The Sierra Leone Web


"Sierra Leone - A Crucible of Conflict Management"

Remarks by
The President of Sierra Leone
His Excellency, Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
at convocation bestowing on him
the degree of Doctor of Laws (Honoris causa)
Southern Connecticut State University
New Haven, Connecticut
Friday 21 September 2001


President Adanti
Members of the Board of Trustees of SCSU:
President of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New Haven
Faculty and staff of SCSU
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:

After the despicable acts of terror in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September the 11th 2001, that shocked America and the entire world, I sent a message to President Bush, expressing my shock at the cowardly attack. On behalf of the Government and people of Sierra Leone, and on my own personal behalf, I asked the President to convey our heartfelt sympathy to the Government and people of the United States. I also expressed our hope and prayer that God Almighty will give the injured speedy recovery, and the bereaved families succour and solace in this period of grief.

My presence in the United States at this particular time has turned out to be a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage to a nation in anguish. As I look around, I have a feeling that this Congregation represents a cross section of the people of the United States. So, let me thank the Board of Trustees of this university, and President Adanti, as well as the executive and members of the Amistad Committee, for giving me an opportunity, unwittingly, to be on American soil, and to extend, in person, my heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends of the thousands of victims of those dastardly acts, acts that should be condemned by all those who cherish the dignity of human life.

On a lighter note, this is also an opportunity for me to change, or attempt to change an old description of my country. Trust me, I have nothing against your neighbour, the State of Rhode Island, but it is about time writers stop saying that Sierra Leone is about the size of Rhode Island. Ladies and gentlemen, because of the close links between Freetown and New Haven, and between Connecticut and Sierra Leone, we need a more appropriate comparison. So, from now on, people should say that Sierra Leone is just a little smaller in size than the State of Connecticut.

Today, Southern Connecticut State University has brought Sierra Leone and the State of Connecticut much closer. I would like to thank the Board of Trustees for the honour that has just been bestowed on me. My thanks also go to you, President Adanti, for your generous words of introduction, and the glowing citation that preceded the conferment of the degree.

I am being recognized for leadership in the struggle for peace in Sierra Leone. However, without the resilience of the people of Sierra Leone, their determination to live, and their faith in democracy and the rule of law, it would certainly not have been possible for me to stand here as their leader. I therefore humbly accept this award, with gratitude, on their behalf. Their perseverance and indomitable spirit during a decade of unprecedented carnage, match the courageous stand of the legendary Sengbe Pieh, the hero of the Amistad revolt, and his compatriots. This award will certainly inspire us to continue our efforts to consolidate the peace through reconciliation, justice and national reconstruction.

Now, I would like to share with this Convocation some thoughts on a subject that we in Sierra Leone know a lot about -- armed conflict and the problems of managing and resolving it. The theme I have chosen is "Sierra Leone - a crucible of conflict management."

Reference has been made to our struggle for peace under difficult circumstances. That is true. However, our struggle was not merely aimed at preserving democracy, or the legitimacy of my government. It was not intended to merely crush a brutal rebellion. It was a struggle to live. Ours has been, first and foremost, a struggle to protect the fundamental right of every Sierra Leonean to life, the right to safety and security. This was absolutely necessary, especially when the other side launched a campaign of terror that they callously described as "Operation no living thing."

Ladies and gentlemen, you heard me say "the other side," and not "the enemy." I say the other side because the rebels were our own kith and kin. They perpetrated their mayhem in collusion with external elements in our neighbourhood and beyond. They were used as pliant tools to exploit the legitimate grievances within the State, grievances that are, in varying degrees, common to many countries in the world. They waged a brutal war against the people of Sierra Leone, including innocent children. Yet we did not regard them as enemies in the traditional sense.

All our actions, including those we undertook with the invaluable assistance of our regional organization, the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), and the international community, were in defence of our people and their right to live in safety and security. In the words of our Constitution, "the security, peace and welfare of the people of Sierra Leone shall be the primary responsibility of Government, and to this end, it shall be the duty of the Armed Forces, the Police, Public Officers and all security agents, to protect and safeguard the people of Sierra Leone." That is exactly what we tried to do. That is why groups of loyal citizens abandoned their respective occupations, as farmers, teachers and bread winners, to form a Civil Defence Force (CDF).

