Sierra Leone: Limits to Reconciliation

Between Commemoration and Comprehension

Archer: So you think because your intentions are good, they’ll spare you, huh?

Kapanay: My heart always told me that people are inherently good. My experience suggests otherwise. But what about you, Mr. Archer? […] [W]ould you say that people are mostly good?

Archer: No. I’d say they’re just people.

Kapanay: Exactly. It is what they do that makes them good or bad. A moment of love, even in a bad man, can give meaning to a life. […]

From “Blood Diamond”, 2006.

Sierra Leone is a small country in Western Sub-Saharan Africa, located just between Guinea and Liberia. Ever since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1961, political power struggles and civil war have made the way to a new and stable nation difficult. Instead, it is struggling with 70% of its 6 million inhabitants living under conditions of poverty, a dramatic illiteracy rate of 80% and an HDI of 181 out of 188 (UNDP HDR 2015, 41; Dougherty 2004, 1).

National and international observers alike agree that this has to do with a factor that has become quite a buzzword: the resource trap. Rich in priceless minerals, Sierra Leone has been and still remains a key producer of diamonds and gold – and in spite of these undeniably beneficial assets, the country’s economy itself does not seem to profit. Rather, the minerals have served as sources of personal gain and violent dispute.

The role of conflict diamonds has been translated into cinematographic narrative in the much-praised motion picture Blood Diamond from 2006. The film shows how a rigid set of economic interests can meddle with the fate of an entire country. If, in the end, a “moment of love”, as quoted above, ever sets in – we will never know. Yet: In reality, diamonds are but one face of the conflict that Sierra Leone has succumbed to for over a decade. And, in reality, truth and reconciliation are the means by which it has attempted to provide for those moments of love.

The following reassessment of both chronology and mediation of this particular conflict shall serve as an evaluation of the extent to which a process of transitional justice in a post- conflict country can offer actual reconciliation to those directly or indirectly affected. The work of the Sierra Leonean Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will be contextualised theoretically with the notion of performative memory – thereby an attempt will be undertaken to extract possible implications for the workings of similar commissions more generally. The paper finally aims at providing a preliminary answer to why the TRC in this case, despite its interactive conceptualisation and despite being in parts based on lessons learned from other truth commissions, left a considerably smaller impact on the reconciliation process than the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).

First, the major events and developments that have shaken Sierra Leone during the civil war will be outlined, putting a special contextual emphasis on the key actors of the conflict. Second, the reconciliation process itself will be retraced chronologically, focussing on the TRC in particular. In direct connection to this, the concept of performative memory will be introduced. On that basis, the actual scale of transformation that has taken place will be assessed against the background of the ambiguous role of the TRC.

Chronology of the Civil War

In 1991, Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a nationalist rebel army backed by Libyan skill and weaponry as well as military units from the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), attempts a coup d’état. Although successful in seizing control over the capital Freetown, the alliance manages to get hold of large areas of key importance to the country’s economy: the diamond mining territories in the East and South. Direct control over this economic powerhouse does not only destabilise the government, but will allow the rebels to finance and expand armed upheaval and subjugation.

The following year, military personnel launch another overthrow, exploiting an increasing power vacuum, but also hoping to re-establish stability and security. At first, this seems to work out: With revived impetus, the national army (SLA) gains back considerable portions of the lost territories until the end of 1993. However, this does not decisively discourage the RUF – fierce fighting continues until in 1995 a South African private military company (the so-called Executive Outcomes, EO) is hired to support the Sierra Leonean government in pushing back the insurgents. 1996 come the first agreements: RUF representatives sign the Abidjan Peace Accords, declaring to disarm in exchange for amnesty.

Nonetheless, aggressions revive as EO forces are removed. In 1997, former SLA-soldiers form the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and stage yet another coup against the government. The RUF joins them happily, and the new alliance manages to install a brutal government. In a Commonwealth gesture, British ECOMOG forces intervene and the RUF is successfully repelled from Freetown.

