Healing Sierra Leone: challenges facing the Commission of Inquiry

Messeh Kamara issues an emotional call for reconciliation, courage and openness as Sierra Leone reexamines its past in a proposed Commission of Inquiry.

Messeh Kamara
2 September 2010

Since I first heard news of the proposed Commission of Inquiry into the execution of twenty-nine citizens of Sierra Leone in 1992, I have wanted to write about it. On the other hand, I didn't want to re-open my mind to reflect on the impact of the war on Sierra Leone. Continually floating between fear and doubt, I asked myself: can I say something or should I shut my mouth? I wondered: should I speak up for the little ones (the children and youth), myself at age ten, thrown into the pit of hell for a conflict I did not know anything about or contribute to? Would anyone in Sierra Leone pay heed to my voice? What would my fellow survivors and victims of the war think if I spoke out? And what about my new friends who know little of all this? 

My recent visit to Uganda made me think about the potential magnitude of what is unfolding in Sierra Leone, and its implications for peace and the next generation. It distressed me. The people of Uganda in the post-colonial era have endured a number of conflicts, and under considerable international pressure, in 1974, was one of the first countries ever to set up a ‘Truth Commission’, under Idi Amin to investigate human rights violations perpetrated during the 1971-1973 period. Again, in 1986, Uganda established a second Truth Commission, and over the years, Uganda has been seeking the path to reconciliation and exploring development alternatives. Sadly, the night of 11 July 2010, when a terrorist bombing struck the capital, Kampala,claiming the lives of over seventy-five people, was the day I arrived back there from London. 

Truth and reconciliation

All efforts to build post-conflict societies are vexed and will inevitably be met with criticisms and face a number of dilemmas - about how to do justice to the people who have suffered, how to punish the perpetrators, and how to prevent the violence from erupting again. Countries emerging from periods of widespread human rights violations can choose from a number of different judicial and non-judicial methods designed to help them to come to terms with their recent past. Truth commissions represent one such method that is non-judicial and restorative, rather than judicial and retributive, in nature. The primary goals of truth commissions are to help post-conflict societies reach the truth about past human rights abuses and to achieve reconciliation. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Sierra Leone was established as a condition of the ‘Lomé Peace Accord’, and signed by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and RUF leader Foday Sankoh, with the assistance of the international community on July 7, 1999. The TRC's mandate was to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, from the beginning of the conflict in 1991 to the signing of the Lome Peace Agreement; to address impunity, respond to the needs of the victims, promote healing and reconciliation and prevent a repetition of the violations and abuses suffered during eleven years civil war. Some, however, I noted, did not participate in the TRC process.

But, reconciliation itself is full of contradictions and paradoxes. Reconciliation looks at the past, and at the same time tries to bring hope for the future. Some believe that justice is most important, others stress truth. Different people have different ideas about how to get to reconciliation. The perpetrators, the victims and survivors, the bystanders that did nothing, and the people who tried to help - these groups all have different expectations of reconciliation and different needs and concerns for the past, present and the future. One old friend of mine put it like this: “Well, we know there are many points of view (the number is numberless)... there is no forcing consensus. But, we must not forget that reconciliation and forgiveness are not easy to embrace...and there is no formula for what heals the human heart and soul’’.

Justice, fear and security


If there was limited enthusiasm for the TRC it may in part be a result of fears that people have about delving into the past, coupled with pessimism about politics in general. People were clearly concerned that the TRC might re-ignite issues from the conflict; the most widely expressed concern was that the Special Court for Sierra Leone would not only be a waste of money, but a threat to security.     

The law that governs the Special Court deals with crimes against humanity and prosecutes those who bear the greatest responsibility. This could also include crimes committed by government forces and RUF/Juntas, but in practise the Special Court Act says that the ‘Court is only for crimes committed at a particular period’. That way, the worst crimes committed outside that timeframe were excluded.  For some, the Special Court is therefore “state justice”, reinforced by the fact that the reparations proposed by the TRC have still not been paid to victims, which needs to be begun as soon as possible. If this feeling is widespread, the Commission of Inquiry cannot lead to reconciliation, but will increase the survivors’ feelings of alienation, which in turn will jeopardise post-conflict reconciliation efforts and ultimately, the country’s security to an even greater extent.

There are many forms of justice - the main differentiation being between restorative and criminal justice. Criminal justice is what is being promoted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  The ‘Gacaca Courts’ in Rwanda had components of both criminal and restorative justice. In restorative justice, the focus is not so much on punishment, but on restoring the relationship between the parties to a conflict. The case of Rwanda is especially intriguing because so many people were affected, either as victims or perpetrators. It is impossible to handle all the killers within the ordinary legal system, so Rwanda has tried to introduce a modern version of the traditional Gacaca trials which involved the whole community, which is also not without its critics. 

