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Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process
Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process
In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents
In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (front) stands for the national anthem during a ceremony to swear in Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, as Sri Lanka's new prime minister, Colombo, 21 August 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawat
Report 278 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process

Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.

Executive Summary

The unexpected chance for lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka that followed President Maithripala Sirisena’s January 2015 election faces increasing turbulence. Initial moves by Sirisena’s government halted and began to reverse the slide into authoritarianism and family rule under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Its reform agenda is ambitious: restoring the rule-of-law and ending impunity for corruption and abuse of power; a new constitution; a complex package of post-war reconciliation and justice mechanisms agreed with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC); and major policy changes to jump-start a beleaguered economy. Progress, however, has been slower than key constituencies expected and lacks the coherence and resources needed to sustain it. The “national unity” government expanded the political centre and isolated hard-line nationalists, but the window for change has begun to close. Seizing Sri Lanka’s unprecedented opportunity for reform requires bolder and better coordinated policies, backed by a public relations campaign to restore sagging popular support.

The stuttering progress strains ties between the government and the constituencies that brought it to power. Tamils in the north and east voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena but are increasingly doubtful he will fulfil his reconciliation and justice promises. Many Sinhala “good governance” activists criticise the failure to follow through on rule-of-law measures, continued cases of alleged nepotism and corruption and what they consider the lethargic pursuit of corruption and criminal investigations. As the budget deficit grows and currency reserves dwindle, belt-tightening has been blocked or scaled back due to protests. At the same time, strains are growing between Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The small window for threading the political needles essential for reforms is shrinking. 

Institutional factors hamper progress: too few staff and too little expertise, particularly on reconciliation and transitional justice issues, multiple power centres and unwieldy, often overlapping ministries, and the different priorities and governance styles of president and prime minister. Governance reforms are slowed by need to work through bureaucrats and politicians implicated in past abuses, some of whom were given cabinet posts to help the government achieve the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to approve a new constitution.

Boldness is limited by Sirisena’s struggle to counter the faction loyal to ex-President Rajapaksa within his SLFP, especially in upcoming local elections. Reacting defensively to Sinhala nationalists’ attacks against Sirisena’s relatively modest reconciliation gestures and proposed constitutional reform and scared of giving opponents ammunition or angering the military and security services, the government has returned only a small portion of military-occupied land and released few Tamil detainees. 

Seven years after the end of the civil war in May 2009, issues of reconciliation and accountability remain largely unaddressed. The government appears to be backtracking on transitional justice plans, particularly the role of foreign judges and experts. The enormity of the crimes, especially in the final weeks of the war, makes them impossible to ignore but hard for the military and most Sinhalese to acknowledge or accept responsibility for. Mechanisms promised to the UNHRC feed Sinhala nationalist suspicions, while attempts to reassure Sinhalese and the military encourage doubts among Tamils about government willingness to pursue justice for wartime atrocities or back constitutional changes that satisfy legitimate Tamil aspirations for meaningful autonomy. 

To hold its coalition together and meet UNHRC obligations, the government must sequence reforms carefully, speeding progress on some fronts to rebuild public confidence, while committing resources to build support and institutional capacity for deeper and harder steps, particularly making progress on the critically important special court for prosecuting war crimes. Better communication and cooperation between president and prime minister, more transparent policymaking and clearer lines of authority are essential.

To rebuild confidence among Tamil communities in the north and east, the government must quickly release detainees and military-occupied land, begin credible inquiries into the fate of the disappeared, investigate and end abuses and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). For these and other reforms to be sustainable, the president and prime minister will have to assert authority over the military and national security apparatus, including by developing a credible security sector reform plan. If they are serious about constitutional changes that will contribute to a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict, Sirisena and key ministers must make a much stronger public case for greater devolution of power.

Ending impunity and restoring rule-of-law are concern to the whole country, as seen in the popularity of good governance and anti-corruption citizen movements in the Sinhala south. To resonate more broadly with all ethnic groups and regions, measures for addressing the war’s legacy should be presented by the government and civil society as an integral part of the rule-of-law and good governance agenda. Moves to prosecute key cases of corruption and political killing under the Rajapaksa regime need to be backed by a sustained public relations campaign that articulates a broad vision of a reformed state, the links between the various initiatives and the benefits they bring all communities. 

As longstanding dysfunctional political dynamics reassert themselves, the government’s ability to distinguish itself from the Rajapaksa era, which is essential to its political survival, has begun to fade. If ethnic and religious chauvinists in all communities are not to grow stronger and belief in democratic reform that Sirisena’s election reflected and encouraged is to be rekindled, the government must make a concerted push to jump-start the flagging reform process.


