- Timap can bite!
- Land Rights in Kanyia
- An Abandoned Woman, Accused of Witchcraft
- Paramount Chief’s Interference in Customary Legal System
- Police Brutality Against a Civilian
- Community Meeting Resolves an Educational Crisis
- Supporting the Local Courts
At the mediation, the husband explained his side of the story, which was consistent with our client’s, but insisted that it was his right to take the money because she was his wife. After the paralegal explained the law and the wife’s right to acquire and maintain property separate and distinct from him, the husband promised to make multiple payments of the remainder of the money within two months. Our client agreed and a settlement was reached. However, when Timap paralegals followed up to monitor the agreement, the husband had not paid anything to the client. The paralegals educated the client on how to file a civil summons at the Magburaka Magistrate Court and accompanied her while she completed the process.
When the hearing date arrived, the Magistrate adjourned the matter. Timap paralegals met with the Magistrate and advocated for the rehearing to be scheduled sooner. The Magistrate agreed and set it for the next week. When the matter was called again, the Magistrate ruled in favor of our client. Her husband promised in court to pay the remainder of the money within two weeks and delivered it promptly. The ecstatic client told us that she will always tell people that Timap can bite!
During this process, she was supported by other women within the thrift and credit scheme. The chairlady of the scheme, who has always been in court and who testified on behalf of our client, remarked that this case has fostered solidarity among women in the community. Our client continues to live in Yele with her daughter, who has fully recovered from the operation.
From Kent, A. “Custody, Maintenance and Succession: The Internalization of Women’s and Children’s Rights Under Customary Law in Africa,” Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 28, Issue 2 (Winter 2007), pp. 507-538.
Aruna looked so small and thin that I guessed he was eight years old. His mother, Hawa, whose T-shirt was pulled down to nurse a baby covered in boils, corrected my unspoken guess by informing us that Aruna was thirteen. Hawa explained that after neglecting Aruna his entire life by refusing to provide any resources for his sustenance, the boy’s natural father and her first husband, John, was demanding his return.
Hawa did not want to let her son go easily; she preferred that Aruna remain with her or go to Freetown, the capital, to learn carpentry from her brother. She explained that during the war, when Aruna was just a toddler, they were destitute, hiding in the bush to escape the rebels. She pleaded with John for some money or food for their son, but he refused. Recently, though, he had expressed an interest in the boy.
A year before, when Hawa gave in to her ex-husband’s demand for Aruna, John treated him so badly that Aruna kept running home to Hawa. John sent Aruna into the fields to chase birds off the rice rather than letting him continue in school, and John did not feed or clothe Aruna properly. Aruna was silent as Hawa spoke agitatedly, and Hawa’s elderly father corroborated his daughter’s tale. We were told that Hawa’s current husband treated Aruna well.
In accordance with our dispute resolution strategy of mediation, we then heard from John, who spoke loudly and emphatically. He stated that he was the father and the boy belonged with him. Whatever he wanted to do with Aruna was his choice. In fact, this was generally true: under customary law in rural Sierra Leone, when parents separate, the young children are usually allowed to stay with their mother until school-age, or about seven, but they are then turned over to the father and his family. If the father asserts his parental rights, however, he is often awarded custody of the children regardless of their age by the local chief who adjudicates the dispute.
With John in our office for the second mediation on this case, we called in reinforcements. For the Mende people in Sierra Leone, a sababu, or “matchmaker,” often arranges marriages and under customary law has ongoing responsibilities to the couple, their respective families, and any offspring, even after a separation. The sababu for Hawa and John’s union had agreed to be present but instead sent a representative, who listened briefly and then declared that the boy needed to be returned to his father’s custody. Aruna was no longer a young child. Such was the tradition.
Hawa, the paralegals, and I were dissatisfied with this solution; it did not result from a mediation in which both sides were fully heard. The paralegals and Hawa felt the sababu himself needed to become involved in a just solution in this case. After further communication, the sababu arrived and listened carefully to both sides. He asked Hawa what support John had provided to the child, what was Aruna’s condition, and what had happened when John had previously had custody of Aruna. He also permitted John to ask his son questions. I listened anxiously to the translations, and my head swung quickly when I heard the sababu say the phrase “human rights.” He said, “we have human rights in this country now; we need to ask the boy what he wants.” He then asked Aruna whether he was happy at home, whether John treated him well, why he ran away repeatedly when in his father’s custody, and whether Aruna wanted to stay with his maternal uncle in Freetown to learn carpentry.
