Written by: Patrick van Wersch
DAVAO CITY (July 24, 2019) - In a Public Dialogue entitled ‘Peace Work in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone,’ hosted jointly by the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute (MPI) and the Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia of the Ateneo de Davao University, MPI alumnus Shecku Kawusu Mansaray shared his insights working as an adult educator and peacebuilder in Sierra Leone. The participants, including representatives from Mindanao-based civil society organizations (CSOs) and Ateneo de Davao University faculty members, were challenged to reflect on Mansaray’s lessons learned and encouraged to draw and discuss comparisons between the peace and conflict dynamics in Sierra Leone and Mindanao.
In her opening remarks MPI director Christine Vertucci highlighted that Mansaray is the first MPI alumnus from Africa to visit the Philippines. Vertucci expressed hope that the dialogue will be the start of an informal program of exchange between alumni and the people in Mindanao. “The experiences of people in Mindanao are extraordinary,” she said. “The learning can be great.”
Al Qalam executive director Datu Mussolini Lidasan underscored the common ground between Sierra Leone and the Philippines, remarking that both countries seek peace and prosperity for its people. He also updated the audience on recent developments regarding the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and the work of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) of which Lidasan is a member.
To introduce the main speaker, MPI’s Marlies Roth, who worked with Mansaray for 17 years, heralded his versatility as a teacher, who became engaged in interreligious community development, peace activism, and was at the forefront of the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone in 2014. Roth also acknowledged the presence of Mansaray’s wife who had traveled with him to Davao City.
Slow and bumpy
After the opening remarks, Mansaray took the floor with a twenty-minute presentation outlining his post-conflict peace work following the end of the Sierra Leone civil war in 2002.
The war destroyed the educational system and displaced millions of people. After 11 years of civil war, Sierra Leone had become one of the hungriest countries in the world. “Since 2002, we have been struggling with resettling ourselves as a peaceful nation, rebuilding our democratic credentials, and reestablishing rule of law,” Mansaray said. “The road to peace has been painstakingly slow and bumpy.”
Mansaray admitted analysts were skeptical of the peace accord given the degree to which human dignity, state institutions and structures had been destroyed during the war.
“There was no neutrality. Peace enforcers included regional forces who had been involved in killing, and the transition from enforcing to keeping peace was far from straightforward.”
Pillars of peace
To successfully implement the government’s ‘Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration’ (DDR) program, Mansaray knew that the effects of the war had to be dealt with on different levels. That’s why with the Sierra Leone Adult Education Association (SLADEA) he initiated peace consolidation programs in collaboration with the country’s Inter-Religious Council, reaching out to the non-literate youth and adult population with creative community-based conflict sensitive development programs. The peacebuilder also contributed to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in helping to establish a national dialogue on peace.
Although progress has been slow, Mansaray has seen formal and informal pillars of peace emerge in the two decades since the civil war ended. From once being one of the least peaceful nations in the world, in 2019 the Global Peace Index ranked Sierra Leone the 6th most peaceful nation in sub-Saharan Africa and the 52nd most peaceful worldwide (the Philippines is 134th overall).
“We’ve had three election cycles with peaceful transfer of power between rival parties. Companies have become more comfortable doing business in Sierra Leone, and the infamous diamond industry is now a lot harder to manipulate. Much still needs to improve but we’ve come a long way.”
More just society
One audience member recounted meeting Mansaray during the MPI training in 2011 and visiting Sierra Leone the following year. She was impressed with hearing kids sing songs about their history, expressing the hope that kids in the Philippines will one day do the same – and that Mindanao history will be acknowledging them as well.
Picking up on the issue of teaching in relation to transitional justice, one participant sought an answer to the question how education fits in when it comes to truth and reconciliation in the context of Mindanao. Mansaray shared he achieved particular success in including peace education on an informal level, in the non-formal education curriculum and that it is key to create a culture of peace among young people.
As a follow-up to the point on education, an audience member pointed out what makes the Mindanao context different from Sierra Leone. The latter has no minority groups, no wars for autonomy, and no deep-seated religious intolerance. The participant went on to say that the Philippines didn’t manage to gradually implement institutional reforms that prevent violence to reoccur. The transitional justice processes happened but failed, he said, adding, “We don’t yet have restorative justice in the Philippines because the war is still ongoing.”
To this point Mansaray put forward that the reforms and checks and balances in his country didn’t happen overnight. He mentioned political party reform and financial audits of public institutions as effective steps towards achieving a more just society.
Keep feelers out
Another participant inquired about the religious tolerance Sierra Leone is known for, contrasting it with the divide along religious lines in Mindanao. Mansaray affirmed that his country is blessed with religious versatility. “Muslims and Christians commonly pray together and offer support and gifts to each other during important religious holidays. The peace process started with people praying together. The Inter-Religious Council was accepted as a moral authority which allowed us to do good work.”
Another topic that came up was about documentation, with one attendee saying that in Mindanao not all groups are satisfied with the process. The Sierra Leonean’s advice was to engage in evidence-based advocacy and to thoroughly research the evidence. “This will give you a better chance to be heard,” he said, “especially because CSOs are often accused of being biased.”
Mansaray added that it’s good to focus on causes of conflict for documentation purposes, but that it’s important to remain forward looking to keep the peace process on track. “We have to keep abreast with indicators of peace in our communities. Victims and perpetrators might become restless. We have to keep the feelers out and look for warning signs.”
The Public Dialogue is part of the ambition of MPI and Al Qalam to foster south-to-south understanding and friendship between peacebuilders in the Philippines and elsewhere. By providing an opportunity for mutual learning and sharing among the people of Mindanao and other places in the world, MPI and Al Qalam hope to strengthen the network of peacebuilders globally.