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"Faith Unlimited"

Keynote address by the President of Sierra Leone
H.E. Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
to the plenary of the VIIth World Assembly of the
World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP)

Amman, Jordan, 28 November 1999


Your Royal Highness and Chair of this Assembly,
Distinguished Delegates,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am still wondering why I have been accorded the privilege of serving as the keynote speaker in the opening session of this august gathering. I remember speaking, a few years ago, at the inaugural meeting of the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone, which is now a national chapter of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). That certainly does not qualify me to address you today. However, I am honoured to be part of this World Assembly of religious leaders from such a wide range of the world's major religions, as well as representatives of intergovernmental, non-governmental and civil institutions.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Governing Board of the WCRP for giving me this opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on the long and painful search for peace in our stricken but healing nation of Sierra Leone. Let me also convey through you, your Royal Highness, my deep appreciation to His Majesty King Abdullah, for the warm welcome I received on my arrival in Jordan, this great kingdom which has made an exemplary contribution to the cause of peace in the Middle East.

Your Royal Highness and Chair of this Assembly, when I took the oath of office as President of Sierra Leone in 1996, I pledged in the name of God, Allah, to preserve, maintain and defend the Constitution of the Republic. I also made a solemn pledge to "do right to all manner of people according to law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will." It was a public oath already written and annexed to the Constitution. But for me it was a personal affirmation of my faith in the power of Divine guidance in performing my duties as leader of my country. It was also an affirmation, based on my own philosophy of life that in the pursuit of my goals and objectives I would try, as far as possible, to live at peace with every one who crosses my path. I was, and I am still determined to do whatever it takes to be an instrument of peace among all Sierra Leoneans, irrespective of tribal, sectional, religious or other differences.

At that particular point in time, we found ourselves at the threshold of a national transformation, from military rule to multi-party democracy; from war to peace; and from an urge for retribution to a process of reconciliation.

Now, almost three years later, it is relevant to ask, how far are we from that threshold.

I have chosen "Faith Unlimited" as the theme of my remarks this evening, because never before in the history of our country has the faith of our people been so aggressively tested and challenged as during the almost nine years of a bloody rebel war; a conflict which has been characterized as one of the most brutal in the modern world.

From a spiritual or religious perspective, faith has always been a guiding light of man's search for inner peace, or what some may describe as peace of mind. Faith, from a secular perspective is also the cornerstone of peace-making, peace-building and peacekeeping within and among nations and peoples. After all our trials and tribulations, there should be no doubt in anyone's mind that Sierra Leone has survived as a nation through faith, both spiritual and temporal.

In 1996 the people of Sierra Leone took an historic decision at a National Consultative Conference, through their representatives from some sixty-nine religious, civic, and other organizations, including the Muslim Congress, the Council of Churches, the Teachers and Motor Drivers Unions, Farmers and Petty Traders Associations, as well as groups from refugee and internally displaced camps. The rebel movement which was engaged in a ruthless war against the people of Sierra Leone declined the invitation to participate in the conference. But its views on the process, and its message to the delegates, were read out by the Chairman of the Conference.

In pursuit of their inalienable right to take part in the government of their country, and demonstrating their faith in the principles of democratic governance, the people, through their representatives to the Consultative Conference decided overwhelmingly, to go to the polls and freely choose their leaders. It was not a religious affair, but the entire conference was energized when one of the speakers told the delegates that "we all, Muslims and Christians, should put our trust in God, and sing: "Have faith in God, Have faith in God. Wonderful things will happen to you if you have faith in God".

Your Royal Highness and Chair of this Assembly, I recall with pride that no one was offended by that interjection of religious sentiments into a national civic gathering. The applause that followed signified the role which religion has played and continues to play in our country. Yes, we have gold and diamonds. But we are equally proud to let the rest of the world know that we also have another precious national resource, namely, religious tolerance.

There is no religious persecution, no segregation based on religion, and no privileges for any religious group or sect. The concept of a dominant religion and all its attendant implications is irrelevant in Sierra Leone society.

The Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL), has become, for example, a symbol of the harmonious relationship between Sierra Leoneans of all faiths. This coalition of the various religious communities in the country has emerged as a credible and respected facilitator of the peace process. And here I would like to pay tribute to the IRCSL, and its international partner, the WCRP, for the important role which the IRCSL played in promoting dialogue among the parties to the conflict, before the peace talks, and for being an active observer of the talks leading to the signing of the Lome Peace Agreement. I understand that members of the IRCSL delegation to the peace talks in Lome, Christians and Muslims, led prayers before and at the end of every plenary meeting. When the IRCSL left Lome for a short while, members of the Government and rebel delegations took turns to pray at the beginning and end of plenary meetings.

Your Royal Highness and Chair of this Assembly, the road to Lome was long and rugged. In the 1996 democratic elections I received a mandate from the people to engage in serious dialogue with the rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). My government did so in good faith. The result was the 1996 Peace Agreement signed in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. We must not forget that that Agreement contained two major ingredients for national reconciliation; namely, the granting of amnesty to members of the RUF, in respect of acts done by them in pursuit of their objectives up to the time of the signing of the Agreement; and an opportunity for the RUF to transform itself into a political party. That was not to happen. The conflict took a turn for the worst, resulting in more gruesome atrocities committed against innocent civilians, including young children.

Once again, our faith in the principle of democracy, and our faith in the Almighty God, Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, to bring peace to the country, came under considerable stress. First, when the RUF reneged on the Abidjan Agreement and resumed fighting, and later, in May 1997, when some unpatriotic elements of the Sierra Leone armed forces overthrew the democratically-elected Government and invited the rebels to join them in a ruling junta. The coalition was made ostensibly in the name of peace. However, the people, made it abundantly clear that that was not the kind of peace they wanted.