Almost two years later, the Lomé Peace Accord introduces another trade-off similar to Abidjan: the RUF is granted access to government by providing a vice-minister as well as control over the main diamond mines. In turn, a process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) is initiated and UN peacekeeping forces may enter the country. Yet, only little time passes until Lomé fails as much as did Abidjan – in the international sphere, this is the last straw. Another UK-led intervention takes place (Operation Palliser) and, ultimately, helps putting an end to a political, economic and, most importantly, humanitarian crisis. The conflict has left between 50,000 and 75,000 people dead, 2 million citizens displaced and 4,000 individuals purposefully amputated. An astounding range of crimes against humanity, from rape over sexual slavery to the forced recruitment of child soldiers, leave Sierra Leone and its people with open wounds.

The Reconciliation Process

In January 2002, Sierra Leone’s President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah declares the official end of the civil war. The end of a traumatising period, it also marks the beginning of a phase that requires facing painful truths. In July, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) launches a three- month preparatory phase. It is one out of three institutionalised processes that take place simultaneously – the second one being the aforementioned DDR; the third the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), a separate and purely judicial platform that aims at investigating and convicting the most significant war crimes. While the latter can be understood as the “core institutional means of addressing impunity” (ICG 2002, 1), the TRC tackles the perhaps more complex issue of laying “the broad foundations for reconciliation throughout society rather merely prosecute the relatively few who bear greatest responsibility” (ICG 2002, 9).

This section will focus on the TRC as the most important extra-judicial instrument of transition in the case of Sierra Leone. It had been established as a result of the Lomé Peace Accord in 1999, yet its set-up was delayed due to the continuation of the conflict until 2002. The process of institutionalising this body has however been disputed by international monitoring NGOs such as the International Crisis Group (ICG), which “noted a number of concerns about government manipulation of the selection of key officials, the relationship between the TRC and the Special Court, and lack of funding” (ICG 2002, 1). Main points of critique in the ICG’s 2002 observations are the slow pace of the preparatory phase, temporary inactivity during the initial operational phase (October and November) and hesitant collaboration with NGOs and UN institutions.

Interestingly, 95% of the TRC’s funding had been handled by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This is “the first time that OHCHR has directly been in charge of overseeing the construction and operation of a truth and reconciliation commission” (ICG 2002, 7). It would manage the TRC funds via a UNDP office in Freetown and therefore enjoy de facto targeting powers. However, the OHCHR, in this special role, had been operating in a rather directive, external fashion – divisions between national and international staff grew and further compromised coherence and credibility of the process.

The TRC’s preparatory phase, scheduled in the hope of going about the tasks ahead with careful planning, did not yield the expected outcomes at all. A staffing crisis froze the phase considerably and “damaged the SLTRC’s reputation with donors” (Dougherty 2004, 43) – these initial delays did not only result in a rather stagnant process instead of what was intended and carefully laid out as a smooth start. They also discouraged a large deal of civil society and Sierra Leoneans generally, breaking a crucial portion of public trust in a process that had, by now, already been expected for two years.

The slow pace of the TRC’s initial proceedings can be seen as a result mostly of a lack of funding and poor management. This had to do, one the one hand, with the fact that the OHCHR itself did not provide a sufficient budget, but also with the monetary potential of the Sierra Leone government. Usually, national governments have provided a substantial amount to such commissions, such as in the cutting-edge case of South Africa (cf. Dougherty 2004, 43). Yet, the Sierra Leone government was not able to provide more than a start-up fund along with a building for the TRC Secretariat. Infrastructural and logistic requirements were met (even if not fully) by the UNDP, in the name of the Geneva-based OHCHR. However, this two-layered managerial set-up did not facilitate a coherent institutional framework, thus ending up in a rather slowed-down, intransparent entity that subsequently discouraged and fatigued donors and donors-to-be.

