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Examining Religious Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone

Examining Religious Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone

Photo credit: World Humanitarian Summit

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Hurd, H. A. (2016). The Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone as peace facilitator in post-1991 Sierra Leone. Peace & Change, 41(4), 425-451.

Talking Points

  • Religious actors can draw on their respected positions in society and assert their neutrality in order to build personal relationships with and influence multiple conflict parties during war and during peace negotiations.
  • Religious actors can also mobilize tools/resources particular to their religious traditions—prayer, sacred texts, religious values, etc.—to persuade conflict parties and the broader public to abstain from violence and/or to participate in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts.


While recent research has highlighted the special value of ‘religious peacebuilding’ to broader peacebuilding processes, the author identifies a need for further case studies examining the role of religious peacebuilding in particular contexts. Therefore, in her article on Sierra Leone, the author asks how religious actors—particularly the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL), founded in 1997 as an umbrella organization of Muslim and Christian groups around the country—contributed to conflict transformation during and after the country’s civil war (1991-2002). To what extent did religion provide distinctive resources for this conflict transformation work?

Drawing on interviews with members of the IRCSL, ex-combatants, and other relevant actors in Sierra Leone, as well as key statements, reports, and other documents, the author argues that the IRCSL had a “significant,” if “uneven,” effect on conflict transformation in Sierra Leone. Dividing her analysis of the IRCSL’s work into three phases—1) conflict management (violence prevention/containment), 2) conflict resolution, and 3) structural reform and reconciliation—she finds that its influence during Phase One was mixed: Through their perceived neutrality and “prominent stature as religious leaders,” IRCSL members were able to establish contact with and partially influence key conflict parties but failed to persuade junta leader Koroma to step down and comply with the most recent peace agreement. Following a military intervention and President Kabbah’s resumption of power, the IRCSL maintained contact with rebels and government officials, gaining a reputation for neutrality in the conflict—condemning violence but not endorsing any particular political party or outcome. Although the wisdom of the IRCSL’s neutrality was sometimes questioned—in light of rebel atrocities—its concern for all parties was instrumental to its ability to gain the trust of those on all sides of the conflict.

While this trust and respect did not translate into success during Phase One, the IRCSL played a significant role in facilitating the peacemaking process during Phase Two—namely, the negotiation of the Lomé Peace Accord—mostly by convincing the parties to come to and then stay at the negotiating table. Reportedly, it was after direct discussions with members of the IRCSL that Sankoh (the rebel leader) agreed first to a ceasefire and then Examining Religious Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone religious peacebuilding Sierra Leone Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone civil war to negotiations. During this time, the ICRSL also engaged—successfully— with rebels to protect civilians, entreating them to stop highway attacks and to release a group of abducted children. Its influence stemmed from a combination of incentive (the offer of humanitarian assistance) and moral suasion, due to the respect that Sierra Leoneans generally had for religious leaders. Once the Lomé talks began, the ICRSL’s presence was critical to their success, not least of which because Sankoh himself would refuse to negotiate unless ICRSL members were present. During particularly difficult moments, ICRSL members would urge parties to stay with the negotiation process, sometimes even “preaching and praying” to do so. Once the Accord was signed, IRCSL members publicized its contents, built support for it, and called for reconciliation, often employing religious language to do so, as in one statement where it asked Sierra Leoneans “of goodwill to open their hearts to the possibilities of authentic repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation based on the mercy of God.” The IRCSL’s founder was also named head commissioner of Sierra Leone’s newly formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In short, the IRCSL’s role as a respected, neutral third party—closely connected to the legitimacy accorded to religious leaders in Sierra Leone—enabled it to gain access to and successfully influence parties before, during, and after the negotiation process.

