The Bintumani III conference for peace and national cohesion held last week. A lot of things were said. A lot more were left unsaid. It has left behind debates on both traditional and social media. Some boycotted it (some opposition political parties), others have called it a waste of resources and others still have regarded it as mere opportunity for political posturing. I hold a different view and here is why.
Firstly, regardless of the description and derogation it attracted, the just concluded Bintumani III conference was a transitional justice mechanism. In the words of President Bio: “… Bintumani III conference is about soliciting the views of Sierra Leoneans on the remit, the shape, and the mechanics of the proposed independent peace and national cohesion commission. The eventual establishment of that commission will be a huge step in efforts to further consolidate and strengthen our democracy.” Going by these words alone (forget about all the other confusing reasons that have been put forward by others), the conference ticks the box of a transitional justice mechanism.
But what exactly is transitional justice? Isn’t it only relevant for the immediate periods of conflict? I hear you ask. To avoid sounding academic and not to bore you to death, I have just drawn from one definition. The United Nations defines transitional justice as “the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation.” And again, drawing from the President’s speech, this conference was to “enable us to consolidate democratic practices and enhance national cohesion.” All these tick some of the primary boxes of transitional justice.
Secondly, Bintumani III should be seen and considered as a transitional justice mechanism because it was a platform to confront the truth, however bitter that truth is. This truth-confrontation focuses (or rather should focus) on addressing the culture of impunity for human rights violations and abuses. This truth- confrontation is not about disrespecting leaders or authorities. It is about providing justice to victims and to also establish accountability mechanisms that will secure against a repetition of past and ongoing abuses.
It is also about what Paulo Freire (one of my favourite Brazilian writers) calls critical self-reflection. The Chief Minister rightly pointed out that Bintumani III is not a truth commission, yes. But that doesn’t absolve the conference from its truth-hearing function. It was a truth-seeking and truth-telling exercise. That is a primary element of transitional justice and as such should be seen from that prism.
I also see Bintumani III as a necessary transitional justice mechanism because it seeks to establish an infrastructure that will ensure constant reminders of the need for peace, social cohesion and national harmony. Not an easy feat. But transitional justice mechanisms do not always enjoy soft landing. The very complex nature of their existence is why they need time, resources and collective reasoning to make them efficient.
In the periods leading to the conference, there was so much confusion as to its objectives, its timing and relevance. I hope those questions and doubts have now been answered and clarified. Following the proceedings via TV gave me, and I am sure many other Sierra Leoneans, an opportunity to understand, despite our initial misgivings of the conference, that the space it provided was both needed and wanted. The country needed Bintumani III, the government wanted it. Balancing both needs and wants is a complicated and often challenging process to compress, even for a government. But it was absolutely necessary.
Another reason why I think it was a necessary “waste” is that though the primary outcome is the creation of a peace commission, the conference (like most transitional justice mechanisms) provided an opportunity for Sierra Leoneans to not just reflect on the past, but to examine the present in preparedness for the future. This was exemplified by some of the statements we heard from a range of stakeholders who spoke on those three days. It also aligns with the newly adopted African Transitional Justice Policy framework, which defines transitional justice to include “a society’s attempt to mitigate ongoing conflicts and to address a legacy of large scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, promote justice and achieve peace and reconciliation.”
In my view, Bintumani III gave us a platform to be prospective, while constructively being reflective on the issues we need to address to improve our stability as a nation.
However, I must add that from a transitional justice perspective, Bintumani III was inadequate in one crucial aspect: accountability. And I am referring here to the notion of people owning up, not the demand side accountability. I know it was not a conference on holding people accountable, but leaders – past and present – owning up to the reversals the country has had to endure and pledging to change their ways would have made me wholly satisfied. I was pleased though to see civil society calling out government and holding them accountable. I was thrilled by the cogency of the statement by Mariama Samai of the Children’s Forum Network.
It was shameful of the major opposition political parties (especially the APC which has governed the country the longest since independence) to have boycotted. They missed an opportunity to hold the current government accountable. They also, dare I say, missed an opportunity to take responsibility for their own actions and inactions. One way of seeking justice is to be truthful and accept the truth. And the truth is, the two main political parties (APC and SLPP) – the only ones to rule the country barring the brief military trespasses – have messed up the country in a number of ways. Their actions, inactions, utterances and policies have contributed significantly to the need for having a peace commission and its precursor, Bintumani III. The least they could have offered us is the courtesy of raising their hands up and taking unequivocal ownership of some of those mess-ups. To achieve lasting and sustained peace, society has to thrive on truth, justice and accountability. Owning up to past and current wrongs is one way of being accountable. Bintumani III did not give us that. We hope its product, in collaboration with other existing transitional justice mechanisms, will not deprive us of that important element.
Finally, and on the theme of accountability, we deserve to know how much was spent to hold this conference. The SLPP government promised accountability on all fronts. This should be straightforward. An investment in peace and national cohesion should not be a government secret.
In my view, the people could probably value it even more if we know how much it has cost the consolidated fund. A good friend of mine told me recently, that you are what you know. We act on the information we have. So, if the government is sincere about promoting peace and national cohesion, and if they want to prove to the nation that Bintumani III was a necessary “waste”, then they are obliged to inform the nation about how much it cost us. And from a transitional justice perspective, such information is crucial to ensuring that it was not just a box-ticking exercise. The full spectrum of accountability starts from here.
EDITOR’s NOTE: The Author, Makmid Kamara is the Director of the Africa Transitional Justice Legacy Fund (ATJLF) and is based in Accra, Ghana. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the ATJLF.