In my inaugural address as President, in March 1996, I spoke of the monumental tasks ahead of the nation. I said that our country stood virtually in ruins, with thousands, mostly civilians, slaughtered; tens of thousands displaced, traumatized and diminished in spirit and body. I described our struggle for peace in these words: "The restoration of the dignity and worth of every Sierra Leonean will be the guiding principle of my presidency." That pledge is as relevant today as it was when I inherited the rebel war in 1996.

For more than ten years now, the people of Sierra Leone have been faced with the problem of how to resolve not just an armed conflict, but one of the most brutal in the history of our Continent. Ours was not a civil war. It was not a war based on ideology, religion or ethnicity, nor was it a "class war." Some say it was nothing but a "diamond war." Others have dubbed it a war of proxy aimed at permanent rebel control of our rich diamond fields for the benefit of outsiders. No matter how one describes it, and whatever the objectives of those who waged it, the armed conflict in Sierra Leone, one of the least developed countries of the world, was too gruesome to comprehend. The question was, how does one resolve such a conflict?

Dear friends, in a world where the concept of war is assuming different connotations, and different manifestations; and in a world where non-state actors, including rebels without a legitimate cause, continue to pose formidable challenges and threats to the ability of governments to ensure the safety and security of their people, we in Sierra Leone have learned from experience, that there should always be room for dialogue. This has been our approach to the rebel war. This was why within months of my election in 1996, I signed a Peace Accord with the leader of the rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front, in Abidjan. This is why three years later, in 1999, notwithstanding the recalcitrance of the RUF, we took another bold and courageous step towards the restoration of the dignity and worth of my fellow Sierra Leoneans, by signing the Lomé Peace Agreement with the same rebel leader. We were guided by the belief that conflict resolution is often a long and complex process, and that until one can resolve it, one should at least try to manage or contain it.

My Government always made room for dialogue. In fact it was the other side, the rebels, that repeatedly reneged on their commitments to dialogue and a peaceful end to their war against the people of Sierra Leone. Long before friendly nations and organizations proposed the signing of cease-fire agreements, we had always offered such initiatives to the other side as a means of ensuring the unimpeded access to, and delivery of humanitarian assistance to innocent victims in areas of rebel concentration.

It should be emphasized here that the idea of dialogue as an instrument of conflict management, was not only our own credo, the international community repeatedly reminded us of the importance of dialogue. In other words, we were encouraged to do what we were already doing.

In a 1997 Presidential Statement, the Security Council gave us an assurance that in the absence of a satisfactory response from the rebel-military junta, the Council would be ready to take appropriate measures to restore the democratically elected government of President Kabbah. On the other hand, it also encouraged Foreign Ministers of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), "to negotiate with representatives of the junta, for a peaceful resolution of the crisis."

In January 1999 when over five hundred of our citizens were scorched, murdered, and many more brutalized, raped and mutilated by the rebels and their allies during their onslaught on the capital Freetown, the Security Council condemned the atrocities. But it went further to stress "the importance of dialogue and national reconciliation for the restoration of lasting peace and stability in Sierra Leone."

Of course, it could be argued that this is consistent with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. The Charter speaks of negotiations, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, and peaceful settlement of disputes, doesn't it?

Today, guided by our own national policy for conflict management, and our commitment to those principles of the United Nations Charter, I am happy to say that we have achieved considerable success in our struggle for peace. That success is not measured by the magnitude of the force that we were compelled to use in defence of our people against the dehumanizing actions of the rebels, but by the large number – thousands – of rebels who say they are now tired of fighting, who have walked into disarmament and demobilization centres to surrender their arms, and who have at last declared their readiness to be reintegrated into society as responsible citizens of their country.

