Memorandum submitted by Professor
A RECIPE FOR POTENTIAL LONG-TERM
British peacemaking policy
in West Africa
1. The British government has invested
hugely in peacemaking in the Mano River conflicts, in particular
in Sierra Leone since the peace-stabilising intervention of British
armed forces in May 2000. By not addressing underlying social
grievances in this regional crisis these investments strengthen
only one side in a deeply rooted conflict, and potentially stoke
up worse instability over the longer term.
2. Historically, the linked crises
in Liberia and Sierra Leone reflect the slow pace of emancipation
from domestic slavery, due to the dominance of coastal mercantile
elites and exigencies of colonial rule (Liberia - although nominally
independent in the colonial period - adopted the British-devised
system of "indirect" rule, i.e. local government through
chiefly and land-owning elites).
3. A recent study by historian Trevor
Getz (comparing Ghana and Senegal)
argues that the educated West African coastal elites (as well
as interior traditional rulers) were among the major proponents
of the idea that domestic slavery was a benign "family"
institution. The French and the British both needed to placate
"nationalist" merchant elites as well as interior rulers,
and soft-pedalled post slavery social reforms.
4. Ghana and Senegal rendered domestic
slavery illegal at the end of the 19th century. The
system lasted much longer in the Mano River countries. Sierra
Leone did not abolish domestic slavery until 1928. Liberia followed
suit in 1930. A study by a historian of slavery in Sierra Leone
(John Grace) found practices and attitudes formerly associated
with domestic slavery still widespread in rural areas in the 1970s.
5. In World Bank post-war social
assessments for Sierra Leone (2004) and Liberia (2005),
I found institutional practices directly rooted in domestic slavery
continuing to affect marriage, labour and the administration of
justice in both countries, if somewhat disguised (e.g. as "community
labour", ta yenge in the Mende language).
6. In various studies with ex-combatants
and rural youth about the causes of the war in Sierra Leone complaints
about these abuses are frequent. Impoverished, vulnerable youth
object to exploitation through forced labour and marriage. Fined
by customary courts they refuse to pay and become vagrants, vulnerable
to recruitment by militia forces. Similar data have come to light
7. When the restored Kabbah government
was asked at the Edinburgh Commonwealth leaders' conference in
1998 what it needed to consolidate its rule, it prioritised a
request for help in reinstalling paramount chiefs and "customary"
courts. The British tax payer was asked to support a full-scale
re-implementation of "indirect rule".
8. Houses for Paramount Chiefs were
to be built with ta yenge (now sanitised as the willing
contributions of volunteers anxious to rebuild their communities).
In a work on customary law revised in 1948 a colonial District
Commissioner, Fenton, noted that the British could hardly find
candidates for chieftaincy after the chiefly rebellion of 1898
(itself a protest at the threat to abolish domestic slavery) until
they awarded chiefs the right to demand free labour. The symbolism
of British peacemaking was unfortunate, to say the least.
9. In a conference sponsored by
the French Foreign Ministry in 2003 I read a paper arguing that
rebel movements such as the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra
Leone systematically exploited the vagrancy of rural youth stemming
from unjust rural institutions incompletely transformed from those
designed to administer a world of domestic slavery. I was answered
by James Jonah (the Electoral Commissioner for Sierra Leone in
1996) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (now president of Liberia). Both
argued I had sentimentalised militant youths, who (in their eyes)
were ruffians. The Krio word used to refer to footloose youth
is rarray. It has various etymologies, but one local interpretation
is "run-away", i.e. the vagrancy of the slave.
10. I wrote to Douglas Hurd, as
Foreign Secretary, in October 1991, pointing out that the Revolutionary
United Front was interested in a limited British military intervention
in the war, to ensure a level playing field for discussion of
their grievances (which included lack of transparency over the
diamond wealth and lack of educational opportunities for the children
of the poor). The reply stated the UK had no significant strategic
interests in Sierra Leone, and the causes of the conflict were
11. Fourteen years later not much
has been done to address that obscurity, but not for lack of opportunity.
The Paramount Chief Restoration project in Sierra Leone was accompanied
by a very good initiative. Detailed discussions were held with
all government-accessible chiefdoms about underlying causes of
war. Despite many absences (notably of migrant farmers and fighters)
these discussions revealed the generality of rural grievances.
But the process was never extended to the rest of the country,
nor was any serious effort made to pressure the Sierra Leone government
to address these grievances. In 2003 I asked a British government
social affairs adviser why nothing had been done. His answer was
12. If justice for the poor, based
on listening to their grievances, is not a priority of British
peace-making in Africa then I conclude that the real priority
is making the region governable for political and commercial interests.
Collaborating with the region's mercantilist elites serves "business
as usual", but it may not prove a sound strategy in the longer
term. If no one is willing to address deep social grievances the
rural poor will continue to find their own interlocutors. Finishing
off the RUF (or al-Qaida or the Taliban) will be followed by the
rise of even more extreme opportunist champions of the deeply
impoverished and desperate.
120 Paul Richards holds the Chair of Technology &
Agrarian Development in Wageningen University (The Netherlands),
and is Professor of Anthropology at University College London.
He lived in Nigeria during the Biafran rebellion and studied
that conflict as part of his research in the western Niger Delta.
He has undertaken fieldwork in various parts of Sierra Leone
since 1977, including work in the Gola Forest on the Liberian
border, and survived parts of the war with his family in the town
of Bo. He published a book on the conflict in 1996 and has recently
directed major studies on post-war social conditions in Liberia
and Sierra Leone. He is a British citizen. Back
Trevor Getz, Slavery and reform in West Africa: toward emancipation
in nineteenth-century Senegal and Gold Coast. Athens: Ohio
University Press, 2004. Back
Paul Richards, Khadija Bah & James Vincent, Social capital
and survival: prospects for community-driven development in post-conflict
Sierra Leone. Social Development Papers: Community Driven
Development/Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, Paper No.
12, April 2004. (Washington DC, The World Bank, 2004), Paul Richards,
Steven Archibald, Beverlee Bruce, Wata Modad, Edward Mulbah, Tornorlah
Varpilah & James Vincent, Community cohesion in Liberia:
a post-war rapid rural assessment. Social Development Papers:
Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, Paper No. 21, January
2005. (The World Bank, Washington DC, 2005). Back