Common sense suggests that the more public knowledge there is about such serious crimes as human rights violations, the more likely they are to be brought to justice. But a comparison of two of the most significant attempts to grapple with past state crimes – in Chile and Argentina – have led to a different conclusion - that sometimes truth can stand in the way of justice. After the collapse of the Argentine military dictatorship in 1982, the incoming democratic government carried out high-level trials for human rights violations. ‘’Nunca Más’’ (Never again) was the phrase of the moment as the world watched a modest prosecutor successfully lead the case against the top leaders of the Argentine military regime. Several years later, in 1990, a transition to democracy in neighbouring Chile failed to produce a similar result. Instead of high-level trials, there was negotiation and compromise between the military and democratic leaders. And instead of the military leadership in prison, Pinochet continued in power as head of the armed forces and later as senator-for-life. This outcome – trials at the end of the military dictatorship in Argentina but not in Chile – is puzzling because the depth and breadth of the publicly available information the time of the transition about the human rights violations committed by the state was greater in Chile than in Argentina. Chile had more truth but less justice.

A belated inquiry

Sierra Leone’s Commission of Inquiry is most of all defined by its belatedness. We will be told very little that has not already emerged into the public sphere as a result of other, preceding, human rights reports. Whatever the Commission’s ability to investigate the executions, this will not be so much new as consolidated information.The belatedness of the ‘Commission’ is all the more dismaying in light of the tendentious conclusions to be offered by the Commission of Inquiry, who argue that there is insufficient evidence about the executions that took place. This was also the case of the TRC, which had been accused of the deliberate omissions of relevant evidence and reports, and of not pursuing important testimonies, particularly those concerning widely reported mass executions. Some argue that this oversight of the ‘executions’ is an effort to promote reconciliation as a means of consolidating peace. But this is hard to credit. The work that has gone into the TRC report has been exhaustive. It builds on the input and expertise provided by the many parties and people of Sierra Leone who have been involved in shaping its contents, including civil society organisations, children, youth, the disabled, victims, survivors, and women and men from all backgrounds. I can vouch for the mobilization of children from across Sierra Leone at the instigation of the Government and UNICEF. I myself helped in the production of a Child Friendly Version of the TRC Report, so that children would be able to read and understand the report, and others outside Sierra Leone might better comprehend what the children of Sierra Leone experienced during the war.

It is often said in connection with mass atrocities that what the victims and survivors want most of all is to know the truth. In psychology it is considered healthy to talk about a painful past. But, one should be careful before forcing this truth-telling on everyone. It is possible that some people will prefer to try to forget a painful past because it hurts too much to talk about it. Confessions and truth-telling are part of the Commission of Inquiry, and a problematic issue here is the consequence of the Commission: will its report be considered for implementation, and will this seek justice? For some, telling the truth means that justice will not be carried out, and for some of the survivors, it sounds as if they would prefer the TRC to establishing  another Commission of Inquiry. I find it striking that the main–opposition party (SLPP) fears that the APC-led, government-appointed Commission will not be able to be impartial. Opinions about the Commission of inquiry are many, even though the Commission is yet to be instituted.

Yet, many people hope the Commission of Inquiry will bring them the truth about what happened during the executions. Some want to know what happened to their family, and the government want to establish the fact of those who participated in the executions. But some doubt that the truth will be told, because the people did not see much from their hiding places, and they don’t trust that the guilty will be denounced. Fear, mistrust and witness intimidation will make it very unlikely that the Commission of Inquiry will bring the truth about what happened in 1999.

Some people would argue that a Commission of Inquiry will not give them a chance to tell their story, because everything they say will be questioned, and they have to go through cross-examinations. This leaves the survivors wounded and re-traumatised, hence some people would prefer the TRC, which had already given victims and survivors the chance to tell their story in a much more decent way, which acknowledges their pain. 

The potential result of the Commission of Inquiry

What is also apparent is that, while in the political circle there is a large degree of agreement on what the aims of the Commission should be, there are also some important divisions as to what should follow the exposure of the truth. This is most obvious in terms of whether or not the key aim of a commission of inquiry should lead to the punishment of people who had committed criminal offences. This is unlikely to be the case.  

But as long as only non-government officials who were involved in the executions are accused, rather than everyone who participated, the Commission will be viewed with suspicion. If this is to change and other members of the public who felt aggrieved by previous crimes were to call for the establishment of other commissions of inquiry, this will be another breeding ground for disquiet. Some critics would argue that the financial support and commitment for such a Commission is taking away resources from the traditional development agenda when the government will not even commit itself to implementing the outcome of the Commission. Others fear that a failure to implement the outcome of the Commission will lead to people seeing the Commission as having a hidden political agenda.

