Ending the Culture of Impunity for Politically-motivated Crimes: Moment of Truth for the Sierra Leone Government
Politically-motivated incidents of violence sparked off in Bo on September 9 after the fleagbearer of the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), Julius Maada Bio, was attacked at a ‘Thank the People Tour’ procession organised by his party. Mr. Bio, who was elected about two months ago to lead his party at next year’s Presidential elections, sustained head injuries after the attack. The SLPP has accused the ruling party of plotting to assassinate him. On the same day, at least three buildings belonging to the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) and its supporters were burnt down allegedly by SLPP youths. One person was killed allegedly by a police officer, and several others severely injured, including a female ruling party politician. The government immediately issued a press release condemning the violent incidents, and urged everyone to exercise restraint. These ugly events occurred barely a week after a confrontation in Kono, Eastern Sierra Leone between youths believed to be supporters of the Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana and police officers providing security to the Internal Affairs Minister, Mr. Musa Tarawally. (Photo: Ibrahim Tommy, author)
In March 2009, violent clashes occurred between rival supporters of the ruling APC and the opposition SLPP in Freetown, allegedly resulting in serious injuries and partial destruction of the national headquarters of the SLPP. These incidents, particularly the September 9 unfortunate acts of violence in Bo, demonstrate a worrying trend in the country’s political landscape, and could have serious implications for the 2012 elections.
In order to bring to justice those responsible for the recent acts of violence in Bo, the government on September 12 announced the establishment of a Committee comprising representatives of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP), the Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC), the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone, Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), and the Civil Society Movement (CSM) with a clear mandate to investigate circumstances leading to those acts of violence. The Committee is also required to make recommendations leading to the prosecution of those deemed to be responsible. The presence of civil society activists on the committee would certainly help enhance the credibility of the process, as well as remind Sierra Leoneans of the important role civil society can play, and is playing in promoting peace and good governance in the country.
It is worth commending the government’s attempt at addressing the violations that occurred on September 9. As a member of a civil society-led Confidence Building Team that visited Bo from September 14-16, I was impressed with the commitment demonstrated by members of the Committee. I could see that the Committee had done an awful lot of work and hopefully, its report will provide the Sierra Leone Government a brilliant opportunity to put down a marker in terms of punishing persons responsible for politically-motivated crimes.
The Sierra Leone government should recognize, though, that selective justice or even outright impunity for politically-motivated crimes won’t help. If anything, it can only hurt and exacerbate any existing sense of injustice. The implications of impunity for a post-conflict country are immense. Impunity fuels illegality, and undermines public confidence in a country’s justice system as well as its political leadership. The overarching essence of justice is to bring about enduring peace and stability. Without an impartial and credible justice mechanism to address politically-motivated crimes, the country would miss an opportunity to address its past, and set out a new path to violence-free political contests going forward.
In addition to the recent acts of violence in Bo, the government has a responsibility to ensure that, within reason, previous politically-motivated crimes are comprehensively addressed. In light of recent media articles relating to a leaked report by the Shears-Moses Review Panel, it is particularly binding on the government to bring to justice those responsible for the March 2009 politically-motivated incidents of violence. Combating impunity does not require half-hearted commitment or rhetoric from politicians on all sides; it requires concrete actions such as refusing to provide shield for perpetrators of crimes, among others.
There are several ways of delivering justice apart from litigation or prosecution. The mechanisms may vary depending on the circumstances and the nature of the crimes committed. What is most important is for the victims to get a sense of justice, without which any attempts at curbing violence and the culture of impunity which have so permeated the Sierra Leonean society can only be cosmetic.
The International Criminal Court
Perpetrators of politically-motivated violence should bear in mind that the International Criminal Court (ICC), for instance, can prosecute persons accused of committing crimes if the relevant national judicial authority is genuinely unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute. At this point, it is clear that the Sierra Leone Government has demonstrated willingness to investigate the recent acts of violence in Bo and Kono, but the government will be ultimately judged by its willingness or otherwise to bring to justice those responsible. While it is early days yet to suggest an ICC intervention, it is worth reminding Sierra Leone’s politicians and their supporters of the ongoing trial of Kenyan politicians by the ICC for their alleged role in the violence that gripped Kenya following the 2007 disputed elections. The violence left approximately 1200 dead and over 500,000 displaced. The Kenya government, in the veiled spirit of national unity, was apparently reluctant or even unwilling to prosecute persons deemed to be responsible for those egregious post-elections atrocities. The ICC intervened, and subsequently preferred charges against three persons.
While the scale of destruction caused by politically-motivated violence in Sierra Leone pales in comparison with the Kenyan scenario, hardly anyone would doubt the capacity of Sierra Leoneans to wreak immeasurable and irreparable havoc on each other. The relics of the country’s 11-year civil conflict are there for all to see. It is about time that the government, through the national justice system, began a credible process of bringing to justice those responsible for both the September 9, 2011 and March 2009 acts of violence. It is only through this that the country can genuinely compliment international efforts to combat impunity at all levels.
By Ibrahim Tommy, CARL-SL
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 Civil society organizations in Sierra Leone sponsored a four-member delegation to Bo to encourage members of the public to come forward and testify before the Committee.
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