The road we have pursued so far towards security and lasting peace in Sierra Leone, is to a large extent consistent with my own operational code of leadership, a code rooted in the principles of tolerance, dialogue, reconciliation and political inclusion. These are some of the pre-requites for peace and stability not only in Africa, but also in other regions of this dangerous world.

Of course, these prescriptions for peace and stability do not always seem to work, especially in complex circumstances. There are occasions when political tolerance is seen by others as a sign of weakness. Let me say that experience has taught us in Sierra Leone, and I believe in other parts of the world, that the opposite of political tolerance is not always the best prescription for peace and stability.

The rationale behind it is to facilitate consensus, especially at times of crises. In my view, consensus does not rule out dissent. It does not connote total subservience of the minority to the tyranny of the majority. Indeed, it is not a means of securing blind allegiance by the weak to the whims of the powerful, or vice versa. Political tolerance, as I see it, is an instrument of conflict management. It is a process that encourages the pros and the cons, while maintaining their ideological and other identities, to coalesce for the common good. It removes the barriers that impede the search for peace and security for victims of violence. In short, it promotes understanding within states, and among peoples.

We need to remind ourselves, this time and every time, that the United Nations Charter, which all its members, both militarily strong and weak, are obligated to respect, says, and I quote part of its Preamble: "We the peoples.. determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind…and to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.."

President Adanti, you had suggested that my message about our struggle for peace, human rights and democracy in Sierra Leone, would be inspirational for the students and faculty of this university, as well as for members of the New Haven community. I hope I have not failed you in that regard. I can assure you that we Sierra Leoneans, for our part, have been inspired by the efforts of the Amistad Committee, as you eloquently put it Mr. President, to bring the account of the Amistad captives and their struggle for justice, to the forefront of public consciousness in this country. We acknowledge with appreciation the strong support that this university continues to give to the Committee.

The honour that Southern has graciously bestowed on me is also a tribute to the great job that the Committee is doing. This ceremony evokes some of the highest ideals to which mankind can aspire, and which the activities of the Amistad Committee represent – courage, freedom, racial equality and justice.

I would also like to pay tribute to the American benefactors who, following the Amistad Revolt and the repatriation of the captives to Sierra Leone, planted seeds of Sierra Leone-American friendship through religious and educational cooperation. In this regard, I would like to mention that many of our leaders, including our first Prime Minister, Sir Milton Margai, the celebrated educationist, Doyle Sumner, Dr. John Karefa-Smart, of the largest minority Party in Parliament, and former female Members of Parliament, Paramount Chiefs Ella Koblo-Gulama and Honoria Bailor-Caulker, were all products of American mission schools.

Today, it is my fervent hope that the granting of an honorary degree by Southern Connecticut State University to the Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone will mark the beginning of a new relationship in the field of education between our two institutions. I am aware of the constraints that universities encounter in their efforts to respond to the growing needs of society, for instance, through the establishment of new academic programmes.

You may be interested to know that Fourah Bay College, one of the constituent colleges of the University of Sierra Leone, was founded 173 (one hundred and seventy-three) years ago, and became the first institution of higher education in Africa south of the Sahara. This is how Sierra Leone earned the accolade of "The Athens of West Africa."

I am told that Southern has a tradition of excellence in the training of teachers and educational administrators. You may also be interested to know about Milton Margai Teachers College, another constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone, reconstituted about thirty-eight years ago, has played a pioneering role in the training of primary and junior secondary school teachers in the country. It has grown from a certificate/diploma-granting college, to a full Bachelor in Education degree-granting institution. We could perhaps look into the possibility of developing cooperative projects involving the two institutions in the area of educational administration.

Alternatively, consideration could be given to the establishment of a small institute or programme of Sierra Leonean Studies here at Southern, with emphasis on subjects such as peace, conflict resolution and, in the Amistad spirit, human rights or justice.

President Adanti, Ladies and Gentlemen, Connecticut and Sierra Leone are thousands of miles apart, but we are neighbours. May the pursuit of dialogue, reconciliation, peace and justice continue to be the guiding principles of our future relationships as good neighbours in this small world.

I thank you.