Muslim and Christian leaders working together: building reconciliation in the Sierra Leone conflict.

Author:Portaankorva, Jari


Sierra Leone struggled through a decade of turmoil and gruesome atrocities perpetrated by warlords, but today peace has emerged from the ashes of war. This article explores how Muslim and Christian leaders worked together and formed the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL) during the civil war. My ongoing interest to Sierra Leone began in 1998 when I worked for a few months as youth coordinator in Freetown. This study is based on interviews conducted in 2013, documents of IRCSL, and my personal observations. To protect the identity of the participants, I have mentioned few details of their backgrounds, apart from my main informants, the founding members of the IRCSL: Sheikh Abu Bakarr Conteh and Reverend Moses B. Khanu. I traveled to different parts of the country to conduct the interviews: the capital city Freetown, as well as up country to Makeni, Bo, Nonkoba and the Lunsar area. The field work was funded by a grant from the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI) in Uppsala.

According to recent comparative study of religion there are elements and traditions in Islam and Christianity that support peace-building and reconciliation (Abu-Nimer 2003/2001; Appleby 2000; Johnson & Sampson 1994; Lederach 1995). Religions are often involved in conflicts, and interest is growing in the role of religions in peace-building. The importance of interreligious work for peace has been obvious in the conflicts of Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East. Religious leaders may bring a spiritual dimension and create a sense of commitment to peace-building efforts (Abu-Nimer 2001, 685-687).

Faith-based peace building is possible when actors are committed to their own religions but also understand and respect other traditions. The challenge for religious actors in peace building is to build common ground between religious traditions (Johnston & Cox 2003, Portaankorva 2014). Non-violent conflict transformation through dialogue and reconciliation are central to peace building efforts. Personal motivations as well as commitment to peace building and reconciliation across religious boundaries are import to religious leaders (Appleby 2000). Reverend Moses Khanu comes from an Islamic background and has a good understanding of Islamic culture, thus, his words show respect for his ancestors:

It is not difficult in Sierra Leone as we look at the background of the tolerance. Because I come, well I could say not so much from a Christian background, but today I am a pastor. But my mother was a Muslim and father was a nonbeliever. I came from that kind of background. I have to have a certain level of sympathy to Islam because my mother was a Muslim so it is because of that, but it is not without criticism (2013:1). The process of reconciliation has many phases. It begins with ending direct violence and accepting the status quo in order to make conflict resolution possible. The peace process continues with reconciling enemies, dealing with past atrocities publicly, and learning to forgive and forget. Often ritual healing and other indigenous traditions involving public cleansing ceremonies and pardons are needed to build a societal consensus. In this sense the following definition of reconciliation is useful: 'Reconciliation--restoring broken relationships and learning to live non-violently with radical differences--can be seen as the ultimate goal of conflict resolution' (Ramsbotha, Woodhouse & Miall 2005, 231-245). Hence, what was the multifaceted expression of reconciliation in the work of IRCSL? What was the role of religious leaders in inter-religious peace-building? In answer to these question, I note that this study has its limitations, as the sample size is small and the results cannot be generalized.

Literature Review

The work of IRCSL has been discussed in recent studies. Prince Conteh (2011) describes how Muslims and Christians worked together and provided relief for war victims. Conteh's article offers insight information about how cooperation began and how common ground for peace building was discussed and framed in common statements.

Former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold (2005/2012), recounts how IRCSL built confidence between the government and rebels and helped them to start negotiating. Penfold does not agree with the results of the peace treaty and power sharing with the rebels as well the amnesty that was declared (Penfold 2005, 553-556). Nishimuko (2008) gives an account of Muslim-Christian activities and the government's tolerant religious policy. These articles and Peter Penfold's book Atrocities, Diamonds and Diplomacy: The Inside Story of the Conflict in Sierra Leone (2012) recognize the importance of good relations between Muslims and Christians and in turn their relations with the government and rebels.

