Select Committee on International Development Memoranda

Memorandum submitted by Professor Paul Richards[120]


British peacemaking policy in West Africa

1.  The British government has invested hugely in peacemaking in the Mano River conflicts, in particular in Sierra Leone since the peace-stabilising intervention of British armed forces in May 2000. By not addressing underlying social grievances in this regional crisis these investments strengthen only one side in a deeply rooted conflict, and potentially stoke up worse instability over the longer term.

2.  Historically, the linked crises in Liberia and Sierra Leone reflect the slow pace of emancipation from domestic slavery, due to the dominance of coastal mercantile elites and exigencies of colonial rule (Liberia - although nominally independent in the colonial period - adopted the British-devised system of "indirect" rule, i.e. local government through chiefly and land-owning elites).

3.  A recent study by historian Trevor Getz (comparing Ghana and Senegal)[121] argues that the educated West African coastal elites (as well as interior traditional rulers) were among the major proponents of the idea that domestic slavery was a benign "family" institution. The French and the British both needed to placate "nationalist" merchant elites as well as interior rulers, and soft-pedalled post slavery social reforms.

4.  Ghana and Senegal rendered domestic slavery illegal at the end of the 19th century. The system lasted much longer in the Mano River countries. Sierra Leone did not abolish domestic slavery until 1928. Liberia followed suit in 1930. A study by a historian of slavery in Sierra Leone (John Grace) found practices and attitudes formerly associated with domestic slavery still widespread in rural areas in the 1970s.

5.  In World Bank post-war social assessments for Sierra Leone (2004) and Liberia (2005),[122] I found institutional practices directly rooted in domestic slavery continuing to affect marriage, labour and the administration of justice in both countries, if somewhat disguised (e.g. as "community labour", ta yenge in the Mende language).

6.  In various studies with ex-combatants and rural youth about the causes of the war in Sierra Leone complaints about these abuses are frequent. Impoverished, vulnerable youth object to exploitation through forced labour and marriage. Fined by customary courts they refuse to pay and become vagrants, vulnerable to recruitment by militia forces. Similar data have come to light in Liberia.

7.  When the restored Kabbah government was asked at the Edinburgh Commonwealth leaders' conference in 1998 what it needed to consolidate its rule, it prioritised a request for help in reinstalling paramount chiefs and "customary" courts. The British tax payer was asked to support a full-scale re-implementation of "indirect rule".

8.  Houses for Paramount Chiefs were to be built with ta yenge (now sanitised as the willing contributions of volunteers anxious to rebuild their communities). In a work on customary law revised in 1948 a colonial District Commissioner, Fenton, noted that the British could hardly find candidates for chieftaincy after the chiefly rebellion of 1898 (itself a protest at the threat to abolish domestic slavery) until they awarded chiefs the right to demand free labour. The symbolism of British peacemaking was unfortunate, to say the least.

9.  In a conference sponsored by the French Foreign Ministry in 2003 I read a paper arguing that rebel movements such as the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone systematically exploited the vagrancy of rural youth stemming from unjust rural institutions incompletely transformed from those designed to administer a world of domestic slavery. I was answered by James Jonah (the Electoral Commissioner for Sierra Leone in 1996) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (now president of Liberia). Both argued I had sentimentalised militant youths, who (in their eyes) were ruffians. The Krio word used to refer to footloose youth is rarray. It has various etymologies, but one local interpretation is "run-away", i.e. the vagrancy of the slave.

10.  I wrote to Douglas Hurd, as Foreign Secretary, in October 1991, pointing out that the Revolutionary United Front was interested in a limited British military intervention in the war, to ensure a level playing field for discussion of their grievances (which included lack of transparency over the diamond wealth and lack of educational opportunities for the children of the poor). The reply stated the UK had no significant strategic interests in Sierra Leone, and the causes of the conflict were obscure.

11.  Fourteen years later not much has been done to address that obscurity, but not for lack of opportunity. The Paramount Chief Restoration project in Sierra Leone was accompanied by a very good initiative. Detailed discussions were held with all government-accessible chiefdoms about underlying causes of war. Despite many absences (notably of migrant farmers and fighters) these discussions revealed the generality of rural grievances. But the process was never extended to the rest of the country, nor was any serious effort made to pressure the Sierra Leone government to address these grievances. In 2003 I asked a British government social affairs adviser why nothing had been done. His answer was "priorities change".

12.  If justice for the poor, based on listening to their grievances, is not a priority of British peace-making in Africa then I conclude that the real priority is making the region governable for political and commercial interests. Collaborating with the region's mercantilist elites serves "business as usual", but it may not prove a sound strategy in the longer term. If no one is willing to address deep social grievances the rural poor will continue to find their own interlocutors. Finishing off the RUF (or al-Qaida or the Taliban) will be followed by the rise of even more extreme opportunist champions of the deeply impoverished and desperate.

January 2006

120   Paul Richards holds the Chair of Technology & Agrarian Development in Wageningen University (The Netherlands), and is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. He lived in Nigeria during the Biafran rebellion and studied that conflict as part of his research in the western Niger Delta. He has undertaken fieldwork in various parts of Sierra Leone since 1977, including work in the Gola Forest on the Liberian border, and survived parts of the war with his family in the town of Bo. He published a book on the conflict in 1996 and has recently directed major studies on post-war social conditions in Liberia and Sierra Leone. He is a British citizen.  Back

121   Trevor Getz, Slavery and reform in West Africa: toward emancipation in nineteenth-century Senegal and Gold Coast. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. Back

122   Paul Richards, Khadija Bah & James Vincent, Social capital and survival: prospects for community-driven development in post-conflict Sierra Leone. Social Development Papers: Community Driven Development/Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, Paper No. 12, April 2004. (Washington DC, The World Bank, 2004), Paul Richards, Steven Archibald, Beverlee Bruce, Wata Modad, Edward Mulbah, Tornorlah Varpilah & James Vincent, Community cohesion in Liberia: a post-war rapid rural assessment. Social Development Papers: Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, Paper No. 21, January 2005. (The World Bank, Washington DC, 2005).  Back

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