Aruna’s answers were brief but certain: his natural father treated him badly, and he wanted to go to Freetown. The sababu, in consultation with the paralegals, declared that in this case, the proper solution would take into account Aruna’s own wishes and what was best for him. John had not cared for Aruna during the war years and now seemed to want him only because he was old enough to work in the fields. Therefore, John should not have custody of the boy. Instead, Aruna was sent to live with his uncle, as the mother’s family wished.
From Koroma, S. 2008 “Paralegals and Community Oversight Board in Sierra Leone,” in Cotula, L. and Mathieu, P. (eds) Legal Empowerment in Practice, FAO and IIED.
Kaniya Village in northern Sierra Leone is a worried community. Half of its youth are either in police custody or in hiding. The reason? A police crackdown following a report of arson made by a group of cattle herders. Until very recently (nine years ago, to be exact), the inhabitants of this small village community were predominantly small-scale farmers whose main crops were swamp rice, cassava, palm oil and vegetables. But then a group of cattle herders came along and the village authorities (chiefs) allocated a vast area for them to settle. The herd flourished and grew so that the land originally given to them was insufficient. Then they started encroaching on adjacent and neighbouring lands, relying on the “permission” from the chiefs instead of that of the farm (land) owners. The landowners made several complaints to the chiefs and the local police, but these fell on deaf ears: according to the landowners, the herders had “bribed” the chiefs and the police. Out of desperation at the authorities’ inaction, and after losing their entire season’s harvest to the invading cattle, these farmers decided to take the law into their own hands and burned down the herders’ stalls. Those arrested in the crackdown must now pay the police a hefty sum to secure bail, even though according to the law, bail is free.
In what ways can these simple villagers assert their rights and make their authorities accountable? Or, to put it differently, what initiatives will deliver a fair solution and legal empowerment in each case, considering the power imbalances in rural Sierra Leone?
In an outreach session held in the immediate aftermath of the incident, our paralegals spoke with residents, most of whom had relatives in police detention. The paralegals, with support from COB members, then conducted further investigations and interviewed the local chiefs, herdsmen, landowners and police. Each of these groups was looking for a solution outside what was on offer: criminal prosecution that would result in further bad blood in the community. Arson is a serious offence in Sierra Leone: it is governed by the Malicious Damage Act of 1861 and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Interestingly, although the herdsmen were distraught, they were looking for more peaceful coexistence with their hosts and neighbours. A criminal case would, if anything, exacerbate the situation and make their long-term stay untenable.
For their part, the landowners (farmers) acknowledged that they might have over-reacted, but insisted that they were being punished now because they were poor. Police action would almost certainly breed further animosity and undermine the prospects for lasting peace in the community; and if the accusation of bribery were true, the farmers should be prepared for a rough ride.
The paralegals succeeded in fixing a date for the dialogue meeting. In circumstances where it may be difficult to agree on the topic of a meeting, paralegals suggest a neutral subject and hope that the intended topic is brought to the fore through their moderation. In this case, all parties, including the police and the traditional authorities, were willing to discuss the recent events. But to reach this point, the paralegals needed to win the hearts of the parties themselves. The farmers wanted the people who had been arrested but had played no part in the incident to be released.
Although this was tricky, it was technically not difficult to achieve as most of those arrested had already exceeded the constitutional limit for detention, so it was easy to secure their release on police bail.
The meeting itself had a very conciliatory tone to it. Among those invited were the commanding officer of the local police station, the chiefs, local government officials and the head of the landowners’ committee. The beauty of this tool is that it gets answers to the questions posed by ordinary people – like Pa Alpha, whose son had just been released. There was general consternation when he asked what the bail would cost, but the police officer had to tell the truth because the paralegals were there. There was murmuring all over the place when he answered that bail was free, and the embarrassed police chief then asked community members to report to him, Timap paralegals or their local chiefs if they were asked to pay anything at the police station, or if anyone was detained beyond the constitutional limits. This was greeted with a round of applause from community members. The rest of the meeting followed this pattern, and at the end the opposing parties agreed to build a fence to prevent the cattle from escaping, with the herders providing the resources and the landowners the manpower.
