A Village-Up View of Sierra Leone's Civil War and Reconstruction: Multilayered and Networked Governance


  • James B.M. Vincent

    1. Independent Consultant and Director of a small research group Integrated Community and Rural Development Services (ICARDS – SL), in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
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  • James is considered a leading authority on Sierra Leonean civil society and, in particular, the relationship between local NGOs and their international development partners. He has also participated in numerous evaluation studies and is an experienced facilitator of workshops. He is presently completing a Master of Arts in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, a leading global charity for research, teaching and information on development, and is one of the key researchers of the Global Uncertainties project, led by Professor David Leonard.


In Sierra Leone, as in most of Africa, states have not only a direct relationship with their citizens as individuals but also a mediated one through rural governance systems that usually pre-date colonialism and may have greater legitimacy than the central state itself. And these local governance structures generally persisted through the country's collapse and civil war more successfully than the central state did. This report therefore offers a ‘bottom-up’ review of the post-war reconstruction of the Sierra Leone state.

I have conducted research on these and related questions throughout the country since 1996. For the present study I have supplemented this experience with a qualitative data set based on my own unstructured interviews during 2010–11 in 38 communities in 28 chiefdoms in eight of the 12 districts in the three rural provinces of the country.

The impact of the civil war on human security and governance in the rural areas was devastating. Random killings, maiming and rape were widespread; food production as well as formal health and education services collapsed; and local chiefs and other representatives of the state were assassinated when they could be identified by the rebels.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the devastating impact of the war on human security, rural communities remained intact. The pre-war (traditional) leadership structures continued informally to provide whatever degree of governance response was possible. In the chiefdoms I visited, a third of the chiefs remained with their people (even if in hiding) throughout even the most difficult part of the civil war, and most of the rest fled only briefly. During the war chiefs made a major change to include youth and women in their governance practices and this more participatory approach to governance has persisted. Although a large number of chiefs died during the war period, their positions were easily refilled afterward.

During the war most communities in the South and East created local Civil Defence Forces (CDF) to defend themselves. Chiefs retained at least some degree of direction over 71 per cent of the CDF forces in the areas I visited, with the consequence that only a third of these CDFs gave trouble to their communities. Because of the abuses that did occur, however, CDF leaders were not able to challenge chiefs for community leadership after the war. In only 19 per cent of our study communities was there any challenge to the return of the traditional chiefs at the end of the war.

Despite the restoration of chieftaincy and its general popularity, there are three signs that the government was concerned about its lack of broad responsiveness before the war. First, elected district councils have been brought back. Second, chiefs also have to share their revenues with the Councils, which both find a major problem and source of tension. Third, the Native Administration (NA) courts also are in disarray. In the present day circumstance, most communities are now using the alternative dispute mechanisms created by donors as they are still afraid of the very high fines that the court chairmen used to levy. In addition the magistrates’ courts are more accessible and extended. The consequences of the three changes are that the post-war chiefs seem to be more moral leaders than authoritative decision-makers and are much more responsive to their communities.

From the perspective of multi-levelled governance not only was NA changed by the war, but the role of international donors increased significantly as well. Donor impact was notable on Security Sector Reform (SSR), democratisation, decentralisation, and women's rights. And there were many large-scale international activities for humanitarian relief and development. Nonetheless, these initiatives have strengthened, not threatened, the legitimacy of the state because the army, police and health services have improved and as local citizens do not know how to access the donors directly they tend to credit their activities to various government actors.

The consequences of SSR are that the SL Police are much improved coming out of the war. But unlike the SL Army it would be a mistake to say that they have been wholly transformed. Also their presence is still thin. The SLP was still absent or barely present in 29 per cent of the areas I visited. The old ‘tribal police’ are needed but unpaid.

The various reforms that have come in the wake of the civil war are incomplete and the institutional boundaries of the newly reconstructed multilayered governance system are unclear. The result is that most of the component parts – chiefs, district councils, native administration and magistrates’ courts, SL and NA Police, are not functioning as well as they might. Not enough attention has been paid to how governance at the ‘periphery’ is to be conducted.