To strengthen rule-of-law and democratic governance 

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Ratify the UN Disappearances Convention and pass enabling legislation criminalising disappearances; terminate the Paranagama commission on missing persons and transfer its investigation files to dedicated police investigation units. 
  2. Pass the pending Right to Information (RTI) Act and legislation to establish a well-resourced and empowered Audit Commission. 
  3. Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it, in consultation with lawyers and human rights defenders, with legislation in line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations; and develop and publish guidelines for expediting cases against existing PTA detainees and releasing those against whom there is insufficient evidence to bring charges.
  4. Overhaul the Victims and Witness Protection Act, in consultation with human rights activists, to establish a well-resourced witness protection authority fully independent of police and security forces.
  5. End the longstanding conflict of interest in the Attorney General’s Department by establishing a permanent, independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases in which state officials are alleged perpetrators. 
  6. Establish a clear focal point in the Attorney General’s Department, staffed by state counsels vetted for conflict of interest or involvement in past cover-ups, to oversee and prosecute emblematic cases of political killings and abduction currently under investigation.

To promote reconciliation, reestablish effective civil administration in the north and east and begin security sector reform

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Take immediate steps to end remaining military involvement in civil administration; remove the military from all shops, farms, hotels and other commercial businesses; and immediately suspend construction or expansion of military camps in the north and east.
  2. Establish, in consultation with communities and the military, transparent principles, processes and timetables for the return of military-occupied land or payment of compensation for land that is not to be returned. 
  3. End intimidating monitoring of civil society activists and ex-detainees by security services and appoint an independent, multi-ethnic, well-resourced internal affairs unit to investigate credible allegations of arbitrary detentions, abductions and torture in custody.
  4. Begin developing a longer-term plan for comprehensive security sector reform that includes job training for demobilised personnel; and devise and implement in the short term policies for handling individuals credibly alleged to be responsible for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.  

To support constitutional reform needed for lasting political stability

To the government of Sri Lanka:

  1. Launch a public outreach campaign, led by the president and prime minster, in support of expanded devolution of power to provinces.
  2. Support a mixed electoral system that maintains proportionality and the influence of smaller, regionally-dispersed parties through use of double-ballots.

To address the complex demands of transitional justice processes

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Reaffirm publicly the government’s commitment to full implementation of the 1 October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution and take initial steps to build capacity and public support for effective transitional justice, by:
    1. launching a coordinated public outreach campaign – involving the offices of the president and prime minister, the Reconciliation Secretariat (SCRM), National Unity Office (ONUR) and national dialogue ministry – to promote the value of transitional justice mechanisms and highlight links to broader rule-of-law measures, beginning with immediate distribution of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report in all three languages once Tamil and Sinhala translations are available;
    2. giving the public consultation process adequate resources and endorsement and presenting draft legislative proposals to it for popular input, with a transparent timeframe for final submission to the parliament; 
    3. publishing draft legislation for the Missing Persons Office and inviting active input from families of the missing and disappeared and other stakeholders;
    4. establishing a timeline for training judges, lawyers and investigators for participation in the special war crimes court and for passing legislation establishing command responsibility as a mode of criminal liability and incorporating war crimes and crimes against humanity into national law; and
    5. requesting the OHCHR to recommend international prosecutors and judges for participation in the special court as committed to in the resolution. 

Colombo/Brussels, 18 May 2016

A photograph from the early 1990s of an early Kamajor unit, civilian militiamen who fought against the rebellion, from Bonthe in southern Sierra Leone. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby
Commentary / Africa

In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents

As part of Crisis Group’s research into civilian vigilante groups in counter-insurgencies in Africa, Senior Research Analyst Ned Dalby went to Sierra Leone to investigate the wartime Civil Defence Forces and their core fighters, the Kamajors. For an in-depth analysis of vigilantism in the Lake Chad basin, see Watchmen of Lake Chad: Vigilante Groups Fighting Boko Haram.

Much has changed in Sierra Leone. New arrivals no longer need ride one of the rickety Russian helicopters that once shuttled between the airport on one side of the bay and Freetown, the capital, on the other. Their successor, a hovercraft, lies sadly deflated on the Atlantic Ocean’s edge. “It has a small problem”, says a passer-by. In their place, two high-speed launches buzz travellers across the water. One has Wi-Fi.

I soon arrive at the New Brookfields Hotel, an ultra-shiny establishment that makes good on its promise of “quality and comfort in the city”. Seeing it makes me realise how much of its violent past this West African state of six million people has left behind. But change doesn’t mean that everything has been forgotten. I’m here to learn about the legacy of vigilantes, or civilian auxiliaries, who played a major part in Sierra Leone’s war. The same kind of bold civilian groups are now in the thick of fighting against the resilient insurgency of Boko Haram further east in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

The hovercraft that used to shuttle travellers between Lungi airport and Freetown awaits repair. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

I soon hear that, despite the hotel’s makeover, the Brookfields site brings back uncomfortable memories for local residents. From about 1998 until the end of the war in 2002, the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) – civilian fighters endorsed and supported by the government to help suppress the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – were billeted in the old Brookfields Hotel.

