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Justice in the Wake of Civil War: Sierra Leone and Rwanda

Religion, Tradition, and Restorative Justice in Sierra Leone, by Lyn S. Graybill, University of Notre Dame Press, 301 pages, $45

Investing in Authoritarian Rule: Punishment and Patronage in Rwanda's Gacaca Courts for Genocide Crimes, by Anuradha Chakravarty, Cambridge University Press, 367 pages, $99.99

University of Notre Dame PressUniversity of Notre Dame PressMore than 40 civil wars have been waged in postcolonial Africa. Some never end. Others—Libya, South Sudan—restart after brief lulls. The results are devastating: crumpled infrastructure, blighted agriculture, declining investment, increasing misery. Populations have been uprooted and traumatized; combatants have committed barbaric acts. How do you pursue justice after a war finally concludes?

Two options are available. Western jurisprudence tends to stress punishing the guilty. Traditional African jurisprudence tends to emphasize reconciliation, restitution, and the restoration of social harmony. The first path is retributive, the second restorative. Two well-researched and magnificently written books on the experiences of Sierra Leone and Rwanda grapple with each approach.

In both countries, the relatively restorative option was far more cost-effective. In Sierra Leone, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) cost $5 million, while the retributive Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) ran $300 million a year. In Rwanda, the traditional restorative gacaca courts spent $40 million trying nearly 2 million cases over a decade. Compare that to the yearly $300 million price tag for the retributive International Tribunal for Rwanda, which completed fewer than 100 cases in two decades.

But despite its cost advantages, restorative justice can also be abused, particularly when the state controls how it is dispensed. Lyn S. Graybill's Religion, Tradition, and Restorative Justice in Sierra Leone comes down in favor of restorative justice in general, but it also shows how the government can botch its implementation; the country saw much better results when independent elements of civil society created their own restorative systems. In Investing in Authoritarian Rule, Anuradha Chakravarty reveals that the Rwandan government exploited the traditional system of justice for political purposes, using it to dole out favors and to extract acquiescence from a terrified population.

Cambridge University PressCambridge University PressSierra Leone's war began on March 23, 1991, when Foday Sankoh's rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front, invaded from Liberia. Sankoh's group was infamous for amputating the limbs of anyone, even babies, who seemed to stand in its way to power. When the war concluded 11 years later, some 75,000 civilians had been killed, 20,000 had been mutilated, and 2 million people were displaced.

To pursue justice afterward, both African and Western systems were deployed. The United Nations established the SCSL to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The government of Sierra Leone set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—modeled after a similar institution in post-apartheid South Africa—for lesser crimes.

Traditional African jurisprudence, practiced in different forms by around 2,000 ethnic groups, dates to pre-colonial times. It typically involves a public hearing where the culprit faces his victim, asks for forgiveness, and makes restitution. Some ethnic groups also require the culprit to perform rituals to "cleanse" himself before being readmitted to the community.

Graybill demonstrates that Sierra Leone's TRC, established to apply traditional African jurisprudence, was fatally flawed. Unnecessarily centralized in Freetown, the country's capital, it devoted only one week of hearings to provincial towns. Needless to say, rural villagers did not embrace the commission, dismissing it as a "foreign institution" that never really reached them. It also laid an excessive emphasis on individual victims. (During the war, whole families were killed, making it pointless to seek atonement for individual members.) Worse, the government ignored most of the commission's recommendations. In particular, reparations were not paid.

But that wasn't the end of the story. After the TRC folded in 2004, John Caulker, founder of the group Forum of Conscience, decided to try to heal the wounds of war at the local level. Accordingly, he developed Fambul Tok—Krio for "family talk"—in 2008, drawing on Sierra Leone's tradition of discussing and resolving issues within the family circle. Efforts were organized in each of the 149 chiefdoms across the country. The process included truth-telling bonfires as well as a traditional cleansing ceremony.

This was far more successful. It became easier for women to testify, for example: 44 percent of the Fambul Tok testimonies in Freetown came from women, with 19 percent dealing with sexual violations. In the first five years, there were more than 155 Fambul Tok ceremonies in some 130 chiefdoms, with over 2,700 people testifying before 60,000 neighbors.