In the minutes of the follow-up meeting held a month later, the paralegals stated that community members had reported four incidents where they had been asked to pay money (including withdrawing cases from court).
Education, legal representation and other legal empowerment tools might not have achieved similar results. The impact of community dialogue transcends cosmetic solutions, building a forum where people can be both enlightened and encouraged to demand their rights, and leaders have an opportunity to meet their constituents.
From Maru, V. 2006. “Between Law and Society: Paralegals and the Provision of Justice Services in Sierra Leone and Worldwide,” 31 YALE J. INT’L L. 427.
“Macie B.” is a twenty-six year-old woman from Guala Village, Bumpeh-Gao Chiefdom, in the south of Sierra Leone. When I met her in April 2005, she was taciturn and in the seventh month of her fourth pregnancy. Her first and second children both died at around one year of age. When her third child also became sick during his second year, her husband and her husband’s family brought her to visit a diviner. The diviner declared that he believed Macie B. had something in her mind and that a confession from her could save the child’s life. During a ceremony with intense questioning, Macie B. confessed to being a witch. She explained that in a dream she had made an agreement with a coven of witches that each would offer a close relative to be sacrificed. She said she had given her first two children to this circle of witches in a dream before their deaths and that she had recently given her third child to the same witches in a dream as well.
On hearing this, Macie B.’s husband and her husband’s family wanted nothing to do with her. They refused to spend more money on her or the child’s healthcare, and they sent her to live with her parents. Within a few weeks, the third child also died. The husband and his family claimed that this third death proved the veracity of Macie B.’s confession. By this point, Macie B. was already pregnant for the fourth time. Her own family viewed her with suspicion and was reluctant to take her in. In April 2005, at seven months pregnant,
she had not yet visited a clinic for an ante-natal appointment for lack of money, and she was not receiving enough to eat. She claimed that her confession was made under great pressure and was untrue. She said she wanted to take care of her health and the health of the baby she was carrying, but both her own family and her husband’s family had turned away from her.
Macie B.’s family members brought her to our office in Bumpeh town. They spoke in high-pitched tones. What do you want us to do with this child? She is a confessed witch. She gave three of her children to witches to be eaten! Her husband’s family has returned her to us and left the village. We do not have money to support her; we fear her ourselves. What do you human rights people have to say about this?
Our paralegals are trained to approach with calm the clients who arrive distressed. Welcome to our office, please have a seat, drink this water, tell me the problem. This time, the paralegals, Joseph Sawyer and Elizabeth Lebbie, were at a loss. Under customary law, Macie B’s confession was enough to justify the husband’s family “returning” her to her family, and also sufficient to justify her own family if they refused
to take her in. Under formal law her family had no obligation to care for her because she was no longer a child. All of our paralegals and the Sierra Leonean director believe deeply in witchcraft. The Bumpeh paralegals set aside those beliefs for the moment and focused on the principle of their occupation—the dignity of every individual. Was there any way to keep this pregnant woman from being abandoned and outcast?
The paralegals appealed to love rather than law. They spoke in Mende. We are happy that you came to talk to us. We have listened to everything you have said, and we respect the seriousness of the situation. We want to remind you, though, that this is your daughter. It was you that brought her up into this world. If not to you she has nowhere to turn. They also tried a bit of reason: her husband’s family stopped pursuing medical help once she confessed; the deaths may well have been due to neglect rather than witchcraft.
This sort of persuasion, gently and respectfully rendered, convinced the family to continue to house Macie B. for the time being, but food remained scarce in their household. The paralegals discussed the case with Simeon and me. We, too, were at a loss. We gave a small amount of money from our pockets so Macie B. could visit the
clinic for ante- natal care and to purchase some additional food for herself. (We hope to eventually develop a small emergency fund in each office for such purposes.) We asked the paralegals to stay in contact with Macie B. and to continue to encourage the family. I suggested that once the baby was born, we could approach the husband’s family for maintenance payments, an obligation under formal law. But Simeon and the paralegals
argued that the family’s strong position under customary law would make it nearly impossible to collect.
