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Societal tolerance

Article - September 27, 2017

The world preaches it. Sierra Leone lives it

Sierra Leone’s population is around 60 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian with the remainder adhering to indigenous beliefs. While in other countries such a demographic melting pot may provide a tinderbox for religious division and conflict, in Sierra Leone quite the opposite has historically been the case.

Two events took place in Sierra Leone during the current generation’s lifetime that have been imprinted on the international consciousness: the civil war, which drew to an end in 2002, and the 2014 Ebola crisis. While global institutions including the UN and the World Health Organization played key roles both in the quelling of factional violence and the indiscriminate advance of the deadly virus, what failed to make international headlines were the contributions of leaders from all walks of faith in the country as Sierra Leone once again proved its resilience in the face of adversity.

After the civil war, the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone provided a fundamental sounding board in peace negotiations. When the Ebola epidemic struck, it fell to both Muslim and Christian religious leaders to complement broad-based efforts by international aid agencies by educating citizens directly about ways to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Many countries are combating terrorism due to the spread of religious extremism,” notes Sidie Yahya Tunis, Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. “However, in Sierra Leone, we don’t face such issues. Muslims and Christians live peacefully side by side. During the Islamic holiday of Eid, you will see Christians having feasts and celebrating along with Muslims. It is a long-held pillar of our society and culture, and also enshrined in our laws and our constitution.”

Politics and religion are separate entities in Sierra Leone and the administration of President Ernest Bai Koroma – a Christian leader elected by a considerable Muslim majority – not only preaches tolerance but actively pursues it at all levels of government and social policy-making. School children learn from both the Koran and the Bible and inter-faith marriages are the norm, not the exception. Many Sierra Leoneans – identified with some deft wordplay as “ChrisMus”—profess to belong to both faiths.

Mohamed Bangura, Minister of Information and Communications, attributes this to Sierra Leone’s rapid recovery and reconciliation process following the civil war: “We have a stable government; we are one of few places in the region to have benefited from uninterrupted governance for ten years,” he says, adding that inclusion in the country’s institutions is not limited to the religious sphere. “Our president has made it his policy to incorporate both young people and women into the cabinet, and he is the only president to date who has fulfilled this promise.”

Indeed, tackling gender inequality is an important focus. While female representation in parliament currently stands at 15 women in the 124-seat chamber, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy hopes that general elections slated for March 2018 will further empower Sierra Leone’s female population, which accounts for 51 percent of the country’s total.

The judiciary is also becoming more of a balanced profession. The Office of the Ombudsman recruited three female graduates to act as mediation officers in July as part of a drive to increase the number of non-male staff. Attorney General and Minister of Justice Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara points to a similar evolution in the courts: “We have appointed 14 new judges, seven of whom are women.”

President Koroma’s government has also been working to make improvements in living standards, with the country scoring highly on the 2017 Social Progress Index in the categories of personal safety, access to information and personal rights. In the 2017 Press Freedom barometer, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Sierra Leone was among the higher-placed African nations due to the fact that no journalist has been imprisoned or attacked under the Koroma presidency. “Under this administration, we have seen the flourishing of newspapers – we now have over 40,” notes Mr. Bangura.

“Perceptions of Sierra Leone do not reflect the reality,” says Minister Tunis. “People still tend to think of us as a country that is at war and prone to diseases, even though our war has been over since 2002. Since then, we have had three democratic elections that have been deemed free, fair and transparent by the international organizations, including the UN.”

The challenge facing Sierra Leone is to safeguard its long-held tradition of religious and social tolerance in a region beset by Islamist militant activity. While in other countries differing belief systems provide causes for conflict, in Sierra Leone inter-faith cohabitation has become the glue that binds the nation’s society together.