The participation rate was higher because people regarded the process as more authentic; that in turn enhanced the effectiveness of the reconciliation attempts. The culprit and the victim could be brought face-to-face before trusted relatives and elders in a non-acrimonious atmosphere. No government body had to be involved.

Fambul Tok wasn't just more successful than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; it was more cost-effective too. Each ceremony cost $300.

In the Rwandan genocide of 1994, at least 800,000 people—mostly of the Tutsi ethnic group—were butchered, and as many as 250,000 women were raped. Afterward, more than 120,000 people were detained and accused of participating in the killings.

To deal with such an overwhelming number of perpetrators, the U.N. Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on November 8, 1994, in Arusha, Tanzania. The tribunal formally closed on December 31, 2015. During its two decades of work, it indicted only 93 people, issued 55 first-instance judgments and 45 appeal judgments, and heard from 3,000 witnesses.

It would have taken more than a century to try all of the accused, so the government turned to the traditional court system for help. The gacaca courts operated from 2002 to 2012—Rwanda's largest state-driven project of popular mobilization.

Traditionally, the gacaca courts were community-based efforts. Decisions were made within the village, with no involvement by the colonial or post-colonial government. But this time, as Chakravarty shows, every aspect was controlled by the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) regime. The courts were formalized and invested with a range of state-sanctioned powers, from authorizing arrests to deciding on verdicts and sentencing. The judges were elected by the community and tasked by the state with serving as inyangamugayo, or "individuals of integrity"—a radical departure from the customary gacaca, which was used in an informal way. Thus, they were transformed into a machine that dispensed patronage (including grants of clemency and opportunities for private gain) in exchange for confessions, loyalty, and acceptance of the status quo.

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame Press

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  • Shirley Knott||

    Fascinating. Always good to have case studies, especially well-written ones.
    Perhaps some tiny timely boost from Black Panther will occur?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Surely not; this is real life!

    By definition, governments justify their monopoly on coercion by coercing unpopular actions; if they were popular, they wouldn't need to be coerced. I suspect the vast majority of government actions are undertaken precisely because they require coercion and thus reinforce the government's ability to coerce. Or to put it another way, government bureaucrats, politicians, and police know their coercion is unpopular, and thus explicitly choose new unpopular programs precisely because they require coercion against popular will.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I hope Africa finds is way after so many centuries of civil wars, tribal fighting, and European Socialist's colonialism.

    As we found out in the USA, you have to want freedom enough to fight for it and continue to fight for it forever. There will always be people who want to take your Liberty away.

  • ohlookMarketthugs||

    They went there for markets you racist idiot, but Whatever justifies your violent, racist feelings.

  • ohlookMarketthugs||

    They went there for markets you racist idiot, but Whatever justifies your violent, racist feelings.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    You can say that again troll.

  • Eidde||

    "Traditional African jurisprudence tends to emphasize reconciliation, restitution, and the restoration of social harmony."

    I would like to see a cite for this.

    I mean, Africa is a fairly large continent. Did every nation and tribe there practice this sort of jurisprudence?

    I had thought that one, in some places, was to be condemned to perpetual slavery. In many cases, the convicts would be sold to Western slavers for the Middle Passage.

    I suspect many Americans can trace their heritage to Africans who were enslaved in conviction for alleged crimes.

  • Eidde||

    "Leaving from its home port in Europe, a typical (slave) ship made its first passage to the west coast of Africa, trading goods for a full cargo of slaves—people who had been captured in war, *convicted of petty crimes,* or simply kidnapped." (emphasis added)

  • Jerryskids||

    I suspect that most tribes would, that's sort of how tribalism works. The collective matters more than the individual. Look at Hillary's "it takes a village" or Obama's "you didn't build that" and the Left's general willingness to blame society for every individual action - nobody's really a bad person, they just had poor parents or poor teachers or a lack of opportunity or were victims of racism or sexism or whatever, therefore it's society's fault this person turned out bad. That's how it works in a collective, you don't blame just the malefactor, it's everybody's responsibility to keep the malefactor on the straight and narrow.

  • Paloma||

    This also may be why "reconciliation" doesn't really serve its intended purpose, that is, it doesn't ever really reconcile and tribal warfare never really stops. No justice, no peace, etc.