One of our community oversight board members in Bumpeh Chiefdom is a part-time diviner. She offered to prepare a meal and ceremony for Macie B. after the birth of the child that would exorcise the witch. She assured me that the meal of chicken and rice wouldn’t harm Macie B. in any way, except that it would cause some temporary diarrhea. I suspended my own skepticism for the hope that, if Macie B. could be perceived to have been de-witched, her own family and perhaps even her husband’s family would accept her again, and she could rejoin the fabric of her society. Here the problem did involve human rights—Macie B.’s right to basic health and food – but the partial solution we could offer did not involve law at all.
(Postscript to Macie B.’s story: In June 2005, our paralegals helped Macie B. to bring a case against her husband’s family in local court asking that the family pay for some of the health care costs associated with Macie B.’s pregnancy. The court chairman sided with Macie B., and in doing so departed from the traditional rule that excuses a family from its obligation to a family member who a diviner has declared to be a witch. Macie B.’s baby was born in July 2005 and named Betty after one of our paralegals in Bumpeh-Gao. During Betty’s first month, while Macie B. continued to live with suspicious and extremely poor relatives, both mother and daughter were sickly, sad, and relatively silent. The exorcism took place in August, and—along with continuous advocacy, encouragement, and material support from our paralegals and Simeon and me—it seemed to have worked. Our COB member prepared the special chicken and rice and Macie B. ate the meal without realizing its purpose (it was apparently important that the subject not realize the ritual intention). Our COB member reported success. Macie B. and her baby were re-accepted by the family of Macie B.’s husband and Macie B. began to live (and, importantly, eat) there again harmoniously. The nurse at the Bumpe health clinic agreed to exempt Macie B. and Betty from Sierra Leone’s “cost recovery” system and provided free treatment for their minor ailments. By October the transformation was remarkable: mother and daughter were both healthy and full of smiles and laughter. In January 2006, however, Betty died, to the great shock of community members, the Bumpeh-Gao paralegals, and all of us working with Timap for Justice. Betty was not known to be sick at the time. Macie B. said that some pap (a soft rice meal fed to babies) accidentally went up the baby’s nose, and Macie B. brought the baby to the clinic in Bumpeh. The nurse said that Betty was dead before she arrived. There was no conclusive determination of cause of death, but the nurse believes the baby may have choked. 283 out of every 1000 children in Sierra Leone die before the age of five, the highest child mortality rate in the world. The community as a whole has not accused Macie B. of witchcraft. Her mother-in-law insists, however, that Macie B. will not set foot in the family house again. Macie B. plans to leave the village to stay with her mother in Freetown for a time. We hope to help her access vocational training of some kind. i considered removing this story when Betty died, but I decided to leave it in. It is a reminder that our work is like bailing water from the ocean with a small cup: if we look at the few buckets we fill, we feel hopeful, but if we face forward the ocean of suffering is unspeakably vast.)
From Maru, V. 2006. “Between Law and Society: Paralegals and the Provision of Justice Services in Sierra Leone and Worldwide,” 31 YALE J. INT’L L. 427.
Pa “Musa Lansana” is a Temne-speaking farmer from Maqui Village, Kholifa Rowalla Chiefdom, in Northern Sierra Leone. At sixty-five, he walks with the deliberateness and dignity of someone who has lived longer than most men in his community ever will. He is the patriarch of the Lansana family in Maqui.
Under customary land tenure, freehold ownership of land is not possible: land belongs to the community, including those who came before and those who have yet to come. Chiefs are the temporal custodians for this cross-temporal set of owners. But families do have a softer right to the land they occupy, one based on a historic allocation by a chief and a tradition of possession and cultivation thereafter. The Lansanas have such an entitlement to a large and fertile plot of land in Maqui. For several generations the Lansanas have
allowed other village farmers to plant and harvest palm trees on sections of their land at no cost. In 2004, because of a series of family tragedies, the Lansanas’ financial situation became dire, and the extended family faced considerable difficulty in feeding and schooling all its children.