The CDF’s core were fighters of the Mende tribe called the Kamajors. My questions about the CDF and the Kamajors elicit jarringly different responses: to some they were heroes who risked their lives for the democratically-elected government; to others they were a brutal tribal militia and war profiteers.

Residents of Brookfields, also the name of the neighbourhood around the hotel, fall in the latter group. They felt the brunt of the CDF’s lack of discipline and professional training. But why are Sierra Leoneans so polarised on this? How significant was the CDF’s contribution to the war effort? And why did the Kamajors believe bullets wouldn’t hurt them? Over ten days and conversations with politicians, military officers, youth workers, journalists, academics, businessmen and former CDF fighters of high and low rank, I pieced together their story.

Freetown from above. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

From Community Protectors to Paramilitaries

Kamajor means hunter in the language of the Mende tribe, predominant in the south and east of the country. Traditionally, it was a title given to a man after his initiation into a local society of hunters, recognising his skill in killing wild animals and his responsibility for protecting the community, whether from beast or man.

When the RUF launched its rebellion in 1991 in the far east of the country, coming in from Liberia, prominent civilians decided to help the army fend it off by mobilising the Kamajors. A healer from Bonthe, Allieu Kondewa, was one of the first to form a Kamajor unit. Sam Hinga Norman, a chief and former army captain in Bo district, heard of Kondewa’s group and others in Kenema formed principally by a professor, Dr. Alpha Lavalie, and replicated them in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city. By virtue of his military experience and inspiring leadership, “Pa” Norman quickly became the Kamajors’ figurehead and national face. Tribes in other parts of the country followed the Mende, charging the hunters, the local braves, with protecting communities from the RUF’s nightmarish brutality and with guiding soldiers through the bush.

The government created the CDF as an umbrella organisation for hunter groups from all tribes – an attempt to give a disparate collection of tribal militias a national character.

In 1996, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), the party of southerners and the Mende in particular, won elections. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah took up the presidency, a doctor involved with the Kamajors in Kenema, Joe Demby, became his vice president, and “Pa” Norman was appointed deputy defence minister. The government started supporting the Kamajors. This did not sit well with many who feared they would pursue narrow ethnic interests.

To allay these concerns, the government created the CDF as an umbrella organisation for hunter groups from all tribes – an attempt to give a disparate collection of tribal militias a national character. But the Kamajors remained the strongest of the groups, largely because the RUF had been most active in Mendeland, spurring young men to join up there more than elsewhere.

The army was particularly put out. Some soldiers believed the government was diverting their resources to the Kamajors. Frustration boiled over in May 1997, when junior soldiers launched a coup, forced President Kabbah into exile in next door Guinea, set up the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and invited the RUF rebels to join them in power.

Kabbah was in dire straits. As well as appealing to neighbouring countries to step in militarily, he ramped up support to the CDF, supplying them with arms and ammunition, rice and medicine. Under Norman’s leadership and with the army in disarray, the CDF became a semi-formal paramilitary force. Its motto was: “We fight for democracy”.

The Kamajors’ Wartime Bastion

In Freetown I’m told that to learn the full story I need to go to Bo, the Kamajors’ wartime bastion and control centre. My driver and I leave town early to beat the traffic and the worst of the heat, and a little over four hours and as many police checkpoints later we’re in bustling Bo.

Bo in the early morning. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

I’m welcomed by one of “Pa” Norman’s former advisers. A kind old man, he pulls up a chair for me on the concrete veranda outside his home and tells me that Norman himself used to sit in it. He perches on a wooden bench and proudly shows me a photo of himself amid the great leader’s entourage and another of Kondewa’s first Kamajor unit. The grainy photos and the contrast between the lean youth in the picture and the wrinkles of the old man in front of me give the impression that the Kamajors belong to a different time.

I ask former fighters how the Kamajors, with little to no military training, were able to keep at bay the heavily armed RUF and turncoat soldiers of the AFRC. At times, I’m told, they fought alongside professional soldiers from Executive Outcomes – the South African military company hired by Kabbah to suppress the RUF in return for diamond mining concessions – and Nigerian troops in ECOMOG, the regional force that deployed in support of the government.

But many emphasise the power of the Kamajors’ secret initiation rites. Two initiators – one shows me his CDF identity card which confirms that his official job title was indeed “Initiator” – explain how they would burn special herbs and papers printed with verses from the Quran, press the ashes into cuts in the initiate’s flesh and wash his clothes in the same mix. The concoction, they say, made fighters immune to bullets as long as they followed certain rules before and during operations. These included: don’t drink alcohol, don’t have sex and, most importantly, don’t turn back. One former CDF battalion commander puffs out his chest saying, “to this day I believe it. Shoot me now: I will not be harmed”.

