In Sierra Leone’s closely fought presidential election both sides are in their own ways vying for the support of the Kamajors, a former civil defence force whose leaders have been indicted by a UN-backed war crimes court. But for many citizens they remain heroes for having defended the country against brutal rebels.
[Read this story in French]
Traditional hunters before the decade-long civil war which ended in 2002, the Kamajors grew in number to over 20,000 and fought alongside British and Nigerian forces to reinstate and then defend the democratically-elected Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). However, in the 11 August parliamentary and presidential elections, the SLPP lost massively in most areas where the Kamajors are strong.
Overall the SLPP lost its majority in parliament, and for the presidential run-off election set for 8 September the SLPP candidate Solomon Berewa is trailing opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma. In the first round Koroma took 44 percent while Berewa won only 38 percent.
Though traditionally SLPP, many Kamajors have joined a new breakaway party called the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), whose leader, Charles Margai, is also lead defence counsel for one of the indicted Kamajors. In the upcoming election Margai, who came third in the first round of presidential elections on 11 August, has thrown his support not behind the SLPP, but behind the long-time rival opposition party.
Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
|Posters in Freetown of the two candidates in the run-off election set for 8 September|
This is particularly significant as the Kamajors have an important place within the social order of the Mende ethnic group; the SLPP’s traditional base is Mende, while the opposition’s traditional base has come mostly from the ethnic groups in the north.
Special Court for Sierra Leone spokesman Peter Andersen said it would be inappropriate for him to make any comment on election-related issues as the court must remain blind to such matters.
However, Sierra Leone’s politics have never been blind to the court. “The Special Court has become a big political issue,” Ibrahim Bangura, director of PRIDE, a non-governmental organisation working with ex-combatants, told IRIN. “Many Kamajors thought the court would try only rebels. They now feel betrayed.”
...Many Kamajors thought the court would try only rebels. They now feel betrayed...
The international court was created in a 2002 agreement signed by the UN, and SLPP candidate Berewa, who at the time was the attorney-general and minister of justice. The court went on to indict the person many saw as Berewa’s main rival for the SLPP candidacy - former Deputy Defence Minister Hinga Norman, leader of the Kamajors.
Norman died in detention in February. His death has served to deepen the rift between the SLPP and the Kamajors who still have a military-style command structure, Bangura said. “The Kamajors disarmed after the war but they did not demobilise and some former commanders wield more influence than do local chiefs.”
Endorsement of criminals
Six months after Norman’s death, and just nine days before the first round of the elections, the Special Court handed down guilty verdicts to two remaining Kamajor indictees. The only Sierra Leonean judge on the case, Justice Bankole Thompson, dissented. Though outvoted, his verdict was “not guilty” on all eight counts against the Kamajors.
Photo: Special Court
|Accused Kamajor leaders on the first day of trial at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, 3 June 2004|
The Special Court allows detainees to make public statements only during their trials. But before Kamajor leader Norman’s death, a purported representative claimed that Norman and the two other indicted Kamajors had resigned from the SLPP and joined the breakaway PMDC.
To date their family members and friends have not refuted the statement, though SLPP supporters have denied its accuracy.
When it became clear that the SLPP had lost the first round of the presidential election in many Kamajor strongholds, three top SLPP officials paid a visit to the court to meet the two Kamajors in detention apparently to seek the indictees’ support for the second round.
Shortly after the meeting, another statement was issued purportedly on behalf of the indicted Kamajors, saying they had refused the SLPP bid.
Still, there are Kamajors who remain firm in their allegiance to the SLPP, so divisions have emerged. “For some Kamajors, politics is primarily ethnic,” PRIDE’s Bangura said. “As Mendes, they believe that they must support the SLPP no matter what.”
The opposition has accused the SLPP of rearming those Kamajors and using them to intimidate their supporters - an accusation the SLPP denies.
However events unfold, observers say that if political parties are seeking the endorsement of indicted war criminals then the court who judged them hardly reflects the judgement of many Sierra Leoneans.