Pa Lansana and his brothers decided to ask for a contribution of five gallons of palm oil from each of the families who harvested on Lansana family land. According to Pa Lansana, all but two families welcomed the chance to show their appreciation for land from which they had benefited for many years. Two families, however, headed by “Pa Jamil” and “Pa Kanu” respectively, refused. This began an expensive misadventure in the
customary justice system.
As is the case in many African countries, law in Sierra Leone is bifurcated: a formal legal system based on that of the former colonial master (in this case, Great Britain) coexists with a customary system that is, in principle, based on traditional approaches to justice. The formal system in Sierra Leone is heavily concentrated in the capital while the customary system prevails in the countryside. Pa Lansana resorted to the de facto first tier of the customary justice system: the village chief’s court. The vast majority of village and section chiefs adjudicate claims within their localities, issuing summonses, conducting hearings, making judgments, and collecting fines. These courts have existed for generations, though they are outlawed by the statute that lays out the architecture of Sierra Leone’s modern dualist legal structure.
Every step in a chief’s adjudication costs money. Pa Lansana paid 2000 Leones (U.S.D. $0.75) to the village chief to issue a summons for Jamil and Kanu to report to the chief. When they refused, he paid the same chief another 5000 Leones (U.S.D. $1.89) to inform “all those who are harvesting palm oil on my land without my consent” that he, Pa Lansana, would be hiring a sorcerer for the purpose of cursing the offenders.
The sorcerer, however, did not produce the short-term result Lansana was hoping for. At this point, Lansana decided to file his case in the “local court” in Magburaka. The local courts are the official judicial institutions of the customary legal system. “Chiefdoms” are the primary administrative units in the countryside; each chiefdom has between one and four local courts. Soon after filing in local court, Pa Lansana received a letter from Pa Roke, the acting paramount chief of Kholifa Rowalla Chiefdom. It turns out that Pa Jamil and Pa Kanu were both related to Paramount Chief Pa Roke. The letter informed Lansana that Pa Roke was removing his case from local court and that he, Pa Roke, would personally settle the matter. Pa Lansana protested this removal to the local court chairman, but the chairman instructed Lansana to respect the paramount chief’s wishes.
Pa Lansana, out of options and in over his head, reported to the paramount chief’s quarters. He did not have a chance. During a series of hearings over the course of two weeks, the chief levied fine after fine against Lansana—for speaking out of turn, for stating that his right to his land was immune to interference by chiefs, for challenging the paramount chief’s right to hear the case. Lansana was also charged 20,000 Leones (U.S.D. $7.55) to pay transport costs for all the section chiefs to congregate in Magburaka (the chiefdom headquarters) to discuss his case. In all, Lansana paid 67,000 Leones (U.S.D. $25.28) to the paramount chief in fines and transport costs and also apologized for the statements that were deemed offensive. These fines were all procedural, levied before the paramount chief came to any decision on the substantive question of whether Pa Kanu and Pa Jamil were obligated to comply with Pa Lansana’s request for payment for the use of his farmland. To put the weight of the fines in perspective, the minimum wage for a day laborer in Sierra Leone is 21,000 Leones (U.S.D. $7.92) per month.
What is Pa Lansana to do? His family was already facing a financial crisis; he is now nearly penniless. Pa Roke flagrantly violated the Local Courts Act’s prohibition of 3 chiefs’ courts, but Pa Roke is the paramount chief. No one in the chiefdom, including the local court chairman, dares question his authority.
After spending his last Leone paying fines to the acting paramount chief, Pa Lansana approached our paralegal office. Paralegal Michael Luseni introduced himself and the program, and explained briefly his role as a paralegal. He listened to Pa Lansana’s story and recorded it in the form of a statement which he read back to Pa Lansana before the Pa pressed an inked thumb on the paper. Michael consulted his notes and offered his client some legal facts. Michael spoke in Krio. First, Pa Roke’s actions violated the Local Courts Act, which prohibits chiefs from constituting courts. Second, the law creates avenues for redress in the event of unfairness in the customary courts. One possibility would be to appeal the case to the district appeal court; another possibility would be to approach the customary law officer.
