Justice in the Wake of Civil War: Sierra Leone and Rwanda

By Ayittey, George B. N. | Reason, April 2018 | Go to article overview

Justice in the Wake of Civil War: Sierra Leone and Rwanda


Ayittey, George B. N., Reason


MORE THAN 40 civil wars have been waged in postcolonial Africa. Some never end. Others--Libya, South Sudan--restart after brief lulls. The results are devastating: crumpled infrastructure, blighted agriculture, declining investment, increasing misery. Populations have been uprooted and traumatized; combatants have committed barbaric acts. How do you pursue justice after a war finally concludes?

Two options are available. Western jurisprudence tends to stress punishing the guilty. Traditional African jurisprudence tends to emphasize reconciliation, restitution, and the restoration of social harmony. The first path is retributive, the second restorative. Two well-researched and magnificently written books on the experiences of Sierra Leone and Rwanda grapple with each approach.

In both countries, the relatively restorative option was far more cost-effective. In Sierra Leone, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) cost $5 million, while the retributive Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) ran $300 million a year. In Rwanda, the traditional restorative gacaca courts spent $40 million trying nearly 2 million cases over a decade. Compare that to the yearly $300 million price tag for the retributive International Tribunal for Rwanda, which completed fewer than 100 cases in two decades.

But despite its cost advantages, restorative justice can also be abused, particularly when the state controls how it is dispensed. LynS. Graybill's Religion, Tradition, and Restorative Justice in Sierra Leone comes down in favor of restorative justice in general, but it also shows how the government can botch its implementation; the country saw much better results when independent elements of civil society created their own restorative systems. In Investing in Authoritarian Rule, Anuradha Chakravarty reveals that the Rwandan government exploited the traditional system of justice for political purposes, using it to dole out favors and to extract acquiescence from a terrified population.

SIERRA LEONE'S WAR began on March 23, 1991, when Foday Sankoh's rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, invaded from Liberia. Sankoh's group was infamous for amputating the limbs of anyone, even babies, who seemed to stand in its way to power. When the war concluded 11 years later, some 75,000 civilians had been killed, 20,000 had been mutilated, and 2 million people were displaced.

To pursue justice afterward, both African and Western systems were deployed. The United Nations established the SCSL to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The government of Sierra Leone set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission--modeled after a similar institution in post-apartheid South Africa--for lesser crimes.

Traditional African jurisprudence, practiced in different forms by around 2,000 ethnic groups, dates to pre-colonial times. It typically involves a public hearing where the culprit faces his victim, asks for forgiveness, and makes restitution. Some ethnic groups also require the culprit to perform rituals to "cleanse" himself before being readmitted to the community.

Graybill demonstrates that Sierra Leone's TRC, established to apply traditional African jurisprudence, was fatally flawed. Unnecessarily centralized in Freetown, the country's capital, it devoted only one week of hearings to provincial towns. Needless to say, rural villagers did not embrace the commission, dismissing it as a "foreign institution" that never really reached them. It also laid an excessive emphasis on individual victims. (During the war, whole families were killed, making it pointless to seek atonement for individual members.) Worse, the government ignored most of the commission's recommendations. In particular, reparations were not paid.

But that wasn't the end of the story. After the TRC folded in 2004, John Caulker, founder of the group Forum of Conscience, decided to try to heal the wounds of war at the local level. …

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