  • Rigelsen||

    Indeed. Take South Africa's vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission, now leading to planned confiscation, without recompense, of landowners of the wrong skin color. The Consititution doesn't allow it? Well, that will be changed.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    The South African reconciliation process bought a generation of peace, which is more than what was on offer from other alternatives. South Africa's new Black ruling class and Whites got 25 years to look each other over and make unhurried decisions on whether they could coexist on a permanent basis. In some situations, an acceptable permanent solution is not available.

  • Kivlor||

    And in hindsight, apartheid is looking a lot better. 25 years of "Peace" (it wasn't peaceful, look at #FarmMurders) in exchange for government confiscation of lands and planned genocide.

  • dave b.||

    Nothing more libertarian than apartheid. This place is a fucking parody of itself at this point

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    Amazing to me that anyone can talk about the wars in Africa and not even once so much as mention Islam. In Sierra Leone, the Muslims are doing the same thing they do pretty much everywhere else they become the majority: committing genocide in an effort to drive out or wipe out the remaining infidels.

    But western analysts by and large are guilt-ridden, politically correct pussies, and I guess they always will be.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The Europeans underestimated the will of Muslims to conquer until most of the Iberian peninsula was under Muslim rule in the 8th Century. Sicily was also under Muslim rule from the late 9th Century until the 11th Century.

    Muslims are stuck in the later Iron Age and Roman period, where they view conquering as acceptable forms of religious expansion. It matters not that Western Civilizations have moved past the idea of destroying the large parts of the World that will not submit. The Muslims will violently expand whether people like it or not.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    I am against the current American excursions around the World but even undeclared wars by the USA were still based on attacks of the USA or its interests.

    The USA is not murdering Muslims if they will not convert to Christianity. There are Muslims murdering all kinds of people who are considered infidels by Muslims.

  • dave b.||

    When European countries were violently expanding and colonizing every square inch of arable land, it was noble even though the darkies had to be exterminated. The sun can't set on the British Empire and all. But when the Muslims do it, it's primitive Iron Age shit and the rest of us have moved on. Got it.

  • LeGaston||

    "The Europeans" didn't exist at that time. Christendom, which did, was well aware that Islam had conquered a third of it leading up to the invasion of Iberia. They certainly noticed when the birthplace of Christ fell. There was no underestimation involved. The Visigoths had only just conquered the place themselves, and were one of the more barbarian of the semi-barbarian inheritor kingdoms in the Western Empire. It's unsurprising that they failed to withstand an enemy that the incomparably mightier Eastern Empire only held at the very walls of Constantinople, the most well fortified city on the planet.

    As to the "iron age" remark, did the twentieth century not, like, just happen in your mind? What "age" do you imagine the Nazis and Bolsheviks were "stuck" in? (BTW, your terminology is wrong. The actual period you're talking about is known as "Late Antiquity") Cause that's some mighty arrogance coming from someone talking about, and presumably belonging to, a civilization whose nations, just a few generations ago, were mobilized to a degree than no Muslim country in the word is remotely capable of let alone all of Islam, for the purpose forcing one another to submit through visiting more destruction upon more of the world than anything that came before in all of the blood-drenched history of humanity.

    Not to mention that the vast majority of the people fighting those muslims attempting religious conquest are... muslims.

  • LeGaston||

    "The Europeans" didn't exist at that time. Christendom, which did, was well aware that Islam had conquered a third of it leading up to the invasion of Iberia. They certainly noticed when the birthplace of Christ fell. There was no underestimation involved. The Visigoths had only just conquered the place themselves, and were one of the more barbarian of the semi-barbarian inheritor kingdoms in the Western Empire. It's unsurprising that they failed to withstand an enemy that the incomparably mightier Eastern Empire only held at the very walls of Constantinople, the most well fortified city on the planet.

    As to the "iron age" remark, did the twentieth century not, like, just happen in your mind? What "age" do you imagine the Nazis and Bolsheviks were "stuck" in? (BTW, your terminology is wrong. The actual period you're talking about is known as "Late Antiquity") Cause that's some mighty arrogance coming from someone talking about, and presumably belonging to, a civilization whose nations, just a few generations ago, were mobilized to a degree than no Muslim country in the word is remotely capable of let alone all of Islam, for the purpose forcing one another to submit through visiting more destruction upon more of the world than anything that came before in all of the blood-drenched history of humanity.