Those events and the ensuing terror, which engulfed the nation, were enough to break the resilience of our people. They were such that one was inclined to lose faith in the omnipotence of the Creator to save the nation. The situation was even more difficult to comprehend when the leadership of the junta, as part of its strategy for legitimacy, penitently asked for forgiveness. We learned that rebels were seen in mosques, churches and other public places asking forgiveness, in the name of God; yes, the same God, the same Allah to whom the victims of the atrocities had been crying all along for help.

Despite the agony which the nation experienced over a period of eight months, as a result of the coup and its aftermath, help did come. ECOMOG, the peace monitoring group of the Economic Community of West African States, led by Nigeria, together with our Civil Defence Forces and some loyalists of the Sierra Leone army, created the conditions for the restoration of constitutional order. Once again we had to deal with the imperatives of DDR --disarmament, demobilization, re-integration of combatants. The launching of the DDR programme at the end of August 1998 was itself an assurance that we were well on our way to durable peace. Once again, we began to tackle the problems of rehabilitation, reconstruction and the resuscitation of our battered economy. Yes, once again, the issues of peace, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation loomed high on the national agenda.

However, the other side had its own agenda. The spirit of contrition which it peddled in its pursuit of legitimacy, soon faded away. It was replaced by further atrocities, culminating in the vicious attack on our capital, Freetown and its eastern environs in January this year. Unfortunately, the gravity of that situation, in human terms, was to be measured and assessed, post facto, by a yardstick called Kosovo.

In the midst of the tragedy of January 1999, when our faith was being tested once again, I am sure that many religious people in Sierra Leone must have cried: "Oh God, oh God, why have you forsaken us?" But, as I told the audience at a recent religious gathering in Freetown, we have been bruised and hurt, but we should be thankful that Sierra Leone as a nation still exists.

Your Royal Highness and Chair of this Assembly, my Government supported every communique and every resolution adopted within the West African sub-regional organization and the United Nations, aimed at achieving durable peace in Sierra Leone. Equipped with the mandate of the people, I personally engaged in a series of dialogue with our adversaries, and with many of their staunch supporters to seek a peaceful end to the conflict. At the same time, and in the light of the continued vicious attacks by the rebels and their allies, we had to take appropriate action for the security and safety of our people.

As you know, last July, after several weeks of talks under the auspices of our sub-regional organisation the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) signed a comprehensive Peace Agreement in Lome, Togo. It took extraordinary courage on our part, to finalise the dialogue in that form with those who had pledged to assume power, or else. It took even greater extraordinary courage to renew the 1996 decision to grant the rebels amnesty, as well as another opportunity to transform their movement into a political party. I must confess that it was painful, very painful to go beyond that and agree to include some of their representatives in the cabinet and other decision-making bodies of the executive. I have no doubt that delegates to this Assembly will understand why we had to go that far. Only history will tell whether ours was the right decision.

Your Royal Highness and Chair of this Assembly, I believe that one of the greatest challenges we face today in Sierra Leone, and in many other parts of the world, is in the area of conflict prevention and management. There will always be conflict, even in politically stable and economically developed societies. There will always be legitimate grievances, personal and sectional grievances, and even selfish grievances based on greed and lust for political power. The question is how, by what means, and how far should one go to articulate such grievances? By unleashing deadly force and committing inhuman atrocities such as mutilation of innocent civilians including young children? By using the country's precious mineral resources to acquire arms illegally to seize power or failing that, the total destruction of every living thing in the nation?

And here it is more relevant to ask: how do we deal with those who exploit the legitimate grievances of people, including the youth, in pursuit of their own personal agenda for seizing power?

Of course we must have mechanisms for addressing grievances. We must have institutions to which those with grievances can seek redress. However, as we have seen in many developed Western societies, these secular institutions by themselves are inadequate for the successful management of civil, rebel, racial, ethnic and other types of intra-state conflicts. This is where, in my view, religion can play a catalytic role, by devising concrete measures, especially at the community level, to supplement existing secular mechanisms for conflict management. The scope for such initiatives is much greater in countries like my own where Christianity, Islam and indigenous or traditional beliefs co-exist harmoniously.

This Assembly may therefore wish to consider, on the basis of the direct relationship between religion and peace, how to assist in building and sustaining both secular and religious mechanisms and institutions for conflict prevention, conflict management and conflict resolution, in that order. I need not emphasise that this is consistent with the rationale for establishing a conference on religion and peace. It is, I may venture to say, part of your sacred duty.

The process of national reconciliation in Sierra Leone has become more difficult, especially following the events of January 1999. Perhaps using the case of Sierra Leone as an example, you may also wish to throw some light on issues of peace, justice, and forgiveness. Is it possible to achieve peace and reconciliation with or without justice? Does justice imply some form of punishment? Is the concept of retributive justice applicable to Sierra Leone? Is justice really served, and are the victims healed by merely listening to perpetrators tell a commission the truth about what happened? And does the onus for seeking reconciliation rest on the victims or the perpetrators? What does the healing power of forgiveness, for the sake of peace, mean to a five-year-old amputee who was not responsible, directly or indirectly, for the so-called socio-economic roots of the conflict?

These are all relevant questions whose answers should help our people cope with the difficult but necessary process of national reconciliation.

I have no doubt that in your wisdom, and by the grace of God, by the grace of Allah, your deliberations will be crowned with success. That the people of Sierra Leone and other conflict areas of the world would benefit immensely from the cooperative conflict prevention and management, peacemaking and peace-building initiatives of the world's religious communities which you represent.

Once again I thank you for the privilege and honour of addressing this Assembly.