Religion, Tradition, and Restorative Justice in Sierra Leone

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Lyn S. Graybill
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , June
     324 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Lyn S. Graybill has written a text that is helpful to scholars of restorative justice; transitional justice, especially in the African continent; and religion and politics in Sierra Leone and West Africa. The text is not especially helpful to scholars in the broader disciplines of religious studies or theology, however. As the primary audience Graybill has in mind is not scholars of religion or theologians, this is not a fatal flaw. However, for a review in this publication I believe it important to name this right up front.

Religion, Tradition, and Restorative Justice in Sierra Leone is a comprehensive examination of the implementation and reception of the various transitional justice mechanisms used in Sierra Leone after the end of its civil war. In particular, Graybill examines the political advocacy and peacebuilding work of the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (IRCSL), which contributed to the cessation of the civil war, and the creation and implementation of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (Special Court), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone (TRC), and “traditional” reconciliation initiatives including Fambul Tok, a localized reconciliation project based on indigenous reconciliation practices. In addition to the meticulous explanation of this period in Sierra Leone’s history, Graybill reports the results of numerous public opinion polls conducted by multiple agencies in the years following the conclusion of the Special Court and the TRC. The succinct and comprehensive tracking of this history and the public reception of these various mechanisms for transitional justice is a gift for scholars working in this field, especially on the African continent.

Sierra Leone’s process is important for scholars of transitional justice for a variety of reasons. The most important is that it was the first country simultaneously to conduct a war crimes tribunal (in the Special Court) and a TRC. In addition, Sierra Leone’s transitional justice process is significant because the IRCSL was vital to the successful completion of a peace process, marking a moment when diverse religious actors contributed “more” to peace than to violence, and because the conflict in Sierra Leone was not significantly driven by racial, ethnic, or religious differences. Rather, the driving forces of the civil war were “pure” politics and economics. This narrative challenges some narratives that exoticize religions, especially religions in the global south, as inherently violent. 

There is a growing body of literature on Sierra Leone’s transitional justice processes. Sierra Leone has served as a model for other countries in its combination of criminal prosecutions for the most egregious violators of human rights law—in particular military and militia leaders—alongside a TRC and other mechanisms of restorative justice and reconciliation. Scholars have engaged Sierra Leone’s transitional justice mechanisms in a variety of ways with several prominent scholars—Graybill repeatedly engages Rosalind Shaw and Tim Kelsall in particular—being critical of the TRC. Graybill enters these debates head-on and resolutely joins with Daniel Philpott in defending what he calls “political reconciliation” over “the liberal peace.” And she does so, like Philpott, explicitly espousing the unique intellectual and spiritual resources of religious traditions to contribute to “the restoration of right relationship” rather than simply justice as retribution. 

The great strength of the book is its attention to the public reception of the various transitional justice mechanisms over time. There is much evidence here to suggest that the Special Court and the TRC were ambivalently understood and received by the public. In laying out this evidence, Graybill marshals much evidence to her claim that rather than being a model for other countries to follow, Sierra Leone’s experience of simultaneously conducting prosecutions and a TRC may have been counterproductive. She demonstrates that the mandates of the Special Court and the TRC can seem to contradict one another, and many offenders did not participate in the TRC for fear that their testimonies there would be used against them in the Special Court. Graybill’s attention to “traditional” reconciliation practices facilitated by the IRCSL and other civil society organizations, especially Fambul Tok programming, also provides much insight into the importance of localized restorative justice mechanisms. Finally, Graybill does a fine job tracing the failure of Sierra Leone’s government to implement the various structural reforms and material reparation programs the TRC report said were imperative for justice and reconciliation. In part, this failure has been due to a lack of financial resources. However, various delays have demonstrated a lack of will in addition to a lack of money. These failures stand out as especially egregious in light of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to prosecute a handful of high-profile perpetrators rather than support reconciliation or reparation programs. In all these ways, Graybill contributes an important case study about the importance of comprehensive transitional justice mechanisms and the weakness of prioritizing, in philosophy and budgets, high-profile criminal prosecutions.

The primary weakness of the book for scholars of religion is the lack of clarity on the distinction between what counts as “religion” and what counts as “tradition.” For Graybill, religion primarily counts as Christianity and Islam. In particular, “religion” is the political activity of formal leaders in these religious traditions. At times, she names indigenous traditions of Sierra Leone as “religion,” but not always. What counts as “tradition” are, in some places, processes facilitated by village leaders, in others communication with ancestors, and in others practices of devotion in particular places. There is no consistent logic to these distinctions, as far as I can tell, and I would classify aspects of what she calls “tradition” as “religion.” Theorists of religion will find this unsatisfying and more evidence that the “we know religion when we see it” approach is inadequate.

Overall, the book is a gift to scholars and practitioners in the field of transitional justice. In religion, the history and narratives presented will be of interest to some, but those seeking theorization of “religion” in “post-conflict” Sierra Leone will need to look elsewhere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James McCarty is Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Ethics at Seattle University.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lyn S. Graybill is an expert in the role of religious and cultural resources in international ethics and human rights practices, having previously authored Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: Miracle or Model? and Religion and Resistance Politics in South Africa. She has taught at universities in Virginia, Georgia, and Africa.


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