By: Sheku Mohamed Gassimu
OneVillage Partners (OVP) works with rural villages in Eastern Sierra Leone. OVP believes that true community progress is about building the skills and mindset for a community’s self-reliance. We believe that development is about people, and that people can change when given the opportunity to build skills through accountability and total inclusion. As a community-led organization, OVP is very aware of how the roles of the traditional local governance system are significant in supporting change. Therefore, OVP always seeks approval from traditional authorities before entering a new community. The village leadership structure in Sierra Leone is very complex. Many of the characteristics of this system are remnants of colonial governance, although there have been many attempts by the central government to modernize.
Village leadership is hierarchical and ancestral. Corruption is rampant and has been especially since the civil war, which lasted from 1991-2002. Village leadership is thought to have always been this way and leaders themselves don’t feel or see much need to change – the status quo reigns supreme. Throughout the civil war, many Sierra Leoneans were displaced from rural areas (where the war was particularly devastating) to larger cities or even other countries. During this displacement– Sierra Leoneans’ worldview and view of leadership itself was changed. They were exposed to new ideas and strategies but once they returned to their rural homes, they realized that nothing had changed – the leadership was still hierarchical and not transparent, causing social fragmentation and mistrust between leaders and community members.
Leadership at the village level is divided into many different categories. The first tier of leadership at the village level are Household Heads. Households Heads will be a male leader of a prominent family – generally with a very recognizable name. Politics within the village is very hereditary and people will go to great lengths to have their daughters or sons marry someone from prominent village families in order to make their way into the important decision-making and perks that come from being a part of a prominent or “royal” household.
Next, in the chain of authority at the village level are Quarter Heads. Quarter Heads serve as leaders for one of the sections of a particular village. Villages will often have a Quarter Head and a Women’s Quarter Head. Quarter Heads are the second tier of village leadership and are again often members of prominent families that have been born into the privilege of being a leader. After the Quarter Heads are Town Chiefs and the Town Speaker, who is respectively appointed by the Town Chief. The Town Chief is a prominent male member of an important family and the Chieftaincy will rotate from Quarter to Quarter as Chiefs pass away or can no longer hold their role. If someone passes away, an election might be held or the current Leader may just pass off the role to someone else.
People are qualified due to their lineage to be a Town Chief or Paramount Chief. Paramount Chieftaincy is a traditional system of local government and an integral element of governance in Sierra Leone. The Paramount Chief leads all the Town Chiefs in his Chiefdom and regulates all the affairs of all those villages. The Paramount Chief appoints a Chiefdom Speaker, who also likely comes from a ruling family and supports the Paramount Chief in his role. Once the Paramount Chief has been elected they are there for life.
Disputes in rural villages are first dealt with by the Household Head. If the Household Head is unable to solve the dispute, the Quarter Head gets involved. If the Quarter Head can’t solve the dispute, the Town Chief gets involved and the case is seen at the Town Barray, and finally if not solved, then the defendant and the plaintiff go to the Paramount Chief to reach a resolution. The Paramount Chief can send cases to the police and it could be taken to the judicial system. At every step in this dispute settlement endeavor, the plaintiff is expected to pay a fee to the leader for their services in conflict mediation. If the defendant has a counter-claim, they may also be required to pay a fine. These fees are kept by leaders and often not spent productively on community development. Sometimes, leaders will even impose unfair or unlawful fines on the community members bringing forth the case. Thus, a culture of top down mediation prevails and community members are not attuned to working together to seek solutions to their problems. This culture prevails in their attitudes about solving problems on the community level.
OVP’s approach has been a catalyst for change in community perspectives about leadership and the need for total participation and inclusion. Throughout OVP’s engagement with villages, we consistently see that trust and understanding of collaboration increases due to our community-led approach. OVP works diligently to not just impart values of inclusion and transparency within the community-at-large, we also work to shift the mindset of village leaders in order for holistic change to be possible. Our work has also brought about new community leadership by creating room for different perspectives in village development. We are even beginning to see people outside of the traditional ruling families join in to be a part of community leadership and change, simply because they are given the opportunity to do so. In OVP villages, the youths and women are gaining respect and recognition in their contributions to development decision making. As leaders are custodians of their communities, their involvement into development activities is very significant. This means we need to work with them as development partners, by building their skills and modeling leadership that is transparent and accountable to everyone. By doing this, Chiefs gain more respect, and will be able to tap the potential of their people to develop their community, become self-reliant and thrive.