cc Recent rioting and violence in Freetown and the east of Sierra Leone has brought into focus the fragility of the post-conflict peace, held in place since 2002, writes Lisa Denney. At first glance, says Denney, it points to a new breed of trouble in the West African nation, a harbinger of the party political and ethnic violence that some predict will be the next great challenge faced by the country. Not just the work of criminal elements, the riots belie the potential for a new wave of violence that requires serious prevention efforts, Denney cautions. But events since the violence have taken a surprising turn, with inter-party tensions prompting youth cooperation, rather than escalating conflict. Thus a seemingly low-point in party politics may prove to be a necessary wake up call that quells rising tensions, rather than fuelling them, Denney suggests.
On Friday 13 March 2009, the newly-painted clock tower at Eastern Police, in central Freetown, was unveiled by the city mayor and officials of the All People’s Congress (APC), the party which has held national power since 2007. The main opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) (in government from 1996 – 2007) reportedly taunted and verbally abused the mayor and his APC supporters, with some allegations that they also threw rocks and other missiles in an attempt to disrupt the unveiling ceremony. The SLPP have been increasingly sidelined from decision-making, with the APC holding power at both the national and Freetown City Council level. They were allegedly not consulted about the repainting of the clock tower and its unveiling provided an opportunity for mounting frustrations to be publicly aired.
In response, APC supporters torched two cars, one belonging to the national secretary-general of the SLPP. Rioting ensued and the supporters, led by elements of the APC’s youth wing, set fire to the SLPP national headquarters in the central business district. Police were eventually able to disperse the rioters and calm was restored over the weekend. On Monday16 March 2009, however, APC rioters reconvened and blockaded the already-damaged SLPP headquarters. Police attempts to keep the rioters at bay proved futile, with some suggestions that these attempts were purposefully feeble, due to political influence within the Sierra Leone police. APC supporters were thus able to storm the opposition headquarters, allegedly raping six women and injuring others.
Over the same weekend, this party-political violence also took hold in the provinces, during a ward by-election in Soro-Gbema chiefdom, Pujehun district, Eastern Sierra Leone. Here, elections were underway following the death of the SLPP councillor. APC supporters attacked SLPP supporters, wounding the wife of the SLPP chiefdom chairman. Clashes between supports of both parties ensued and the election was called off, and was been rescheduled for 28 March 2009, when it peacefully took place, but with low voter turnout.
Two weeks later, on 6 April 2009, the inspector general of police, Brima Acha Kamara, announced that no charges would be pressed regarding the alleged rapes in the Freetown riots, as medical reports indicated no such crimes had occurred and no witnesses came forward to support the claims. This announcement prompted public outcry that the Inspector General is a puppet for the ruling APC, attempting to cover up these vile acts, and that the Sierra Leone police remain politicised, despite over a decade of UK-sponsored reforms. The situation appeared dire – with tensions between the major political parties high and public confidence in the police weakened. That same week, however, a coalition was formed between the youth wings of several political parties, including the SLPP and APC. President Ernest Bai Koroma may be credited with making the first conciliatory move – attending the opposition headquarters to make a speech calling for calm and non-violence. Since then, the youth coalition have been rotating joint meetings between party offices to move discussions on to the future, rather than dwelling on attributing blame for the recent violence.
The resurgence of violence and its potential implication of the police bring to the fore several key concerns that need monitoring over the coming years. The first relates, clearly, to increasing frictions between the two main political parties. The APC claims that the SLPP has not accepted their defeat at the 2007 national elections and continue to interfere with the APC’s attempts to get on with governance. They assert that the SLPP was responsible for ongoing government corruption, and have made efforts to address this one of their central policy platforms. Acting on this, they have sacked several government ministers and civil servants, replacing them along ostensibly more meritocratic principles. The SLPP, conversely, argue that the APC is thuggish, authoritarian and has stacked the government with its own supporters. APC appointments are not, from this perspective, based on merit, but rather predominantly derive from the Temne ethnic group of northern Sierra Leone. This leads to the second key concern, which to date has lain dormant in Sierra Leonean politics – the prospect of ethnically motivated political violence.
The APC and SLPP unfortunately derive their central support from the two largest ethnic groups in Sierra Leone respectively. The SLPP’s support base lies with the predominantly Christian Mende of the south, and the APC’s with the principally Muslim Temne of the north. Thus, whilst the violence thus far has been along political, rather than ethnic lines, the demographics of the political divides threaten to fracture also along ethnic lines. This would complicate conflict further, potentially entrenching political differences by co-opting the rhetoric of tribalism, cultural and religious differences, and ethnic conflict. Despite popular explanations of conflict in Africa, Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war was never an ethnic conflict. This dimension is new and requires thought as to how the post-conflict peace might be better crafted to ensure ethnic, if not political, harmony.
A third key concern relates to how political rivalries might co-opt the security forces into party politics. Claims against the inspector general of police do not appear well-founded, given the lack of evidence to support the rape claims. However, the public’s perception of the police remains just as important as the veracity of his claims. Politicisation of the police and armed forces was endemic prior to and during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Rebuilding public confidence in these essential security institutions has been a key goal of the post-conflict period, and has been almost entirely funded by the United Kingdom government. Setbacks in these endeavours are likely to lead to a deterioration of justice, as people avoid taking complaints to the police and crimes go unreported, unresolved and thus ultimately crime rates increase. Restoring public confidence in the impartiality of the police is imperative.
The final concern raised by the recent spate of violence centres on the role of youth. Youth combatants were heavily utilised by all parties to the conflict in Sierra Leone. It is widely recognised that any sustainable peace must forge a new role for young people in order to keep them from falling into criminality or cross-border conflict. Unfortunately, youth unemployment remains chronically high, with the Sierra Leone Government reporting it at 60 per cent, among the highest in the world. Neither the SLPP, nor APC governments have been able to address this issue adequately. It is no coincidence that the violence perpetrated in Freetown and Pujehun has been led by the youth wings of both parties. Yet the youth coalition attempts at cooperation paint a more optimistic picture. Perhaps this initiative represents a turn towards negotiation, rather than violence, as youth’s preferred political tool. There are concerns as to the makeup of the coalition – that it is the educated, elite youth sitting around the tables of cooperation, who in fact were not participants in the violence at all. As a result, the marginalised youth who are the key actors to engage still remain at the margins. If this is the case, it is not so much an argument against the youth coalition, which in and of itself appears a worthy and timely initiative, it merely speaks to the need for broad-based engagement, which is trued across all levels of government in Sierra Leone. The coalition needs simply to open its doors further.
2012 is predicted by local and international observers to be Sierra Leone’s biggest hurdle in maintaining peace. Both national and local elections are scheduled to be held that year (in the previous self-administered election, they were split between 2007 and 2008). Holding the elections simultaneously is likely to increase the potential for violence as all mandates for political power in the country are contested at once. The potentially comprehensive changing of the guard (or lack of changing, as the case may be) that results from the election risks being too large a defeat for either of the major political parties to accept. Any violence that erupts will have to be dealt with solely by the fledgling Sierra Leone police, as international forces are expected to withdraw by 2010. The nation will thus be tested for the strength of its security forces, political culture and institutions of democracy simultaneously. The combination of party politics and ethnic divides is an unfortunate reality going in to this challenge. The uncertain role of youth may prove to be the linchpin in determining whether cooperation or violence wins out.