In December, the commission deploys so-called statement takers “who are to collect the stories from all citizens who wish to come forward, regardless of war-time affiliation” (ICG 2002, 1). In April the following year, public hearings begin. Only one week of public hearings is held per region – despite it being an element that in fact ought to sit at the heart of truth and reconciliation of any type and is regarded ”key to the accomplishment of the commission’s mandate” (Dougherty 2004, 43). Dougherty (2004) provides a solid theoretical understanding of this essential aspect: Accordingly, public hearings can be a very visible form of public reconciliation and thus a practice that is a) conducive to processes of collective reconstruction and b) provides a transparent forum for trauma, experience, recollection and grievance.

At the same time however, they must not be confused with substantial sources for legal proceedings of any sort, as it remains to be recalled that “eyewitnesses cannot provide an objective account of incidents nor can they offer a coherent narrative of the conflict and its larger context” (Dougherty 2004, 49). Collective ’siding‘ and respective judgement of the transitional process, for instance, depended and still depends on specific local experience: Regions in which the RUF has generally enjoyed more support have tended to oppose some of the testimonial claims and accusations, while other parts of the country have rather insisted on the innocence of CDF-forces. This has of course compromised legal validity on the one hand – on the other, even this could be regarded part of a vivid culture and stage of reconciliation.

“Memories are not a Solution”: Widening the Scope of Commemoration

Dutch rapper Typhoon begins his poetic-philosophical piece “Volle Maan” (2007) with the words: “Herinneringen zijn geen oplossing”, roughly: “Memories are not a solution.” The statement connects to the profoundly paradoxical nature of memory – we want to commemorate, but at the same time we expect the ‚issue‘ to be ‚resolved‘ or at least ‚put aside‘. This is what Young refers to as the desire to commemorate springing, in fact, from a certain desire to forget (Young 1992, 273); it is also what Nora describes as one function of his lieux de mémoire, namely to perform the task of remembering for us (cf. Nora 1992). In the case of Sierra Leone, one key observation underpins this understanding quite significantly: We are dealing with a trauma of collective and individual, local and national, military and civil dimensions that are intertwined and painful in many different ways. Thus there has been a reaction characterised by an urgent drive to forget (an emotional moment immediately after the traumatising experience), yet another impulse asking for an explanation (a rational moment in cognitive reflection on the events with some spatial and time distance).

In the following, a fluid concept of memory, namely of the performative type shall be introduced in order to embed the Sierra Leonean TRC within a broader understanding of transitional theory. In his paper on counter-monuments in Germany, Young (1992) touches upon this notion by describing a new type of monument in which traditional characteristics are systematically and artfully reversed. If the traditional monument is a static, archaic, and, even more importantly, didactic expression of national identification, the counter-monument is precisely dynamic, non-imposing, and non-didactic. He sees these monuments as “performative pieces” (Young 1992, 281) which, in enacting an impulse rather than commemorating it, defy permanence. In Young’s example of a counter-monument in the German city of Hamburg, the work of art serves as an interactive mirror: social responses are fluidly inscribed rather than “validated” or made factual.

It is precisely here that we can draw parallels to the situation in Sierra Leone: We could view the TRC’s work as one such performative piece in the broadest sense. Public debate in Sierra Leone surrounding the transitional process and the TRC’s research and public hearings, a form of enacted ‚inscription‘ in the ‚monument‘, has constituted a necessary and inevitable part of commemoration itself, perhaps as much even as any other step of reconciliation.

However, nuances become clear as well: While the SCSL (not unlike the ICC in The Hague) seems, as a straightforward and definitive court, as fixed an expression of closure as the traditional monument, the TRC appears as if torn between monumental fixedness and counter- monumental fluidity. On the one hand, it is marked by an interactive process, whereas on the other, it yields a static product, the final report, which then turns into yet another monument. Perhaps this is but a most accurate reflection of how even the counter-monument is condemned to ’sink into the ground‘ after a while, as did the Harburg monument against fascism. This is where one might want to remark (as did Young) that after all, the desire to memorise does to a certain extent imply and express a desire to, in fact, forget. Nevertheless, to say that “memory is not a solution” is perhaps also to say that it does not have to, nor claim to be. The TRC however squares the circle and faithfully attempts to fulfil both tasks alike: remembering and resolving. This is what is so special about transitional justice in its theoretical presumptions – transition requires to leave behind, remember, and avoid in the future.