Just learning these facts changed Pa Lansana’s understanding of his predicament. He hadn’t heard of a customary law officer or a right to appeal; he hadn’t known there was law on his side. Pa Lansana asked Michael what action he would advise. Michael gave Pa Lansana a day and time to return to the office. Barring emergencies, we ask our paralegals to try to independently investigate the facts that clients report before they take action. Michael met with the local court chairman, who confirmed that the case had been removed improperly from his court. The chairman was indignant at the violation of process but fearful of challenging the chief.
When Pa Lansana returned, Michael discussed with him his options. He could file an appeal into the formal court system, but that might be difficult without a lawyer. Michael himself could not file such an appeal. Second, Pa Lansana could try to approach the customary law officer. At the time, only one customary law officer (a lawyer working in the Attorney General’s office) covered all the customary courts in the country and acted as the only public prosecutor in the formal courts in the provinces. Michael knew it would not be easy to get the officer’s attention. But the officer has a “local court supervisor” based in the district, a soporific, elderly gentleman who has no power of review himself but who has occasional access to his boss. Michael offered to draft a letter to the customary law officer, meet with the local court supervisor together with Pa Lansana, and advocate with the local court supervisor to call the customary law officer’s attention to the matter. Pa Lansana was enthusiastic. He felt he was starting to have a fighting chance.
I edited Michael’s letter before he met the local court supervisor. I was somewhat skeptical that the customary law officer would pay attention, and offered to take up the issue with him directly if Michael’s efforts failed. But Michael’s efforts succeeded. He managed to awaken the local court supervisor to the implications of this breach of process; the supervisor in turn raised the issue with the customary law officer when the officer visited the district in November 2004. Both officer and supervisor visited the chief. The chief, faced with a government lawyer from Freetown, a bigger—that is, more powerful—person than himself, agreed to send the case back to the local court and even refunded some of the money Pa Lansana had paid in fines. For a chief to change his 4 stance or to return fines was unheard of. Pa Lansana was moved.
The local court chairman also visited our office to thank Michael for protecting the integrity of the institution he ran. Michael, meanwhile, paid a diplomatic visit to Pa Roke to ensure that their relations were not severely damaged. We work hard to cultivate positive relationships with paramount chiefs, and challenging one is a delicate business. An angry paramount chief could shut one of our offices down in one day. Pa Roke knew that Michael had advised Pa Lansana, but Michael’s exact role was never made clear. Michael has profound resources of humility, and on this occasion he dug deep. Pa Roke accepted Michael’s implicit request for no- hard-feelings. Michael ended his involvement there, but later recorded in his file that Pa Lansana went on to win in the underlying matter before the local court.
One felicitous corollary effect of this case was to remind a bureaucrat of the reason he used to care about his work. The local court supervisor in Magburaka once served as a local court clerk himself and possesses a talent for the nuances of the customary legal system. He is also an underpaid civil servant with little power who has watched the country languish under administration after feckless administration. His present listlessness is, perhaps, understandable. His efforts in this case, however, reminded him that he can play an important role, and seem to have rejuvenated some of his enthusiasm. Pa Lansana, for his part, now knows that the local court supervisor and the customary law officer exist, and his friends will no doubt find out as well when they hear Pa Lansana tell his story. With a measure of legal knowledge, a well-drafted letter, and some tactful advocacy, Michael scored a small victory against the supremacy of paramount chiefs and a small enlivening of the relationship between Sierra Leoneans and their government.
From Maru, V. 2006. “Between Law and Society: Paralegals and the Provision of Justice Services in Sierra Leone and Worldwide,” 31 YALE J. INT’L L. 427.
“Kadiatu T.” is a woman in her thirties with simple clothes and a weathered face who lives in Clinetown, a neighborhood in the east of Freetown. She sells cigarettes and occasionally sex to make a living. In September 2004, a drunk off-duty police officer near the Clinetown police station asked Kadiatu T. to give him a cigarette on credit. Kadiatu T. gave him the cigarette. The officer then asked for a plastic bag. She said she
did not have any. At this point, the officer started to beat her. She tried to walk away; he then beat and kicked her in the back, mouth, and belly until she was unconscious. Bystanders then had the heartlessness to steal her money and the stock of cigarettes she had been carrying atop her head.