    Not to mention that the vast majority of the people fighting those muslims attempting religious conquest are... muslims.

  • Rigelsen||

    Because Islam wasn't a significant factor in either of these wars. In Sierra Leone, the PUF had both Christians and Muslims and would apparently alternate (or randomly pick) between an officiant of either faith for each day. The government side was similarly multi-religious. In Rwanda, Islam was and remains a non-factor.

    Indeed, outside of some ravanchist groups (like the Stone Age Boko Haram), you will find that even were religion is a factor, tribal association is more of a factor. In South Sudan, for example, it was Arabs versus non-Arabs.

    Anyway, as far as I have ever read, sectarian violence has not been a serious issue in Sierra Leone. Do you have recent links that say otherwise?

  • ||

    Scholars, among many other people, love to leave out Islam from the discussion. Courses will spend weeks on Western slavery but maybe one minor section on the Arab slave trade that has lasted for over a millenia. It's another case of educational shell games, to get the "outcome"/narrative you want.

  • Eidde||

    I remember reading an account of "traditional courts" for war criminals which used reconciliation processes which the communities had previously used for minor offenders like chicken thieves. The central government simply extended the process to war crimes as if it was pretty much the same thing, and used a mantle of "tradition" to make it look more authentic and grass-roots-y.

  • Robert||

    What were such reconciliation processes for chicken thieves, war criminals, etc.? Were they as described in your 11:52?

  • Eidde||

    It was a while back I read that paper, I can't recall the details.

    The 11:52 link wasn't the same paper, just something I found with a few seconds of Googling.

  • LeGaston||

    We also use the same legal process for both chicken thieves and murderers.

  • Eidde||

    "...we know from the writings of scholars on African law that the death penalty existed in all pre-colonial African communities. It was normally available for serious crimes: patricide, fratricide, other unlawful homicide, and witchcraft....

    "...There were, depending on the circumstances of the crime, alternative methods of dealing with (an offender). In some communities he was required simply to make restitution or pay compensation (blood money) to the family of the victim. In other communities he was exiled from the village for a stated period of time and upon his return was required to perform sacrifice and make restitution as directed by the elders.

    "Thus, although death was more often than not the normal penalty for unlawful homicide, in an appropriate case the penalty was commuted into compensation, for example, where the circumstances of the murder were not really aggravating or did not vitally disturb the social equilibrium of the community. In fact, in some communities the murderer was not executed. Instead, blood-money was exacted where the murderer was apprehended. However, if the murderer escaped he was outlawed and the members of the deceased"s clan were entitled to obtain their satisfaction by killing a member of the escaped murderer"s clan."

  • Dookert||

    Interesting article. I wonder if Africa will ever be able to catch up with the rest of the world. Much blame gets placed on Europeans for current day failures, all the while it is China that is the one doing the resource extracting and self-interested investing.

  • John||

    Libertarians love Mexicans but Mexicans don't love them.

    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/pa.....id=2234200

  • Mencken Sense||

    What? Third World peasants aren't going to usher in The Libertarian Moment?!?

    Oh well, at least the paymasters will get their cheap labor.

  • Kivlor||

    That's just because the evil white patriarchal libertarians aren't doing enough to teach Mexicans to love liberty, and due to the centuries of white oppression they have endured.

    But even if they are going to vote against liberty, we should all be glad for them, because Mexican food.

  • LeGaston||

    Well, it couldn't hurt to stop calling them things like "Third World Peasants". That doesn't seem like too much to ask.

    Aside from actively alienating the people in question, I find that sentiments of lordly disdain, expressed in the language of feudalism, tend to undermine a person's credibility as an advocate of liberty.

  • ohlookMarketthugs||

    It's hilarious, Reason catered to racists when Obama's was President, but now can't get rid of them.

  • Robert||

    Huh?

  • Eidde||

    He's saying that Reason's catering to the Left is working.

    sarc

  • SIV||

    "Don't Tread On Muh guaranteed basic income"

  • gormadoc||

    Just ignore the low-effort troll.

  • Trollificus||

    I'm sure his troll posts will eventually cohere into a narrative that he's confident explains everything.

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