Academic journal article Africa

Converts to Human Rights? Popular Debate about War and Justice in Rural Central Sierra Leone

Academic journal article Africa

Converts to Human Rights? Popular Debate about War and Justice in Rural Central Sierra Leone

Article excerpt


Internationally, war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) is regarded as an instance of violent conflict driven by economic factors (attempts to control the mining of alluvial diamonds). Fieldwork (2000-01) in rural areas recovering from war suggests a very different picture. War victims and combatants from different factions stress the importance of political decay, corruption, injustice and the social exclusion of young people. Other studies confirm the picture. There is broadly based discussion in rural communities about how to address the injustices held to have been responsible for the war. It seems in line with wider debate about human rights. Are people being converted to international ideals? Applying a neo-Durkheimian perspective, the article shows that this discourse about rights is a product of local social changes brought about by the war itself. The article concludes by asking how it might be consolidated by rights-oriented reconstruction activity. Human rights in Sierra Leone are as much a local development as an imposed change. In this respect the study confirms the importance of local agency already argued by anthropologists who have studied the process of conversion to world religions.



Debate about conversion to world religion has long been a topic in Africanist anthropology (Horton, 1971; Peel, 1995). Under what circumstances of commerce or colonial conquest people situated themselves within broader cosmological frameworks once divided the Marxists and proponents of a so-called `intellectualist' position (Ifeka-Moller, 1974; Horton and Peel, 1974). Murray Last (2002) has recently added the important idea that `conversion' is as much a search for justice as the embrace of true belief. Uthman b. Fudi--founder of the Sokoto Caliphate 200 years ago--remarked that `a kingdom may last with unbelief [kufr]; it cannot last with injustice [zulm]' (quoted in Last, 2002). To convert to a `world religion' was not only to gain a broader faith but also to appeal to a better law. Last notes how the common people in Hausa land--especially the young--flocked to Islam under the Fulani jihad to escape slavery, and saw in British colonialism, and again, today, in democratic transition in Nigeria, chances to reassert Shari'a justice against the instincts of effete and corrupt rulers. Even Christian traders, he notes, revert to Shari'a courts because of their reputation for speedy and effective justice.

In the aftermath of the Cold War--and a spate of `new' African civil wars--human rights has been proffered as a global framework within which peace and justice might be sought. Northern governments and international non-governmental agencies have quickly embraced the idea. But sceptics have been equally quick to voice concerns. Duffield (2001) senses that seeking to `mobilise the groups and networks that support [inter alia humanitarianism and human rights] against the proponents of war and violence' may be part of a more general political project by aid donors to reshape social attitudes and beliefs in the South, in the hope of making the underdeveloped world a less dangerous place. Human rights is, on this reckoning, a new missionary project, aimed at facilitating what Duffield terms a `liberal peace'. It is not hard to identify a source for Duffield's unease. Human rights are expressed in documents drafted by global elites and endorsed by the United Nations. They appear as classic `top-down' instruments of governance and social control.

Human rights lawyers point out, however, that a declared right means little until specific cases are decided (until a point of principle proves `justiciable'). Some lawyers believe that thereby all law becomes common law, reflecting the situated social insights of judges and juries. De Gaay Fortman (2001) speaks of human rights as an aspect of `living law'. In a comparable vein, An-Naim (1998) refers to what he terms the `inductive' approach to human rights. …

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