Sierra Leone: chiefs and the civil society play a key role in development and peacebuilding

Local civil society organisations were encouraged by the Finnish Minister for International Development, Pekka Haavisto, to cooperate as much as possible in their activities oriented to enhance national development, advocate for people’s rights and promote government accountability.

This week, Finn Church Aid’s Sierra Leone country office organised a meeting between the  Minister Haavisto, and a group of representatives from the Sierra Leonean civil society organizations in Freetown. The Minister also met with Paramount Chiefs , who represented  traditional authorities.

Minister Haavisto was in Sierra Leone to co-chair the annual meeting of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS), which promotes the development of fragile states. The IDPS-process and the related New Deal approach highlight the importance of civil society engagement in development and peacebuilding, for example in holding governments accountable and in enhancing aid effectiveness.

During the discussion it was noted that mutual accountability between the Government, donors and civil society is a two-way process, within which every actor needs to thrive to achieve transparency and effectiveness.

Finn Church Aid also arranged a meeting between the Minister and two Paramount Chiefs. The meeting  aimed at framing the current main challenges in politics and development of Sierra Leone. Chieftaincy hierarchies are deeply embedded in Sierra Leonean society. Administration of local justice, tax collection, conflict management and land distribution are the main tasks of Sierra Leonean traditional authorities, which also are the “custodians of the land”.

Traditional authorities can play a key role in the country’s development and for example, promote positive changes of harmful practices within their chiefdoms. At the same time, the chiefs’ position is sometimes controversial, and power dynamics represent potential problem in relation to access to land and respect of human rights. To better address these challenges, the National Council of Paramount Chiefs is advocating for the withdrawal of Paramount Chiefs from the Parliament, and creation of a new independent body (The House of Chiefs), tasked with the management of tradition-related matters. Meanwhile, female Paramount Chiefs from the Southern province are negotiating with their colleagues in the North in order to allow women to run in those Northern Chiefdoms, where women are not yet allowed to become chiefs.

On a global level, Finn Church Aid also acts as the Secretariat for the Network of Religious Leaders, recognising the relevance and the potential of such authorities in peacebuilding and peace consolidation, along the transition of states out of fragility patterns. Sierra Leone is a key example of religious tolerance, accounting for longstanding peaceful coexistence between Christian and Islamic populations.

The possible synergies between traditional and religious authorities and civil society organisations represent a delicate balance encompassing institutional reforms, engagement with both tradition and change, and a shared commitment which also involves national governments and international donors.

Text: Jussi Laurikainen, West Africa Regional Programme Coordinator  and Caterina Becorpi, Project Officer, Right to Peace, Sierra Leone