retribution and impunity, cited in the TRC Report.

Those who argue that peace cannot be achieved without justice, must remember that for justice to be seen to be done, it must be predicated upon the rule of Law and due process.

The rule of Law itself is based upon the universal notion of 'innocence until proven guilty'. This principle becomes even more paramount, when confronted with allegations of criminal liability for murder, which the families of The 29 and government politicians are seeking to pursue.

Of course, the problem with seeking criminal liability for murder is that it must be proven beyond all reasonable doubt, as otherwise a conviction may be deemed unsafe; and if upheld, will go on to fuel the pernicious cycle of impunity and injustice.

Sadly, the body of evidence needed to convict in any such court trial for the alleged murder of The 29 by the NPRC, after almost twenty years is not available.

And it is for this reason - and this reason alone, that the APC government must have taken its own counsel, through the advice of the Attorney General that the pursuit of justice, based upon the rule of law, cannot be safely achieved.

This therefore makes the call for 'an inquest' also legally problematic. For an inquest to be held, the government must be satisfied that it can successfully investigate and determine cause or causes of death; and perhaps more importantly, obtain testimonies from witnesses and all those alleged to have been involved in the running of the NPRC regime.

After almost twenty years since the execution of The 29, can peace be achieved in Sierra Leone without the pursuit of justice through due process and the rule of Law?

And is it right that because of the collective need for peace, the families and loved ones of The 29 should not receive some form of justice – if not through due process and the rule of Law?

Our individual views and opinions on those vital questions may be different, but what cannot be contested is the need for a national concerted and collective decision, as to how best to bring closure and promote national healing - not only for the families of the 29 - but for all of those that have suffered mortal loss through state oppression, state retribution and impunity, during the dark days of the last 50 years of independence.

For those demanding an inquest or another investigation into the killing of The 29, What should be said is that, granting such a wish may not necessarily bring personal closure - but will certainly open up the wounds of hate even further.

Politicians on all sides are already preying and capitalising on the lancing of those wounds, as political parties prepare for a bitter struggle for power at next year’s general and presidential elections.

There are unanswered questions that must now be discussed honestly and openly without any acrimony:

What will an inquest prove and what will it achieve?

Holding an inquest for death - without coroner's report as to cause of death is problematic, and will not provide any legal basis for court action.

In the absence of any new evidence as to the cause or causes of the death of The 29, is an inquest not likely to produce the same findings and conclusions as the TRC Report?

Would those that gave testimony to the TRC ten years ago have the same recollection of events today as they did then?

Would it be safe to bring charges against any of the former NPRC officers without credible evidence of criminality? And if such evidence does exist, why have they not been brought to justice?

Is it safe to continue to label or accuse any of the living NPRC officers of murder, without due process or evidence of personal responsibility, simply to further political objectives?

If we can all honestly agree that there is little to be gained for the families of the bereaved by staging an inquest, can we not then agree that what we need is a 'National Day of Atonement'?

Can we also have a cross-party agreement on 'mitigation of loss' for all those who can provide evidence of financial loss due to 'collective state retribution' - such as Mrs Lucy Kanu -
the wife of Yaya kanu, who herself was senior officer in the army ; and others who not only suffered as a result of the death of their loved ones, but were prevented from living a normal life by removing them unlawfully from their family homes, their jobs, and in some cases - loss of property?

This is not about compensation, but the mitigation of some of the loss suffered as the result of the state failing to respect 'due care' and protect its citizens - irrespective of the circumstances.

We cannot honestly and in fairness walk away from the wounds that have been left opened by ten years of civil war, or wish that the call of the families of The 29 for some form of justice will simply go away.

And whilst the families may not have a legal basis to have their wish for an inquest granted, yet as a nation, the time has come to collectively acknowledge and respect the mortal loss suffered as the result of state impunity of the last 50 years.

So, please let us have a 'National Day of Atonement', instead of the president's proposed National Conference that is aimed at finding out what is wrong with Sierra Leone, which we already know.

A National Day of Atonement and financial reparation for bereaved families will help bring closure and promote national healing of those wounds.

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