Reflecting back, looking forward: Fambul Tok

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To mark the new year, Democracy in Africa has asked key groups and individuals to reflect on developments in Africa during 2012, and look forward to 2013. We have invited them to share with us their insights and predictions, their hopes and their fears. Here, we speak to John Caulker, Executive Director of Fambul Tok in Sierra Leone.

1. For readers who might not have come across the NGO before, could you begin by giving us a brief introduction to your work?

Sierra Leone’s civil war saw extreme acts of atrocity, in which the country’s social and psychological fabric was torn asunder, leaving a legacy of division and trauma all the way down to village level. Fambul Tok (Krio for Family Talk) facilitates community-led and owned reconciliation processes that contribute to sustainable peace and development. Fambul Tok is active in five out of 14 districts in the country and has plans to begin work in a sixth during 2013; by mid 2012 it had held 150 reconciliation ceremonies, often involving ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’, at which over 2,500 people had testified before audiences of about 60,000 (The population of the country is 6m). Follow-up after reconciliation ceremonies is crucial and community farms and peace mothers groups have sprung up nearly everywhere afterwards. We also run a ‘football for reconciliation’ programme. We have also supported the establishment of reconciliation and outreach committees at district level. The work has so far cost about $2.5m, drawing most of its funds from a US-based foundation, Catalyst for Peace, which has given us strong support since we began at the beginning of 2008.

2. Looking back at 2012, what were the most promising developments for democracy in Sierra Leone?

Last year saw Sierra Leone’s third general elections since the end of the civil war. If they go well, elections can play a big part in consolidating democracy and peace. But, as we have seen in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, elections can also be a dangerous moment, characterized by rising violence and intimidation. Sierra Leone’s elections in 2002 and 2007 passed off reasonably well, and in 2007 there was even a peaceful hand-over of power from one party to another. But there were no grounds for complacency in 2012. Fambul Tok decided that playing its part in bringing about peaceful elections was its top priority for the year. We became closely involved in civil society activities to promote peaceful elections. I became the chair of the Civil Society Platform for Non-Violent Elections 2012, a coalition of over 80 organizations committed to playing their part. We, along with partners in the Electoral Commission and National Elections Watch, another civil society coalition that focused on election monitoring, ran activities across the country in the run-up to the 17 November elections. And while there were flashpoints here and there, along with some tension over delays in announcing the results, the elections passed off overwhelmingly peacefully again. I was particularly proud about the turn out, which at well over 80%, is far superior to those seen in many Western democracies!

An example of how civil society made a difference was Fambul Tok’s resolution of a serious post-election dispute in Ngainga village and the chiefdom headquarter town of Dea, both in Kissi Kama chiefdom, Kailahun District. Immediately after the announcement of the presidential result there was an outbreak of assaults, intimidation and harassment between supporters of the two main political parties.  Daily activities came to a standstill. But we were able, after a lot of hard work, to bring about a face-to-face reconciliation of the two powerful political figures who had been behind the dispute, bringing the crisis to an end.

3. Do you think that these developments will be sustainable in the  next  year and beyond?

I am optimistic, but we have to remain vigilant. Sierra Leone has not suddenly become an established democracy that can rest on its laurels. We still have a long way to go. So, in a way, our preparations for the next elections in 2017 must begin almost immediately! Perhaps the biggest thing in our favour in Sierra Leone is the fact that many people still have powerful memories of what dictatorship and conflict is like. Nobody with those memories wants to go back to that nightmare.

4. What do you believe are the key remaining challenges to democracy in Sierra Leone, and how might these be tackled?

There are many challenges. Let me briefly outline three of the main ones. First, while life is better for many Sierra Leoneans, the economic benefits of peace and democracy are not being fairly shared. Unemployment remains very high, particularly amongst the country’s youth, who make up a large part of our population. The provision of public services is still not good, particularly in many rural areas. Second, corruption remains rife. The increased revenues that will come to the state through the export of minerals in the coming years could end up fuelling corruption, rather than development.  Third, the political culture of the main political parties here, the APC and the SLPP, are still one of intolerance and deep mistrust. And both have a tendency to see the purpose of gaining control over the state as benefiting them and their supporters in the parts of the country where they are strong, rather than the country as a whole.

In all of these senses, the ‘root causes of conflict’ are still a long way from being addressed in Sierra Leone. Until much more progress has been made on these counts, our democracy will remain vulnerable to backsliding.

5. What new and potentially surprising developments do you see on the horizon that will become increasingly important to the way in which democracy functions in Sierra Leone and beyond?

Of course, democracy is not just about elections, important as they are. The voices of ordinary Sierra Leoneans are beginning to be heard more loudly. New technology is helping to make this possible, but so too are older forms, such as radio. Fambul Tok, drawing extensively on local culture and tradition, is also in a way part of this process. At the same time, ordinary Sierra Leoneans are demanding more of politicians; they are no longer willing just to be foot soldiers for ‘their party’.  It would be foolish to pretend that there isn’t much further to go to establish deeper and more genuine political accountability in this country, but the journey has begun. We can only hope that the politicians embrace this change and go with it, rather than fighting it. On that, the jury is still out.

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