A former battalion commander and foot soldier in the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) with the author, Jerihun village near Bo, Sierra Leone. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

Weak Grip on a Heavy Tool

The CDF remains a source of pride to many former members, but some senior leaders frown with regret as they talk through how these auxiliaries’ discipline unravelled. “It was difficult to control them”, former Vice President Demby tells me in his dimly lit study in Bo. The vast majority were illiterate, and I noticed that the initiator had signed his CDF card with an inky fingerprint. As the war dragged on, many joined to take advantage of government handouts, take revenge on the RUF and AFRC or settle old scores.

In places, the CDF pushed out the local chiefs and administered their own often harsh justice in kangaroo courts. A radio journalist says that in Bo the CDF committed worse crimes against civilians than even the RUF had done. A Lebanese trader on the town’s main drag curls his lip and says dismissively, “they were all the same”. Outside their home areas, in Freetown especially, the CDF robbed and harassed civilians and did much worse if they suspected them of collaborating with the enemy.

At its height, the CDF numbered an estimated 36,000 men – as recruitment was unregulated and new members not always registered, nobody can be exactly sure. With so many fighters across the country, the CDF turned into an unwieldy counter-insurgency tool. Command and control lay not with central leadership, but with local field commanders, who assumed their positions through performance on the battlefield. Disciplinary action for misconduct was at best inconsistent, at worst non-existent.

Neglect and Betrayal

At the end of the war and thereafter, the government’s mishandling of the CDF had serious political repercussions. The UN launched disarmament programs for fighters of all stripes that began to take hold from 2001. The CDF handed in their weapons in return for cash and assurances that they would be supported to find work. But the three- or six-month vocational training courses in masonry, carpentry and the like were too short, difficult to turn into a business without start-up capital and ill-matched with post-war needs. Many who took the training sold the tools they were given and became motorbike taxi drivers (ocadas), instead.

The former CDF fighters I met were aggrieved that the government hadn’t helped them more – “They used us when they needed us, then dropped us”, said one – and feel sore that there was little public recognition of their efforts. A monument erected to the CDF I saw in central Freetown had lost whatever used to stand on top of the simple concrete base, and no one had taken the trouble to repair it.

A monument to the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) in central Freetown. A metal prong projecting sideways from the top of the base used to attach the monument’s upper part. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

Worse than neglect, former CDF, the Kamajors in particular, feel the government they fought for betrayed them when it allowed three of their leaders – Norman, Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana – to be indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court, set up to hold to account those who “bore greatest responsibility” for atrocities during the conflict, indicted leaders from each of the AFRC, RUF and CDF. Norman died after a hip operation before the end of the trial; an Appeals Chamber increased Kondewa’s and Fofana’s original sentences to twenty and fifteen years respectively.

What makes this humiliation yet more painful is the widely-held belief that Norman’s arrest was less the outcome of justice taking its unavoidable course than a convenient way for President Kabbah to remove from the political playing field an erstwhile brother-in-arms, who, through his leadership, had become too powerful, too much of a threat.

Whatever the mix of motives, Kabbah and the SLPP paid dearly. The perceived betrayal of Norman and the Kamajors was a major contributing factor in the SLPP losing the 2007 elections to the country’s other major party, the northerner-dominated All People’s Congress (APC).

In elections coming up in early 2018, it looks like the APC is trying to play the Kamajor card again. Vice President Victor Foh recently invited Norman’s son, Sam Norman Jr., to come back from the UK and join the APC campaign. He accepted. Though Norman Jr. was not around during the war, in a place where name recognition carries political currency, many who would have followed the Kamajor chief to the grave may pass their allegiance from father to son.

Treasured Memory or Shameful Episode?

A Kamajor war vest in the national museum in Freetown. CRISIS GROUP/Ned Dalby

It’s true that much has changed in Sierra Leone, but the war and its aftermath still inform how people see themselves and each other and, for some, shape their political allegiances. Back in Freetown on my last day, I visit the national museum and find there a Kamajor war vest, carefully embroidered with charms and cowrie shells. Having just talked with men for whom Kamajor is still an important part of who they are, it’s odd to see it displayed behind glass like an historical exhibit.

I suspect many Sierra Leoneans would think that putting the vest in the museum’s collection a good thing, but for different reasons. Some would be glad that the Kamajors are thus commemorated; others would be pleased to see a distasteful story committed to the past. As with much relating to the Kamajors, it depends on whom you ask.

This article was updated on 10 March 2017. The previous version did not name Dr. Alpha Lavalie as the principal creator of the first Kamajor units in the Kenema area and erroneously stated that the Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted three leaders from each of the AFRC, RUF and CDF. The court indicted five members of the RUF, of whom two died before being brought to trial; four members of the AFRC, of whom one left Sierra Leone before being brought to trial; and three from the CDF.