A culture of impunity is a root cause of conflict. It follows that the courts have an important role to play, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone can be seen as a better, although far from perfect, alternative to speed up the process of handing down justice to the perpetrators of crimes and freeing the innocent. If the government is serious about ending impunity and bringing the whole truth to light, why not request that the UN reviews the mandate of the Special Court or creates an alternative local court to investigate and punish those deemed responsible for the ‘executions’ and other hideous crimes left out by the Special Court?

People who prefer the reconciliation variant of transitional justice might consider the Commission of Inquiry, after the TRC, too problematic. On the other hand, campaigners for restorative justice will complain that the Commission of Inquiry will not do enough towards restoration, and that much more needs to be done in terms of reconciliation, since it is not the fear of punishment, but the realisation that what one did was wrong, that will prevent future violence. Among criminologists, it is believed that punishment seldom works as a deterrent, especially in the case of violent crime. Punishment by the state does not mean the convicted feel they did something wrong as long as they do not recognise it as a legitimate punishment. For people to change, they need to feel ashamed of what they did.

Individual differences

It is difficult to imagine a reconciled society where implicated individuals are not involved. But what brings peace at the level of society (understood as the prevention of mass violence, truth-telling and official acknowledgement of past wrongs) does not necessarily bring reconciliation between individuals. A national focus on reconciliation that expects people to move forward and not pay too much attention to the past can worsen the relationship between individuals. If the perpetrators confess and ask for forgiveness, which was part of the TRC, then the survivors are from a national level encouraged to grant forgiveness and move on with their lives. But, because the Commission of Inquiry might give the survivors new knowledge about the past, or open old wounds, this forgiveness and reconciliation can seem further away than ever for the individual.

A sincere apology at the individual level, as it took place in the TRC, can be a very powerful gesture, because an apology acknowledges that something wrong was done, and takes responsibility for the wrong without finding excuses, and indicates that the harm will not be repeated.  If the offender shows remorse, there is a chance that the  victim and survivor can accept the apology and grant forgiveness. But the victim and survivor also have the power to not accept the apology because what was done is considered unforgivable by this victim or survivor, or because the apology or remorse is not considered sincere.

A feeling of forgiveness is not something that can be imposed, and there is no guarantee that remorse and apologies are sincere. In the proposed Commission of Inquiry, for example, the perpetrators may make excuses for their crimes, not show any sign of remorse, and talk in an aggressive way which will not be received very well by the public. The survivors or victims, who may have expected some formal acknowledgement of wrong doings and apologies will be further traumatised and frustrated by the experience, as members of the British public were when Tony Blair failed to show remorse at the Chilcot Inquiry. If the perpetrators don’t feel any remorse or don’t manage to communicate it to the survivors, then the Commission of Inquiry expectations of confessions and truth may turn out to be counter-productive and increase the level of distrust, and this will impede the country’s post-conflict reconciliations efforts. 

If the Commission were to be instituted, it should take place in a bipartisan democratic setting in order to be successful, but the government’s way of governing has recently been criticised in the wake of the recent political clashes, and the opposition party accused the present government of despotism and intimidation. It is this government that will be implementing the Commission of Inquiry and has ignored efforts made by both the TRC and the Special Court.  This also illustrates how reconciliation, truth, justice and security are questions that reflect political circumstances on the ground. At the moment, these circumstances at the national level make reconciliation between individuals even more difficult. This contradiction between the individual and society can of course also be the other way around – that the TRC in some parts of the country or in individual cases brings reconciliation, but without any national impact.


Some people have already accused the Sierra Leone government of mounting nothing more than a political expedition, to disturb peace, to attempt to criminalise some of our politicians, on both sides of the political divide, and destabilise our country. Is this the case?
People are scared in Sierra Leone, to say wrong is wrong for fear of intimidation or because the political status quo is powerful - very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, Sierra Leone is our nation! We live in a democratic world of the 21st century. Some leaders were very powerful, but today they no longer exist. Much of our country’s governance has been a racket - a game in which a handful of people are lavishly paid to mislead and exploit poor and disadvantaged people. And if we don't lower the boom on these practices, the racket will just go on. 

Those who are powerful have to remember the implications of their action and inaction:  what is your treatment of the poor, the hungry, the voiceless, youth, women, children? And on the basis of that, the people pass judgment during elections period. Sierra Leone now needs a future based on the recognition that, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."  

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