Issues of Peace and Reconciliation:




(This article, first published in Focus Vol.2 No.5, is reproduced here for the benefit of forward planning and to help those who are interested in the life afterwards)



With peace coming more and more tantalisingly close, many issues that impact on our internal relationships should be addressed now, not later.  One such is the way we are going to treat those whom we currently look upon as villains, that is to say those who have hurt us and whom, despite the bland references to peace, we nonetheless continue to look upon as enemies. Peace means we will have to live together, hopefully, in harmony, and share with them the common soil of Sierra Leone, which has been blistered by a senseless fratricidal war of devastating proportions.

But the question will inevitably be asked whether "they are going to get away with it, without account" or we should exact "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", to quote the biblical refrain. The answer lies somewhere between the two.

If we are going to learn anything from what has happened and why it did, then they - at least the principal offenders - must be made to give account. We have previously argued the case for a Truth Commission. However, the question then should not be how do we punish these offenders - whoever or on whichever side they are - but how do we repair the damage done by them. This is the idea of Restorative Justice. We believe that it is the philosophy which must govern our internal relationships, henceforth, as we embark on the hazardous trail to reconciliation. It will help towards the strengthening of family bonding and national cohesion the day after peace is promulgated in our country.

Restorative justice embraces a wide range of human emotions, including healing, mediation, compassion, forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation, as well as punishment when and where appropriate. It enables the best virtues of human interaction to occur. It gives practical interpretation to the generally accepted view that we are all interconnected and that what we do - good or evil - whether as ordinary citizens or military rulers, armed combatants, rebels, etc, has an impact on others.

This idea is not new because when you think of it, it has underpinned our own cultural and traditional laws for generations - only now it has been pushed into the background in the face of the desire for retribution by modern materialistic societies. In our original traditional systems, everyone was bound to work towards the common good. The crime and violence that we have in our country militate against this common well-being. Restorative Justice will therefore provide us the opportunity whereby those affected by the war, and during the last military rule or, even before that, under the APC - whether they were victims, offenders, families or the wider community - all have a part in resolving the issues that flow from these events.

The way it works is that victims and offenders assume central roles and the State takes a back seat. That is why even now it must be stressed that the present government must not nurture any belief that government edicts and functionaries will solve this problem. The greatest enemy of peace is authoritarianism. It was most disappointing, and a serious miscalculation by government, that representatives of the civilian peace groups were not involved in the actual negotiations that took place in Abidjan. This is a people's affair. Therefore, policies for peace, reconciliation and healing must emanate from, and be placed firmly, among the people. Bureaucracy will be the wrong medium for this purpose.

The goal, always, is to heal the wounds of every person affected by the war. No easy task, mind you, but surely it is a more honourable aim than merely focusing on punishing the offender under the system of retributive justice, as obtains under our present adversarial court systems. This is where a Truth Commission may be useful. In this case we do not have to ape Truth Commissions in other countries although we can draw on their experiences. For examples, South Africa and Rwanda come to mind. The main point is to have people admit to what they have done, ie to their guilt, and apologise for their actions. If they claim innocence then the matter can proceed in court in the usual way.

The full implications of the offence need to be spelled out and confronted as the offender faces the causes of offending so that they understand the effect their crimes have had on their victims. Having admitted their guilt and apologised, they then get a chance to explain their behaviour. Their own friends and relatives, if present, can add any mitigating background information to fill out their personal circumstances. This is offered not as an excuse but simply to help fill out the picture. The victim is then asked to express their feeling on the matter. Then they work towards a consensus and recommend a package to an adjudicator.

Restoration could involve community service, helping the victims rebuild their homes which the offender(s) destroyed, take the amputees every day to hospital for their treatment, rebuild community facilities, e.g. the schools, hospitals, court houses, churches and mosques that were destroyed by the offender(s) and their comrades. The victims of course have feelings and these will play a key factor in such proceedings. But the restorative process helps victims to see that their own victimisation will be intensified by feelings of retribution against the offenders.

The community's role therefore is to create the conditions most favourable to the restoration of both victim and offender. The community will aid the healing process by providing counsellors, mediators, judges, and the like. Provided there is cooperation, the parties can reach agreement about repairing the damage where that is possible.

Obviously, not in the cases of rape and murder, or various incidents of mutilation. You cannot reverse the rape, you cannot restore the dead from their grave, and you cannot replace the severed arms although in the latter case, with the help of modern science and the availability of resources, something can be done to qualitatively improve the functionality of the victim through, say, prostheses. 

The truth, though, is that the more serious the offence the more numerous are the secondary victims, e.g. family and friends. In a country like ours, with foundations buttressed in the extended family - it is bound to affect the core elements of our communities' well-being. Our present system of retributive justice, i.e. that which obtains in our courts currently, totally ignores them. After a murder, the deceased's family and friends remain to feel the hurt of losing a loved one. Restorative justice ensures that the victim is not alone. The community will share in their grief.

Ambrose Ganda