Whether the TRC is, as an institution, condemned to be somewhat of an oxymoron or not – it is, first and foremost, performative. Therefore it does not matter that a circle cannot be squared: The attempt matters; the often contradictory, always controversial process matters. The procedural impact, namely a vivid discourse with strong public involvement, might be worth a thousand final reports. As much as a counter-monument, the TRC “asks us to recognise that time and memory are interdependent, in dialectical flux” (Young 1992, 294) – thereby bringing together commemoration and comprehension rather than trading off one against the other.

This is why it is indeed helpful to think about the case of Sierra Leone against this particular theoretical background: We can now measure its effectiveness also in terms of procedural functionality in order to judge to what extent it has offered an interactive stage that would invite both victims and perpetrators of the civil war to encounter one another and experience (perform, enact) transitional justice and reconciliation. The following section will try to do so by comparing intentions with actuality.

Compromises with Reality: The Actual Scale of Transformation

It is crucial to take into account the very real limitations and potentially compromising factors that play a role throughout the transformative process of reconciliation. High illiteracy and deficient infrastructure posed reoccurring strain on the commission’s field work and campaigning efforts. To give another example, ex-combatants were not incentivised to testify, as Lomé had already granted them full amnesty – in other TRCs such as in South Africa, this was usually only guaranteed after full and truthful testimony. Additionally, they feared their testimony leading to criminal prosecution as it was, in the eye of the public, not clear to what extent TRC and SCSL collaborated or not.

The latter in particular has frequently contributed to extenuate the overall transitional justice impact in Sierra Leone. TRC and SCSL had decided not to share information and thus follow entirely separate tracks. As much as this might have come from a pragmatic place – the parallel existence of the SCSL made it difficult to convey to people to what extent the two transitional justice institutions were to be distinguished and how levels of accountability and consequences of testimony were distributed. The two platforms could therefore, after all, “offer competing narratives of the conflict and differing assessments of blame” (Dougherty 2004, 51).

This institutional co-existence leads us back to the initially posed question why the TRC has had so much less impact on reconciliation in Sierra Leone than one might expect – considering its interactive concept that has clearly tried to draw on some of the lessons learned from similar institutions of transitional justice. One might intuitively refer to the public confusion between TRC and SCSL on the one hand, on the other hand to a process that did not go about smoothly and thus left the public not only unsure about the body’s potential, but quickly disappointed it as well. I will add three significant additional, perhaps less intuitive considerations to this explanation: The construction of a national narrative; heterogeneity of victimhood; and a lack of leverage.

First, post-conflict Sierra Leone primarily uses the construction of a national narrative as a means of reconciliation. A cultural consensus, in that sense, imposes itself as ’social glue‘ for an otherwise fragmented society. The following example illustrates this point more clearly: The fact that Liberian forces played a significant role in the origins of the conflict has taken some of the popular incentive to convict Sierra Leonean perpetrators. This adds to a more ‚comfortable‘ narrative of relocating the sources of ‚evil‘ outside national borders and creates a less confrontational, less threatening public space.

Second, similar to what Prost (in: Winter/Sivan 2000) has described as reasons for the lack of remembrance of the Algerian War in France, in Sierra Leone there was, except for a number of ex-child combatants in the DDR programme, no single community of victims. Rather, the civil war has had various faces in the different parts of the country, depending on a wide range of different actors involved. This heterogeneous landscape of victimhood has had some victims at any stage of the TRC’s work dissatisfied with its proceedings – as much as with its ultimate outcome.