The activities and methods of IRCSL from the early stages of the peace process to formal peace negotiations and the peace treaty can be found in Jessop, Aljets & Chacko (2008). Alimamy Koroma was a leading figure of IRCSL since it was established, and a key player during the peace negotiations. Koroma (2006) describes Sierra Leone, the reasons that led to the civil war and provides insider information about the peace process. Koroma's personal memories of his conversion to Christianity and friendly relationship with Muslim community helps us to understand how religions were able to work together as the agents of reconciliation (Koroma 2006, 278-301). Koroma highlights the importance of Christian converts' good relations with Muslims. Most Christian leaders are originally from an Islamic background. Koroma's article is a valuable means of understanding the peace process in Sierra Leone and the country's tolerant culture.

Harpviken and Roislien argue that the political role of religious leaders in Sierra Leone having good relations to the country's establishment was strong. "The IRCSL contributed to the peace accord for the country as religious organizations and cut through numerous levels in society; they can successfully play intermediary roles" (Harpviken and Roislien 2005, 17). Mark Turay (2000) describes how the interfaith cooperation began at an organizational level. In April 1997 the World Conference of Religion and Peace (WCRP) supported religious leaders in Sierra Leone in their efforts to form a local interreligious body. Turay's study argues that the need for negotiations arose from the grassroots level when the conflict worsened. Ordinary Muslims and Christians wanted their leaders to appeal to both belligerent parties engaged in order to end the violence.

The above studies are valuable to the present research, but are limited in their scope. No research has yet been done regarding inter-religious peace-building and the role of religious leaders based on a comparative study of religions.

The Sierra Leone Civil War

The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted for 11 years. It began in 1991 and has been characterized as one of the dirtiest wars in Africa, with mass killing, horrific levels of violence, and the abduction of children to become soldiers (Keen 2005, 219-240). The roots of the conflict are deeper, when after independence in 1961 two main political parties, the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and the All People's Congress (APC) began to compete for power. Each ruled with an institutionalized patron-client system that faced many attempted coups and much opposition (Mateos 2011, 31, Utas and Jorgel 2008, 491).

The revolutionary movement commenced in 1985 when President Momoh declared a state of economic emergency and reduced government salaries. Civil war broke out in March 1991, when Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader corporal Foday Sankoh assembled an army and attacked the government. Sankoh had formed, together with Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor and his army The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NFLP), a military coalition based in neighbouring Liberia and began controling diamond mines in the Kono district (Koroma 2007, 282-283; Mateos 2010, 31). Sankoh and Taylor were originally trained by Muammar Al-Gaddafi in Libya (Penfold 2012, 5).

The civil war in Sierra Leone demonstrates a fragile nation. The war was not a contest between two clearly defined groups (Keen 2005). Paul Richards's study of rebel fighters in the Sierra Leonean rainforest argues that the origin of the war lays further back in history and in the social orders (Richards 1996). The rebels never gained the peoples' confidence and started abducting children as soldiers right at the beginning of the war (Abraham 2004, 200202). However, the RUF managed to form a culture of violence and a closed world of combatants with a command structure based on fear and violence (Denov 2010, 102-105).

The RUF atrocities, Sankoh's leadership and the conduct of the war was far from any form of acceptable social resistance. I remember watching two very young pregnant girls in a Red Cross hospital playing on the floor with my one-year-old daughter. They were happy and smiling. They were both also missing their right hands. This was the infamous short or long sleeve limb amputation. Rebels used to ask their victims which they preferred: long sleeves or short sleeves, cut below or above the elbow or at the wrist. Once the rebels had advanced to Freetown one would often see people in the streets with bandages wrapped a limb.

The Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone

During the war in January 1997, the World Conference for Religion and Peace (WCRP) decided to support religious groups in Sierra Leone and sent a representative to discuss the forming of an organization for inter-religious dialogue and peace. The WCRP encouraged religious leaders in to come together to discuss how they could help in building reconciliation in the country. The first meeting was at the American Embassy in Freetown (Conteh 2011; Penfold 2005, 551).

Muslim and Christian leaders in Sierra Leone...

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