The Chief of the Traditional Council, Chief Zanzan Kanwor took the microphone and after greeting the crowd, said, “we the traditional people have our ways. Last month, a group of young men went in the bush. When they returned home, one of them was missing. After a few days and the parents’ complain, we took them to the police and they locked them up. The CID came and investigated more than one week. Nothing. Then we asked permission to bring sassywood. By the end of the day, the boys admitted killing their friends and we turned them to the police for trial. We want our sassywood, you people can keep your CID.”
When he ended, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said that sassywood was made illegal longtime ago because people thought it was taking us back and was not reliable. The Chief was adamant and said, “what you do and what we do can go side by side. You don’t have to stop what we do.” Although it was said at the beginning that people should refrain from clapping, there was thunderous applause as the Chief walked back to his seat, waving his cowtail.
This argument had started when the Minister of Justice Christina Tah said there was a need to discuss the issue of traditional justice. She said many people in the society believe in traditional means of justice and have very little faith in the modern justice system. She said this was not just a phenomenon of the countryside and gave the example of some of her personal well educated friends in Monrovia who called sassywood to settle a dispute about a lost wallet. They brought sassywood, applied it to all six people who were in the room and none was caught. Just as they pondered how it was possible that a wallet could be lost and nobody stole it, a phone call came from the restaurant where the man had forgotten his wallet. The story had been reported to Minister of justice Tah by one of the people involved in the incident, now a convert to sassywood.
Chief Justice Johnnie Lewis intervened and said that the item should be discussed in group session. Then someone suggested that people run to traditional system because the modern judiciary was weak. Minister of Labor Tiawon Gongloe said that the low level of training of the magistrates was a serious predicament and Chief Justice Lewis challenged him to name one such magistrate.
Then came the issue of schools in rural areas. President Sirleaf said that everywhere she goes, people ask for more schools. “These are usually communities of 5 to 6 families who live just three or four miles from another small community…” Someone in the audience suggested that people be encouraged to live in bigger towns if they want to send their children to school. The Minister of Internal Affairs cited the example of Sinoe County where Superintendent Milton Teahjay was able to convince small communities to move closer to Unification Town where schools and health centers were built and so far it had worked. The Superintendent t of Bong County R. Jackson said the issue of small communities has to do with land security. “People are afraid that if they move, someone would come and take ownership of their land.” A suggestion was put forward to have government survey land at no cost and protect the ownership of those who want to move closer to bigger towns. The Superintendent of Cape Mount said they have tried to resolve the problem by building dormitories around large schools and parents provide feeding. She said the pilot project is so far working.
Earlier, there was a back-and-forth between Minister of Finance Ngafuan and President Sirleaf about the issue of expenditures. Minister Kofi Woods of Public Works had complained that the slow pace in obtaining funds from the Ministry of Finance had a negative effect on the implementation of quick impact projects. Minister Ngafuan blamed it on the procurement system, which he said, needed to be improved. The President intervened and said that the Ministry of Finance should ensure that the budget is fully expended by the end of the fiscal year. “ We cannot have projects stalled because Finance is slow in making payment.”
Ellen Loj, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General said that government should try to deploy police in the leeward counties. US Ambassador Linda Greenfield said that the police should be capacited and said that her government had helped to train the ERU (Emergency Response Unit) that has been very effective so far in the city of Monrovia.
The open forum was chaired by President Sirleaf and there were about 400 people from government agencies, corporations, development partners, traditional chiefs and people from various sectors.
Earlier, the audience gave a standing ovation to the Bassa Choir after they sang the National Anthem in Bassa. In the afternoon, the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) Special Retreat broke into 16 working groups, covering every aspect of governance.
Discussion groups will continue until tomorrow afternoon.