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Sierra Leone: Serving Justice Outside the Courts

This article originally appeared in allAfrica.com, and features Namati Sierra Leone Director, Sonkita Conteh.

Freetown — While an international court hands down a 50-year sentence to Sierra Leone’s former warlord, Charles Taylor, most Sierra Leoneans seek justice away from their country’s courts and turn instead to traditional arbiters.

“When I went to the police, I was thinking about the court and all the time we would waste,” said Richard Jimmy, a street vendor who settled a recent dispute with another vendor in the capital, Freetown, through a local street-sellers’ association.

“People don’t believe too much in the formal system because of the delay. A simple case that we can handle in two or three days… could sit in the magistrate’s court [lowest court] for months,” said Matthew Jibao Young, head of the Mende ethnic group in Sierra Leone’s urban Western Area, comprising Freetown, the capital, and the surrounding peninsula communities. Every month he deals with dozens of disputes ranging from abusive language to debt and witchcraft.

A recent briefing by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a British think-tank, noted that most of Sierra Leone’s population seek justice and security through “non-state” actors such as provincial or village chiefs, paralegal practitioners, professional associations, unions, and traditional “secret societies” that regulate the country’s sexual, social and political conduct.

Yet global trends show that almost 80 percent of donor funds for justice and security reform go to state systems. Since the civil war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, such funds have mostly gone to the state, including the courts, police, legislature, civil service and the military.

This focus needs to change if justice and security reforms are to have a “meaningful impact”, said Lisa Denney, author of the ODI report. “There is a sense now that non-state actors are really important, and that they are often the dominant providers, particularly in fragile states. Donors agree. Now they want to know, ‘What can we do about that?'”.

A grant of US$43.3 million over six years for a justice and security development programme that began in 2006 is a major donation by the UK’s Department for International Development’s (DfID). The programme has focused mainly on rebuilding magistrate’s courts, barracks, holding pens and prisons, as well as the human resources to staff them.

But despite this and other significant investments, most residents still shun formal justice institutions because capacity is low. Court proceedings are in English and interpreters for non-English speakers are rare, while distance and pressure to settle outside of court discourage many from making a trip that can be long and arduous.

In a nation of six million people there are just 16 state judges, nine of whom are based in Freetown, home to approximately 1.5 million people. The remaining seven judges cover 12 rural districts, where 70 percent of Sierra Leoneans live, and means that some remote districts do not see a judge for months at a time.


“In most of the [rural] areas where we are working there is no formal justice system in place,” said Hassan Feika, director of the Peace and Reconciliation Movement Sierra Leone (PRM-SL), an NGO based in the country’s second largest city, Bo.

PRM-SL has trained 350 local people, called “peace volunteers”, in alternative dispute resolution methods to help resolve conflicts in 1,400 communities across the Southern Region. The Freetown-based NGO, Timap for Justice, has trained 76 paralegals since 2009 to work nationwide.

Sonkita Conteh, from Open Society Institute, which funds the training, told IRIN that people in rural areas have traditionally preferred to resolve disputes through their chiefs, but this is slowly changing as NGOs increasingly make basic justice services available.

“You see more and more people turning to paralegals rather than going to the chief… the chief will ask for money, whereas paralegal services are offered free of charge… Discretion can be abused by the chief, and there are not serious checks and balances there.”

While traditional leaders and arbiters known as “paramount chiefs” are not allowed to adjudicate, many still do. Most of the population live in areas where these chiefs often exercise considerable influence. Young of the Mende group conceded that some chiefs abuse their powers but said, overall, they are key to maintaining the peace.

“We do not sentence. We don’t send them [offenders] to jail, we try to make peace because by sending someone to jail within the same community you are dividing the community, and that is one of the agents that brought the war. Whenever there is a spark of trouble, that person will take the chance for revenge.”

Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war saw 10,000 children forced to take up arms, killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, and destroyed the country’s infrastructure.


The ODI report noted that there are risks to investing in informal justice, “given that some [non-state actors] violate the basic rights that security and justice systems are meant to protect”, but Denney said formal courts are often guilty of the same charge.

Hundreds of alleged perpetrators in rape cases are going unpunished by the formal justice system, according to police records from recent years.

Supporting non-state actors can improve access to justice for some, but needs to be carefully monitored, said Olayinka Phillips, the deputy coordinator of the governmental Justice Sector Coordination Office.

“It [the non-formal sector] can bring quick results, but if it is not properly managed and regulated then it will bring a lot of damage, because we are talking about less trained people,” Phillips commented.

“If a rape or abuse case is settled in the informal sector, justice is likely to be denied to the victim and the perpetrator often goes free,” she said. “The perpetrator can bring a cow or some money to the family, or even marry the victim.”


DfID’s ongoing four-year Access to Justice and Security Programme, launched in 2010, plans to work with state and non-state actors.

Sierra Leone’s parliament passed a Legal Aid Bill earlier in May, proposing a body to regulate “primary” justice providers, and recognizing the role of paralegals in the formal system, but not other non-state actors like chiefs or union chairmen.

There are still risks for donors but the potential is huge, said Conteh. “We want to take conflict resolution to the people so that it is with them every day.”

May 31, 2012 | Namati