The ICRSL’s role during Phase Three, however, was decidedly less impressive. Although the ICRSL took an active role in the TRC—on both national and district levels—the TRC ended up not being as successful as was hoped; fewer perpetrators participated than anticipated, and the government seemed uninterested in implementing its recommendations. Furthermore, the IRCSL simply was not as active or visible in peacebuilding efforts during this phase, due, allegedly, to both its politicization and its meager finances. In addition, the ICRSL was largely eclipsed by another organization—Fambul Tok—that tried to make reconciliation efforts more sensitive to local cultural contexts. Despite Fambul Tok’s comparative success in engaging the population, many IRCSL members could not fathom supporting its work due to its use of local (pre-Christian/Muslim) traditions antithetical to their religious beliefs.

The author concludes, therefore, that the IRCSL “made a significant contribution to ending the war in Sierra Leone,” even if this contribution was uneven over the three phases. IRCSL members were able to do this both by drawing on their respected positions in society as religious leaders and by mobilizing tools/resources particular to their religious traditions—prayer, sacred texts, religious values, etc.—to persuade conflict parties and the broader public to abstain from violence and/or participate in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts.

Conflict transformation: “a complex process of constructively changing relationships, attitudes, behaviors, interests and discourses in violence-prone conflict settings… [and] address[ing] underlying structures, cultures and institutions that encourage and condition violent political and social conflict.” (Berghof Foundation, 2012).

Religious peacebuilding: “Peacebuilding 1) motivated and strengthened by religious and spiritual resources, and 2) with access to religious communities and institutions.” (Dubois, 2008)

Truth (and reconciliation) commissions: “official, nonjudicial bodies of a limited duration established to determine the facts, causes, and consequences of past human rights violations. By giving special attention to testimonies, they provide victims with recognition…” (González & Varney, ICTJ, 2013).

Contemporary Relevance

While the most common depiction of religion and conflict in the news today has to do with the violence enacted by extremists in the name of religion, it is especially pertinent to recall the resources present in religious symbolism and experience for instead bringing out the best in humanity and for forging connections between different groups. Although one important aspect of religious peacebuilding is the willingness to identify common values between disparate belief systems, and hence build bridges between faith traditions and communities, this is not the only way in which religious leaders can contribute to peace. As in the Sierra Leonean case examined here, although the IRCSL incorporated both Muslim and Christian leaders, peacebuilding success came not so much from nurturing interfaith understanding but by leveraging the respected position of religious leaders, as well as religious vocabulary, symbolism, and practice, to put moral pressure on conflict parties to act in ways that aligned with their professed religious ideals.

Practical Implications

Although the findings of this research are specific to the Sierra Leonean context, its insights can still inform thinking on how to approach peacebuilding in other contexts. One insight that is implicit in the research findings, and relevant to a range of actors, is that treating combatants as full, complex human beings with spiritual lives, who come from particular religious traditions and are capable of moral reflection, can be strategically useful in establishing relationships with them and influencing them away from violence and towards peacemaking and peacebuilding efforts. Rather than assuming that combatants—and the communities in which they are embedded—operate only via reason and/or rational cost/benefit analysis, peacebuilders would do well to reflect further on the more textured ways in which relevant actors/communities understand the world and are motivated to act, particularly with reference to intensely felt religious conviction and ritual; engaging with them on this level can beckon actors to fulfill the promises of their better selves. Furthermore, religious peacebuilders, in particular, should not shy away from using their special position in society to influence actors in a way that moves the conflict onto a more constructive course. In doing so, however, religious peacebuilders should be mindful of the boundaries they might inadvertently set around their interfaith work and whether placing limits on it (as the IRCSL did with reference to Fambul Tok’s engagement with traditional beliefs and rituals) might circumscribe the reach of their peacebuilding work.

Continued Reading

Peacemakers in Action: Profiles in Religious Peacebuilding, vol. II. By Joyce Dubensky, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Religion and Peacebuilding. By Heather Dubois. Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace 1, no. 2 (2008).

Keywords: civil war, Inter-religious Council of Sierra Leone, religious peacebuilding, Sierra Leone

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 1, of the Peace Science Digest.


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