Kadiatu T.’s boyfriend borrowed money from friends and relatives to pay for her medical treatment. The two of them approached the Complaints Discipline and Internal Investigations Department (CDIID) at police headquarters in Freetown and filed a complaint against the officer. They checked in at the department every week, but after a month, the department had taken no action. The CDIID representative only stated to Kadiatu T. and her boyfriend that the Department was “looking into the matter.”
Kadiatu T. was most interested in compensation for her medical care and the loss of her money and wares, but she was losing hope. The officer, meanwhile, continued to work in the Clinetown station, unchecked and unapologetic. Kadiatu T. was told that he laughed to people in the area: “What does she think she can do to me?” There is a phrase in Krio, the lingua franca of Sierra Leone, na fo biya no mo—“one should bear, nothing more.” The people around Kadiatu T. were saying this to her at this point, in October 2004: You are powerless. You should bear the suffering life has dealt you and move on and forget and survive.
Kadiatu T.’s boyfriend was already a client of ours. After a month of opacity and inaction from the police internal disciplinary department, the two of them came to our office in Freetown. Our paralegal Jow Williams listened to Kadiatu T.’s story, recorded her statement, and assured her that if indeed she was beaten in the way she described, then the officer had committed a serious violation of the law and a serious breach of appropriate police conduct. He gave her a time to return to the office. Jow began investigating to develop an objective understanding of the facts. His interviews at the station and in the neighborhood generally confirmed Kadiatu T.’s story, including the officer’s bravado after the incident.
Jow wrote a letter on our letterhead to invite the police officer to our office. The letter recounted the allegations and stated that, if true, they were quite serious. The letter asked the officer to visit our office so that we could hear his side of the story. As I will discuss in more detail below, a letter from the “human rights” office holds power for many Sierra Leoneans. The officer reported to our office with a humble disposition and, after some discussion, conceded his wrongdoing. Jow informed him that the offense was severe, that we would monitor the proceedings in the police disciplinary board, and that, depending on the outcome, we would consider the possibility of private prosecution and a civil suit for damages. The officer was afraid and ostensibly contrite. Was there anything he could do to settle the matter? Jow said he would discuss things with Kadiatu T. and get back to the officer.
But events moved forward before Jow could speak with Kadiatu T. After leaving our office, the officer approached senior officers in his area to “beg for him” to Kadiatu T. To “beg” in Sierra Leonean culture is to acknowledge wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. In instances of a serious rift it is common to beg through mutually respected intermediaries. At a meeting in the police station during the day, Kadiatu T. accepted the senior officers’ pleading on the officer’s behalf, the officer’s own apology, and a promise that the officer would pay her 138,000 Leones (U.S.D. $52), which is no small sum in Sierra Leone. She also agreed to drop her complaint with the internal disciplinary board of the police. We did not find out about the deal until Kadiatu T. came to our office the following week to report that the officer had paid only part of the money he had promised. Jow spoke to the senior officers who had acted as intermediaries. They, in turn, spoke to the officer himself and the balance of the money was eventually paid.
Was justice done? The client received what she wanted most: compensation for her 6 losses. But one might argue that a police officer had managed to buy impunity for an illegal and vicious act. On the other hand, our paralegals and Kadiatu T. insist that it is a rare and remarkable thing for several police officers to publicly “beg” forgiveness from a poor, female cigarette- seller. It was fear of the human rights office and not the police discipline board—which had taken no action on the complaint—that led to this apology and settlement. Jow, who used to live in Clinetown himself, says that people in the neighborhood paid great attention, and that it is a poor and small neighborhood where word travels fast. Jow met with the officer once more to warn him to never commit such an act again.
At some point we will probably take formal legal action on a case of police brutality. But in this instance the paralegal was able to achieve compensation for our client and a local form of justice in a short period of time at little to no cost.
