“Should government change for the people or people change for the government?” This question posed by a professor in Sierra Leone serves as a major source of friction in this post conflict society.
In developing a new governance system, Sierra Leone struggles to reconcile traditional, tribal ideologies with Western, democratic principles encouraged by the international community. During a recent visit, I experienced the struggle to reconcile these systems. This struggle hinders continued development, particularly for women and youth, whose disenfranchisement was a root cause of the Eleven Year War. If the two, opposing systems are not rectified, then lasting peace may not be a guarantee in Sierra Leone.
Many Sierra Leoneans see this as a struggle between Western ideas infringing upon the domestic culture. One Sierra Leonean describes democratization as “using the white man’s forms to change our traditions, taking the white man’s money to change our culture.” The two judicial and election systems embody this conflict between Westerners and Sierra Leoneans.
In relation to the prior, regional and national courts adjudicate national law violations. These courts’ judges are monitored by the national government and international organizations. While the effectiveness of this monitoring is debatable, some semblance of a system exists. In contrast, chiefs mediate issues related to local and customary law. With little infrastructure to oversee these under systems, corruption abounds. Chiefs often require payments from the parties, ruling in favor of the party who pays more. The meetings are informal and lack national government or community oversight. Since women and youth likely do not make an independent income, they are less able to provide the needed fees to win favor. While many were already victims of injustice during the war, they now find that the new government for which many fought perpetuates their continued victimization.
The dichotomy is further evidenced in the election systems. For national elections, all citizens over the age of 18 can vote. In contrast, only citizens who pay a certain amount of taxes participate in the local chieftain elections. As many youth and women do not have an income source to pay taxes, they are frequently excluded from the local elections. One source stated that “youth sing songs of praise to communicate their preference” to those who can vote. This problem is further exacerbated by the encouragement of the international community to decentralize the government, giving more power to local officials. Thus, women and youth have little say in electing those making the most decisions about their daily lives. As NGO’s push for decentralization and democratization, they need to be aware and cautioned that the two are conflicts under the current system.
The disenfranchisement not only exists for youth and women as voters, but also as candidates. The constitution requires elections be held according to “tradition”. While tradition is not defined in the constitution, many interpret it to mean that women cannot participate in elections because they are not members of the political secret society. Secret societies are popular social institutions in which most citizens participate. One secret society teaches boys how to hunt and be a husband. Another teaches women their role as wives, in which the initiation ceremony includes female genital mutilation. Another secret society prepares tribal and political leaders. Membership in the latter requires having a blood relation to former leaders. Oftentimes, this society excludes women. Without being a member, one cannot run for election. The enforcement of this provision does vary geographically, with some areas electing women to positions and others preventing women from being elected.
During the last election cycle, Elizabeth Kumba Simbiwa Sorgboh Torto challenged this custom, pursuing election as paramount chief. Her lineage was not challenged as her father was a paramount chief. However, because she was not a member of the toro, the political secret society, her candidacy was challenged. While the toro won and she was deemed ineligible, the issue garnered international attention. Many in Sierra Leone are now pushing for stripping “traditional” from the constitution and requiring that 30% of all elected positions be filled by women. Accomplishing these goals will be difficult. As one Sierra Leonean stated, “The chieftancy is very close to the hearts of people in this part of the world.” So close that one democratization and good governance advocate who will be a candidate in a future paramount chief election stated that he would not support all voters over the age of 18 voting in his chieftancy election. “I would continue the traditional election model even if I was elected paramount chief.”
In the case of Sierra Leone, it appears that both the government and the people need to change. The government needs to embrace equality and maintain basic human rights while still paying homage to the culture’s past. The government should also ensure that judicial and election systems are transparent, provide universal rights, protect all citizens, and have appropriate oversight. In contrast, the people need to acknowledge the conflicts between the dueling judicial and electoral systems. They should seek new solutions, creating a government truly of, by and for the people of Sierra Leone. I hope that the international community will support efforts from both the people and the government. I fear that if both systems continue under the status quo, then lasting peace may not be in Sierra Leone’s future.
Meredith Sullivan Benton was in Sierra Leone for a two-week course led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Meredith's blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this war-ravaged country. -Ed.
Meredith Sullivan Benton is pursuing a Masters in Public Administration and International Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and is currently an intern in the Democracy Program at the Carter Center. Her career includes working as an Assistant Commissioner, Legislative Liaison and Policy Chief in the administration of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, serving as an aide to U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, and being a founding partner in the Tennessee Office of Southern Strategy Group. Benton graduated Magna Cum Laude from Pepperdine University with a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Intercultural Communication.