Third, in spite of the performative power of the TRC as elaborated in the theoretical section of this paper, trials remain being accompanied by an aura of justice and payback. This can simply not be delivered by the TRC as a more modern type of semi-judicial instance. And even though this is where TRC and SCSL are rather incomparable, they will be measured against and judged upon this aspect in the eyes of the public.

These factors add crucially, even if they were but a surface scratch, to a more complete and more sensitive evaluation of the peculiarities of the TRC in Sierra Leone. They help understanding why this fundamentally two-tiered process had such distinct outreach and impact for each of its two key institutions, but also show where the TRC was indeed able to supplement transition and open up an otherwise exclusively judicial scenery to civil society.


Some important achievements of the TRC have to be accounted for and valued as such. Necessary steps towards social recovery and an overcoming of both individual and collective trauma have been taken: The TRC did organise important public hearings and did publish a final report with significant recommendations. This very causes of the conflict were pointed out: The post-colonial experience, high levels of corruption and, on a structural level, a disproportionately powerful executive. Involved actors and perpetrators such as RUF, AFRC and NPFL, but also SLA, CDF and EO were identified, contextualised and made accountable. The report also proposed a reparation scheme and recommended intensifying the fight against corruption and compromising executive power by strengthening both judiciary and legislative leverage.

An important question to ask when estimating the actual impact of a process of transitional justice is: What comes next? With the 2003 Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS), conflict diamonds were problematised on an international scale. In 2004, the TRC culminated in a post-transitional follow-up institution (the Human Rights Commission, HRC) and therefore helped laying the foundations for a new Sierra Leone. Yet, implementation did not come as swiftly as would have been necessary. In 2007, both UN and the new HRC urge the Sierra Leonean government to take further steps, and it is not until the following year that reparation funding is initiated – payments are finally begun in 2010.

One striking impediment to full and consequential transitional justice for Sierra Leone and its people is, in sum, a structural condition that lies beyond the reach of both SCSL and TRC: Neither conviction nor recommendation can serve as tools that overcome the obstacles put in the way by “political will, financial resources, or administrative capacity” (Dougherty 2004, 51) – recognition, frankly speaking, is not implementation. Thus, roots of conflict remain: Corruption, poverty, inequality and a weak judiciary are still very much alive obstacles in Sierra Leone today.

This is not to say that Sierra Leone’s efforts were in vain overall – it should instead emphasise the significance of the very existence and striking role of instruments like the TRC. It should however also be clear, as Dougherty has put it, that “reconciliation in the sense of learning to live together peacefully is a goal that can only be achieved at the local level, not delivered from above” (Dougherty 2004, 50). In this sense, tools and platforms of truth and reconciliation should therefore focus on facilitating transitional justice and the working-through of trauma rather than claiming to create it – here the notion of performative commemoration elaborated on in this paper provides great explanatory leverage. In a setting that provides the structural and institutional requirements for accountability, after more than a decade of civil war, a moment of love, perhaps, will be shared.


  • Dougherty, B. K. (2004). Searching for Answers: Sierra Leone’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission, Africa Studies Quarterly, 8 (1), 40-56.
  • International Crisis Group (2002). Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A Fresh Start? Africa Briefing, Freetown/ Brussels.
  • Kelsall, T. (2005). Truth, Lies, Ritual: Preliminary Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone, Human Rights Quarterly, 2005, 383-384.
  • Leggett, T. (2011). BBC News: Global Witness leaves Kimberley Process diamond scheme. Retrieved 22 February, 2016, from
  • Stovel, L. (2010). Long Road Home. Building Reconciliation and Trust in Post-War Sierra Leone, Intersentia, Series on Transitional Justice, Antwerp-Oxford-Portland.
  • United Nations Development Programme (2015). Human Development Report 2015. United Nations, New York.
  • United States Institute of Peace (2002). Truth Commission: Sierra Leone. Retrieved 22 February, 2016, from
  • Winter, J. & Sivan, E. (2000). War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Vol. 5). Cambridge University Press.
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