In May, pupils from the private Agape International Secondary School and their parents visited Timap’s office in Mile 91. While other schools had resumed classes, Agape had not opened to begin the third term. The parents told the paralegal that they had paid yearly school fees but that the principal and teachers were nowhere to be seen. The paralegal called a meeting with other parents and the few teachers who were willing to join them. At the meeting, it came to light that the mission which oversaw the school was probably unaware that it was currently closed. The teachers complained that their salaries had not been paid for several months and that was why they had stopped teaching. Some in attendance also mentioned that the principal was rumoured to be in debt to certain community members and that he might be embezzling money to pay them off.
After the meeting, Timap paralegal called the mission pastor and informed him of the issue of the school closing. The paralegal also passed along the teachers’ complaint about the nonpayment of salaries. At the paralegal’s urging, the pastor promised to hold an emergency meeting the next day. In the meeting, the representatives from the mission met with parents, teachers and the principal. The mission ensured that the teachers’ salaries, including backpay, were paid. The immediate crisis averted, the school reopened and classes resumed.
But Timap paralegals were not yet done. The next week they followed up, meeting with the mission representatives, the principal, and the staff and ensuring that there were no outstanding grievances. They met with students and informed them on their duties and responsibilities as schoolchildren. Paralegals also met with the principal to address the concern that he might be in danger due to outstanding conflicts he was having with certain members of the community. The paralegals advised him on his legal options and told him that Timap’s door was always open if he ever needed assistance. Paralegals followed up twice more over the next few months and were happy to report that the school was open and running smoothly.
Gbendembu is a town of about 7,000 people north-west of Makeni. It is a multi-cultural town with different tribes living there, including the Loko, Temne, Fula and Mandigo. The inhabitants are mostly farmers (crop and animal), and the predominant justice issues are land disputes, cattle trespass, abuse of authority by local court, early marriage, and breach of contract. There is no police station or formal justice institution in the town; so that the community members rely on the customary institutions (local court) to adjudicate disputes. There have been complaints of bribe-taking, miscarriage of justice, and abuse of process at the local courts, especially in favor of cattle herders and against crop farmers. In recent times, disgruntled farmers have poisoned cows that strayed onto their farms, with the consequence that the national police raided an entire community, arresting all males from 16 years old. There have been other complaints relating to court officials siding with, or related to parties bringing complaints to the local courts. This led to one local court official publicly backing one litigant against the other; and another local court retaliating in like manner; thus reducing to court to a laughing stock.
In October, paralegals in Timap’s Gbendembu office received a visit from the chairman of a local court in the Gbendembu Ngowahun Chiefdom. The court chairman reported that he was having problems with the local court clerk, who had refused to call a matter referred to the court. The chairman had been forced to adjourn the case and to ask the parties to come back another day. To Timap paralegals, such disorder in the local courts is not an infrequent complaint, due in part to the recent changes to the courts’ administration in the Local Courts Act of 2011. The paralegals admitted the case and met with the clerk to get his side of the story. The clerk said that the chairman had been interfering with his responsibilities, and had begun to improperly bypass him to deal directly with the finance clerk and the Police sergeant in collecting summons fees from complainants. He suspected the sergeant, finance clerk, and chairman were pocketing the money at the end of the day. He had refused to call the case in question because he was tired of seeing them engage in such corruption and believed that the chairman had a conflict of interest in the matter to be called. Sensing dysfunction in the court, Timap paralegals invited all the local court officials to the Timap office for a meeting.
After hearing from a number of the court officials, the paralegals realized that many of the officials were confused or misinformed about their roles and responsibilities. The paralegals went over the provisions of the Local Courts Act with the court officials, clarifying the structure of the court and the jobs of those involved. However, the finance clerk failed to come to the meeting, or to come to the Timap office at a later agreed-upon date, preventing resolution of the problem. Because the proper administration of the local courts is a serious matter and demanding urgency, paralegals called Timap’s Director, Simeon Koroma, to ask him for advice. Simeon instructed the paralegals on how to focus their efforts and how to monitor the situation. With renewed confidence, the paralegals persisted until they could meet with every court official and educate them on the Local Courts Act. Soon, the court officials reported to Timap that everyone was now following his or her designated role. The paralegals have continued to follow up, monitoring the court to ensure that it continued to run smoothly, and in accordance with the law.