The Mano River Union Peace Process - Alimamy P. Koroma

My dear sisters and brothers of the Disciples of Christ/United Church of Christ, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I feel greatly honoured and delighted to be invited to this great event. Please permit me to extend my thanks and appreciation to the organizers of this Pre-Assembly event for inviting me to make this presentation on the topic: The Mano River Union Peace Process, as part of the broader theme AJesus Calls us to PursueY..What Makes for Peace." I make this presentation as a live witness to the conflicts/wars as well as a participant in the peace process in the Mano River Union.

My dear sisters and brothers of the Disciples of Christ/United Church of Christ, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I feel greatly honoured and delighted to be invited to this great event. Please permit me to extend my thanks and appreciation to the organizers of this Pre-Assembly event for inviting me to make this presentation on the topic: The Mano River Union Peace Process, as part of the broader theme "Jesus Calls us to Pursue...What Makes for Peace." I make this presentation as a live witness to the conflicts/wars as well as a participant in the peace process in the Mano River Union.

The neighbouring countries Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone came together to form the Mano River Union with the objective of promoting and advancing political and socio-economic agendas in the respective countries but also within the basin as a whole. In addition to this treaty, there is a lot in common between these countries B the people, the language, intra and inter-trade activities etc. The similarities or commonality also extend to the bad governance systems, corruption, mass poverty, unemployment, mass illiteracy, political and social exclusion, political intolerance, unfair wealth distribution, denial of fundamental human rights among others. These were the root causes of coups and rebellions in the MRU.

REBEL WAR IN THE MANO RIVER UNION

Led by Charles Gbangay Taylor, a rebel war broke out in Liberia in December of 1989 and spread to the interior of the country. Just about a year later, the war spread into neighbouring Sierra Leone in March 1991. Both wars produced refugees and internally displaced persons in their thousands, brought suffering on innocent people, dehumanized people, violated fundamental human rights, took away lives, destroyed properties and basic infrastructure. Women and young girls were raped and forced into unlawful marriage, people were amputated, and young boys were conscripted into fighting forces. Liberia and Sierra Leone nearly collapsed as nation states. Political thirst and lust for economic wealth were the motivations for the leaders of the war rather than an interest in bringing about positive reforms for the peoples benefit.

INTERVENTION OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY

The International Community was slow to act but they eventually came in to Liberia and Sierra Leone to help salvage the situation. Through the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), ECOMOG the military arm of ECOWAS came in with West African troops mostly Nigerians. This helped check the rebel advances and excesses but was not enough to put the war to an end. The United Nations also intervened by imposing sanctions on as well as established UN Missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone together with Peace Keeping Forces. This too contributed to containing the war but did not really end the war.

Diplomatic negotiations led to the signing by Charles Taylor of over a dozen agreementsĀ - none of which he ever abided by, while three were signed by Sierra Leone=s rebel leaders, none of which they also actually abided by.

CIVIL SOCIETY INTERVENTION

Generally, Civil Society groups largely concentrate on their specific or narrow organizational interests or concerns, leaving aside the larger concerns associated with the process of governance. They can be manipulated into cheering squads for the governments of the day. However, the situation in the Mano River Basin saw networking and collaboration among civil society groups in each country and even between countries (e.g. Mano River Women Peace Network, MRU Inter-Religious Councils). They advocated for and worked for peace in the sub-region.The Church, women's groups, students unions, labour union, teachers unions were among the civil society groups that made an input in ending the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH

Prior to the conflicts and wars in the Mano River Basin, the Church maintained its focus on its evangelistic activities and social ministry by way of providing social services in health and education and in rural development work. There was little focus on the fundamental issues of human rights violations, democracy and governance as any talk on these was considered to be political and the Church did not want to be political. The war in the basin was a wake up call for the Church to begin to act in line with the theme "Jesus Calls us to Pursue What makes for Peace."

The Church as a compassionate and caring body was among the first to begin to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons. In fact the Church in Sierra Leone was one of the largest humanitarian response agencies. In January 1999 when rebels invaded Freetown, expatriate personnel of most agencies including UN agencies were evacuated out of the country. Those international NGOs closed down their offices and operations in the midst of over one hundred and fifty thousand displaced persons in the city. It was the Church that took responsibility to provide support to that needy and vulnerable population until the situation improved. The Church proved to be a caring body and the most reliable and sustainable body. It is always there.

Gradually, church sermons began to change and had in them more of peace messages. That way, congregations some of whom are government functionaries, UN or members of the International Community and yet others unidentified rebel collaborators were slowly influenced. Added to these were periods of national fasting and prayers led and organized by the church.

The strong forces of evil however continued with evil thoughts, ideas and plans unfolding each day. The Guinean people suddenly developed hostility against Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees to a point that the UNHCR and the Church in Guinea had to intervene and calm was restored. In Liberia, Charles Taylor accused, arrested and imprisoned religious leaders but the church did not give up its position and role in the search for peace. Its commitment remained unwavered.

Three military coups took place during the war in Sierra Leone. These coups came with intimidation, coercion as well as temptations. Religious leaders and religious institutions were targeted by the military junta for support but this did not come forth. Some religious leaders were offered positions in the junta government but these were turned down. The Church did not allow itself to be compromised. For nine months there was civil disobedience until the junta was eventually flushed out in March 1998. The coupist had tasted power and they tried to remain in power and by all means.

Pressure from civil society organizations especially women groups and religious bodies came to bear on the military junta and there were democratic elections which brought a civilian government into power. These elections were monitored by the Church in Sierra Leone. Similar actions took place in Liberia except that one of the warlords Charles Taylor became President in that country.Initiated by the church, the three countries in the Mano River Union established Inter-Religious Councils comprising Christians and Muslims. These worked to further address the conflicts in their respective countries and also met from time to time at the level of the Mano River Union to do situation analysis and plan together for common action.

