The electoral cycle in Sierra Leone at the beginning of this year was hailed by observers as being primarily peaceful. However, before and between election days there were several fatalities and other significant incidents, such as nationwide Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), the destruction of property, and temporary forced migration. Many communities remain divided due to these incidents, stemming from political differences reinforced through tribal affiliation. Through collaboration with the Office of National Security and various CSOs during the elections, UNDP identified several specific communities as “conflict hotspots” prompted the new Government to constitute the establishment of a ‘peacebuilding committee’ to investigate and advise the Government on electoral violence.
Along with the Office of the Vice President, UNDP collaborated with five civil society organisations (CSOs) in a coordinated support for community healing and restorative justice. Activities took place in 11 out of 16 districts identified as particularly vulnerable to violence and centred around community dialogue, reconciliation events, and education sessions on the importance of elections, in addition to researching the scope and root of electoral violence. As part of this “post-election peace and social cohesion project”, one of the collaborating NGOs, Campaign for Good Governance (CGG), are running reconciliation dialogues in fragile communities in six districts, 14 chiefdoms in total. Through the project, dialogue sessions provide a space for communities to discuss lingering tensions from elections. It has been notably beneficial for women who want to speak about harms they experienced during period, including SGBV.
CGG programme director Marcella Samba-Sesay spoke favourably of the positive impact the project has made to communities. "Participants have been able to speak openly about electoral conflicts, and realise that democracy is the opportunity for choice, beyond party colour and tribal affiliation. This project has been helpful to communities, not only as a safe place to speak, but as a discussion platform on how to unify the community for development. Through their willingness to participate, communities recognise the need to come together for peace and that they all have a role to play in achieving it."
At the dialogue session in Kissy Dockyard, a fishing community in east Freetown, participants identified common community development goals to work towards. They agreed that focusing on tribal divisions hinders development, and better progress would be made if they worked together. The establishment of a union was suggested and a series of issues were identified, such as fixing the bad roads and removing the poisonous chemicals in their water supplies.
Mariatu Mansaray, a woman from the Kissy community, said "as a blind woman, this dialogue lets me show the community that disabled people can do anything that an abled person can. Here, I can raise my voice." This claim exemplifies the aim of the dialogues, which is to ensure community-wide openness, inclusion, and participation for all.
A similar list of goals was made in Tombo town in Western Area Rural, including improving the security of the marketplace controlled by politically polarised gangs. Women expressed feeling unsafe at the market many times during the dialogue session and were very concerned about SGBV. Local representative from the Sierra Leone Police attended the dialogue, giving the women an opportunity to appeal to them directly. The creation of these lists gives the project crucial local ownership and provides participating communities with tangible goals to work towards.
This implementing stage of the project, supported by the UN Peacebuilding Fund, will end in November but it marks only the beginning on a much-needed healing process for fragile communities affected by electoral violence and tribal divides. The project particularly focused on youth and women as the primary perpetrators and victims respectively, and UNDP will continue to provide post-election support to fragile communities in order to strengthen relations beyond politics.
Article written by Claire Flynn-Byrne, Communications and Reporting Officer, Conflict Prevention and Mitigation, UNDP Sierra Leone.