AFRICA/SIERRA LEONE - Archbishop of Freetown: our peace is always at risk

Friday, 12 January 2024 wars   peace   local churches   child soldier   area crisis  

Freetown (Agenzia Fides) - Sierra Leone continues its difficult path of peace, reconciliation and development amidst obstacles and political turmoil. The small country in the far west of Africa, nestled between Liberia and Guinea, experienced a decade of terrible conflict (1991-2002) which saw the regular army lined up on one side and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front supported by special forces (NPFL) on the other side. In just over ten years, the war claimed 50,000 lives (out of a population of about 4 million) and caused mass exodus and the phenomenon of child soldiers, who were used widely by both forces. After the war, Sierra Leone embarked on a path that led to relative peace and initial socio-political stability, but was interrupted by worrying outbreaks of violence. In the run-up to the elections in June last year, there were riots that resulted in deaths and injuries and increased vigilance. Towards the end of the year, an attempted coup and the tensions that followed fueled fears of a return to the old conditions. Representatives of the local church hierarchy, alarmed by the situation, launched an appeal and educational initiatives to calm the population.

"The situation is calm at the moment," reports the Archbishop of Freetown, Charles Edward Tamba, when asked by Fides, "and we can say that we experienced a peaceful and calm Christmas season. The coup attempt on November 26 (gunmen stormed a military weapons depot and several prisons in Freetown and freed almost 2,000 prisoners, editor's note) opened a period of crisis. Gunshots were heard for a long time, many prisoners were released, and it was feared that this was the prelude to chaos. Fortunately, the government soon brought the situation under control and many of those who had led and participated in the coup attempt were arrested; most of them were military personnel, some were associated with former President Ernest Bai Koroma (accused of high treason and is currently under house arrest, editor's note) and are now on trial. On January 10, a court in Sierra Leone indicted 27 soldiers for the attempted coup. The November violence occurred five months after elections in which current President Julius Maada Bio was re-elected to a second term. In the period leading up to the election, tensions had steadily increased. “The violence,” said Archbishop Tamba, “started long before the elections. Since August 2022, there have been protests and troubling crises throughout the pre-election period. Unfortunately there were also deaths and injuries. Protesters in Freetown demanding a change in Julius Maada's government and attempting to advance to the presidential palace were intercepted and dozens of people lost their lives in the clashes, including police, civilians and ordinary passers-by. Similar protests took place in other cities across the country, and in the end there were at least seven deaths among police officers and twenty-one civilians, although some say the numbers are higher." "Unfortunately," the Archbishop continued, "we are used to this type of tensions which re-emerge every time we approach an election. However, I must say that perhaps for the first time the elections were peaceful. I was there as an observer and can witness a generally peaceful atmosphere. The tensions only emerged later, after the results were in: the opposition claimed a lack of transparency in the transmission of the data, and the EU report gave it some legitimacy (the EU electoral observation mission in Sierra Leone highlighted statistical inconsistencies, intimidation and political violence in its final report on the June vote and recommended a series of measures to increase transparency, security and freedom of expression, editor's note). Obviously the matter was very controversial, in the end the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) approved the results and ratified Maada's victory. But tensions continued. We as observers tried to be neutral but were accused of being biased. Fortunately, ECOWAS, the EU, the AU and the Commonwealth facilitated meetings with the government and opposition parties, which were followed by a joint statement committing both sides to work together. I can say with confidence that dialogue continues."

At the end of the century, when the civil conflict began to lose its substance, a very difficult path of reconciliation and justice was triggered in a community divided by years of atrocities committed by both warring sides. In July 1999, the Lomé Peace Accords were signed and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. The agreement bore the important signatures of then President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and United Revolutionary Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh. Great progress has been made since the turn of the millennium, thanks in part to the efforts of the churches. “Eleven years of civil war are difficult to erase,” sums up the Archbishop, “so many people from Sierra Leone have left the country. At the end of the war, in 2002, moral and physical rehabilitation was necessary, the destroyed structures had to be rebuilt, people had to regain possession of their homes and property, the schools and hospitals had to be put back into operation and a process of reconciliation had to be initiated. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has worked well, also thanks to the support of the international community. As a church, we immediately committed ourselves to preaching concrete reconciliation and forgiveness. Caritas Sierra Leone has played an important role at both national and local levels and has continuously advocated for reconciliation. Caritas has also launched a program to combat gender-based violence. As Caritas and the church, we are committed to a program of national cohesion and repeatedly emphasize the call for calm and peace as essential prerequisites for stability. Recently, on December 23rd, we as Bishops also launched this in an appeal entitled 'Facing challenges and embracing hope: A reflection on the journey in Sierra Leone'. But of course, without stability and calm there is no growth and development. Youth unemployment is still very high, which worries us greatly because it is a breeding ground for new violence." (LA) (Agenzia Fides, 12/1/2024)