With the Church as key instruments in the Inter-Religious Councils, these bodies made great contributions towards ending the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Working with the UN Missions and networking with other civil society groups were some of the strategies adopted.

The greatest hurdle was how to rebuild the confidence of the angry (and determined to die) population. With prayer and patience, confidence in dialogue as an option was restored. The authority of the church and respect for religion was of great influence on the people. The religious coalitions directly engaged the governments and rebel forces and this opened the way for the commencement of dialogues between these two.

This engagement meant sometimes meeting with government in the city. It also meant sometimes meeting with the rebel forces through radio contacts and indeed sometimes having to visit them it the bush. Yes, the Church went that far in its search for peace. Successful negations for the release of abducted children were led by the religious coalitions. Children so released were handed over to UNICEF.

The peace talks to end both wars were with the full participation of the Inter-Religious Councils. The presence of the Inter-Religious Council did not only add spirituality in the discussions but actually inspired confidence in the process with these bodies serving as moral guarantors to the agreements that resulted from the talks. In these processes, the Church was not partisan but remained morally committed to the issues which cannot be ignored i.e. injustices.

Most often than not, contents of various peace agreements are not known even by the vast majority of those on either sideĀ - government or rebel movement let alone ordinary people. But as part of the sensitization programme in Sierra Leone, the Inter- Religious Council distributed large quantities of the Lome Peace Agreement to the population as well as rebels in the bush.It was also presented and explained to the same audience through various media. This helped the public understand and accept the agreement.

Some key elements of peace agreements are normally cessation of hostilities or cease-fire and eventually disarmament. Disarmament and demobilization was a daunting task in the Mano River Basin. There is either no immediate money for this or there is not enough confidence on either side to start and continue with such a process of disarmament and demobilization. The cases of Liberia and Sierra Leone were no exception to this phenomenon. Religious leaders joined forces with the mandated UN body and locally established commissions responsible for this and helped build confidence in the process. In Sierra Leone, the Inter-Religious Council even set up a fund for disarmament B raising contributions from local institutions and individuals.Successful disarmament and demobilization led to yet another problem and that is reintegration. In the situation where victims are still bitter about what they suffered in the hands of their perpetrators, the reintegration of such perpetrators realistically cannot be expected to be smooth. However, the pre-discharge orientation conducted by the Church help re-orientate ex- combatants and prepared them for their new life and challenges as well as the possible hostile reactions from their victims. On the other hand, communities receiving disarmed and demobilized ex- combatants were also psychologically prepared by the Church through further sensitization training and counseling that they may live together and have a common living. The reintegration process was thus facilitated. Apart from domestic action, the church also advocated its partners overseas for moral support through international advocacy. This indeed made an impact at that level as some of the actions of the international community were influenced by such actions. Financial support from partners enabled the church to perform these functions. Church partners proved to be friends in need and indeed friends indeed!

PRESENT SITUATION AND CHALLENGES

The war in Liberia and Sierra Leone are over but they will not be forgotten in a hurry. The legacies they left behind are vivid and some are deeply buried in the minds of people. Guinea has not had a war but the situation is worrisome and can best be described as a time bomb.

The mammoth task of rehabilitation and reconstruction is on and this has enhanced the resettlement process especially in Sierra Leone. The Church is quite involved in this. Social service infrastructure is however, still very inadequate. Most people in rural communities had to start their livelihoods from scratch but it is encouraging that life is gradually picking up again. The Church is making efforts in the process of trauma healing and reconciliation at the community level. Genuine and lasting reconciliation is a big challenge.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up in Sierra Leone to record what happened as well as give people the opportunity to speak out their pain or confess their wrong doings B all as means towards national reconciliation. It is however very frustrating that the TRC report is still not out. Alongside the TRC is the Special Court for Sierra Leone established to try Athose people who bear the greatest responsibility. Trials for thirteen indictees are in progress while other indictees like Charles Taylor are yet to be turned over to the Special Court.

While the wars are over and these efforts are being made to restore normal life and promote development, the MRU is still faced with a number of challenges. Leaders seem not to have leant from the past as the wheel of bad governance, corruption and political exclusion is being reinvented. The Church should therefore not relent in engaging political leaders on such crucial issues.

As the conflict virus moves from one part of Africa to the other, so does the attention of the donor community and NGOs. There has been much shift of attention from the Mano River Basin in favour of places that make the news. Even church agencies follow this pattern. A further drop in donor support will impact on the peace that has been so hard earned.

Sierra Leone set the world record of having the largest contingent of UN Peace Keepers. Liberia also has a fairly large contingent. At the present moment, only a slim contingent is new in Sierra Leone and even this will finally pull out by the end of the year. People are thus concerned about this situation B not knowing what may happen when all UN Peace Keepers in the country completely pull out.Liberia currently has an interim government and general elections are due in October 2005. Guinea will have elections in the not too distant future. Both situations call for serious attention and effort to avoid an explosion.

CONCLUSION

The war in the Mano River Union came as a result of the ills of society, but the manner of achieving whatever objectives the war had has not been lawful. Peace has been achieved but for this to be sustained, governance has to improve, political tolerance should be exercised, rehabilitation and reconstruction (including livelihood support for productive activities) must be intensified and accelerated. For the peace in one member country to be consolidated and sustained, there should be peace in the other two.

Civil society groups especially the Church must continue to play a key role in seeking the welfare of the greater number of the people. They should not be pro or anti government and so they should provide support for government when it does good for the people and especially so it should not support government when it acts against the interest of the people. The Church should persuade governments to act in the interest of the people. This political role if played well will make the Church even more relevant in society.I thank you!!


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