“Peacemaking is a marathon,” said Lebanese peace activist May El-Khalil. Who would have thought that football could be a tool for peace? In what follows, we will examine the post-conflict impact of football in Sierra Leone to determine the extent of its influence. This will prompt us to reflect on how sport can be an unexpectedly effective tool in the peacemaking process. However, we must first gain a deeper understanding of the civil war in Sierra Leone.
The Sierra Leone Civil War was a decade-long conflict that began in 1991 and ended in 2002 in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. Various rebel groups fought against the Sierra Leonean government and its allies during the conflict. Foday Sankoh led the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the main rebel group. Both sides committed numerous atrocities against civilians during the war. Amnesty International said of the war: “The civil war in Sierra Leone was one of the bloodiest armed conflicts of the late 20th century. Over a million people have been forced to flee their homes and tens of thousands have been killed in the most sadistic ways imaginable. In addition to destroying an already fragile economy, the war set back Sierra Leone’s social and political development by years. Additionally, the war led to the widespread use of child soldiers. In 2002, a peace accord was signed between the RUF and the Sierra Leonean government, ending the conflict. A UN-led peacekeeping mission followed, which helped stabilize the country and led to democratic elections in 2002. The end of the war was followed by DDR.
DDR, or Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, is the process of demobilizing and reintegrating former combatants into society. DDR is frequently used in conjunction with social reconstruction efforts to promote peace and stability in post-conflict periods. In Africa, football has a unique and powerful appeal. Due to its popularity and ability to organize individuals and communities, football has played a crucial role in the post-conflict social integration of Sierra Leonean youth. The presence of ex-combatants in the reintegration camp caused a lot of tension, but the sport provided them with lucrative activities.
The DDR camp administrators were required to bring these children back to a civilian mindset because they possessed military-minded intellects and ideas. Football was an effective method of altering their outlook as normal citizens. However, football is not a magic tool to help with social reintegration and it must be seen as part of a wider strategy which also includes school, vocational training and language teaching. By promoting largely cooperative environments and including warrior children and teens from multiple combat factions, the sport added a useful element to DDR that few other group activities could match.
The social reintegration of former child soldiers after a conflict can be greatly facilitated by their participation in sports activities. In particular, football can help change their perspectives and foster cooperation between different factions. Although not a panacea, the sport has been a useful tool in the wider process of rebuilding Sierra Leone after years of civil war, although clearly insufficient on its own. Peacebuilding is always a marathon, and we have to be at it for the long haul.