A group of civil society organizations in Liberia staged a peaceful citywide demonstration in Monrovia on Monday, November 12, 2018, calling on the Weah government to establish a war and economic crime court in Liberia. The court is to bring to justice the alleged perpetrators of the Liberian civil war, which killed about 250,000 people over 25 years ago.
I am in Liberia and reporting on the march. Unlike my coverage of the Liberian presidential election last year, this occasion was different in that it was not about a campaign for election rather about a march for human justice. The event was talked about on public radio during the weekend with discussions of the arrival and meetings in Liberia of Ambassador Stephen Rapps, former US persecutor for the war crime court in Sierra Leone involving Liberian Former President Charles Taylor. Ambassador Rapps and Ms. Massa Washington, former commissioner of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) who also arrived in Liberia, were interviewed on air by several radio talk shows regarding possible war and economic crime court in Liberia. Their interviews and meetings were in some ways preparations for the march.
I just could not miss the event that morning; and in the process of getting to town, I did not have my regular Monday workout, which has been a ritual even when I travel. I took a public transportation to town, where the group gathered at the Centennial Pavilion. The traffic was fine, the streets were not jammed. My taxi radio was talking about the demonstration asking the listeners their opinions on the march. Most callers supported establishing the court, but others questioned its importance, considering the urgency for social and economic improvement of the country.
From the Pavilion, the demonstration continued to the US Embassy, to the European Union, to the UN Mission and finally to the campus of the University of Liberia, where the marchers climaxed the occasion. The crowd was not too large, yet the message was important and received international attention. I listened as I wrote down some key points.
But Rapps and Washington did not attend the march. I think for good reason; maybe as professionals, they did not want to politicize their purpose in Liberia. The ambassador has stated publically that he was in Liberia to consult and make clarity on the issue. He was said to have met with members of the Liberian legislature and also spoke at a conference last Saturday.
Ambassador Uchenna Emelonye, Country Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, also attended and spoke at the conference. Both ambassadors called for the need for justice for victims of the civil war. Madame Amina Mohammeh, Deputy UN Secretary-General, added her voice to the matter; “It is also critical to implement the recommendations of the TRC”, she said diplomatically telling the Weah government to comply.
The key speaker of the march was Emmanuel Savice, a Liberian national and justice advocate, who came from Canada to attend the protest. He told the crowd that he did not come to Liberia to campaign for position for representative, senator, or for president but to march with the demonstrators for justice in Liberia. He criticized those who use their skills and education only to get government jobs and abandoned the cause for the poor. He talked about the needs for war and economic crime court in Liberia. He called on the CDC led government to implement the TRC recommendations. “My two brothers and one sister were killed during the war. We want justice. We will not rest until something is done by the Liberian government”. He also called on the international community to see to it that justice is administered in Liberia through, for instance, the establishment of war and economic crime court for justice.
“Weah could become a one-term president” if he does not implement justice in Liberia, Savice warned. At each embassy, the group submitted the petition of their cause. Some of the demonstrators carried pictures of their love ones killed during the war. Some protesters were students.
Makerous Massaquoi, a student at the University of Liberia who participated in the demonstration believes that Weah does not really want a war crime court in Liberia. “He is playing games with the issue”, Massaquoi said. Makerous is a member of SUP, Student Unification Party at the university. SUP staged a demonstration last month for the missing $16 billion Liberian dollars. The group is alleged to be funded by opposition political parties. He denied that when asked.
At the protest was also James Gibson, a student at Tubman University. He believes that Weah seems to support the establishment of the court, but “the president is taking his own time”, he added.
At the campus of the university, which is a walking distance from the UN Mission, Savice told his story:
“Let me tell you my story, he cried to the audience. Everyone has a story, and I want you to hear mine”. “Do you see that lady there”, he pointed at a woman standing. “Mom, please put your hand up”, he requested. The lady did.
“She is my mother; I am the oldest of six children”, he informed. The crowd clapped and cheered.
Savice narrated that during the civil war in Monrovia, his mother, his four siblings, he, and others were made to form a line at the Stockton Creek. General Prince Johnson of the rebel forces ordered Krahn people to come out. Three persons were pulled out, their hands were tied from the back and they were dumped into the creek.
“I watched them died. We could do nothing. Whether they were Krahn or not, there were human beings and did not have to die that way”.
He further stated that his mother was separated from her children and for months they did not know her whereabouts.
“My four siblings were starved to death. I have not forgotten the incident”, he said emotionally. He pointed out that Liberians have been denied justice because they are poor. He advised the group not to ally with politicians.
“My wife and I give and commit 30% of our income for justice”, he stated. The crowd clapped and cheered again.
Savice operates an advocacy talk show in Canada and vowed to return to Liberia in April next year in the quest for justice. He also administers the “Liberian Trust Communications Chatroom” on the internet.
The march ended, and I took a car to central Monrovia. A young lady in her early 20s, maybe a college student, sat next to me in the back seat commented on the protest.
“Why are those marchers making noise for? They elected the warlords into power and now they are calling for war crime court. Let them stop noise in our ears, let them move from here man”, she added speaking in Liberian colloquialism. A man who also sat in the back agreed. The driver joined in too in support of the lady. I did not say anything; I did not even turn to look at her. I just listened.
“Why would not they tell us the benefits or non-benefits of a war crime court”? She continued and asked.
As I did last year, I tried to avoid critical discussion with other passengers even if the subject is of interest. You would not achieve anything if you differ, that is what I have observed here. If you are a Liberian and speak with an American accent, some will think that you came to Liberia to seek or take their government jobs and will view you with resentment. That is what I noticed last year during the administration of former President Sirleaf.
The driver stopped for gasoline at a station, getting only one gallon either for $580 LD (Liberian dollars) regular gas or $620 LD for diesel. That is an increase of $40LD from last month. The rate now is $157 LD to $1 US. Prices of other commodities have gone up.
“They should be talking about the price increase, instead of demonstrating”; the lady again talked about the marchers.
On the other hand, Liberia is not an oil producing country and oil price is determined by the world market. Big producing oil countries sometimes reduce production to create scarcity to increase the price, a factor of supply and demand. Local oil companies, most of them foreign businesses, retail the oil to the Liberian consumers. Consequently, the Liberian government has no control. Moreover, Liberia is not a food-producing country, though the country has a futile soil. The country is import oriented; it consumes what it does not produce, and produces what it does not consume. Price increase affects mostly the poor.
The average Liberian lives on $1.25US a day, which is $196LD. The country GDP is US$2.158 Billion (2017), and Liberia is among the ten poorest countries in the world. Yet, the combined total salary and benefits of members of the Liberian legislature from 2015-2016 was US21.852.809, according to the National Budget. Government ministers and heads of agencies made from US$10,000–US$25,000 monthly. The Weah government has reduced that amount. The current ministers and agency heads are not to receive government salary exceeding US$7,800 per month. But there is no price control; and in the mist of rising prices and poverty, most Liberians appear to want war crime court.
However, I said to myself, the lady has a point. The advocates need to tell what is really at stake in the fight for justice through the war crime court. Why a war and economic crime court? Why implementation of the TRC recommendations? Background information could be helpful.
Considering the deaths, rape, and mutilated of people and the destruction of properties caused by the civil war, the Liberian people in 2005 mandated the TRC to investigate the causes and perpetrators of the war and to make recommendations which “shall” be implemented. In 2009 under the Sirleaf government, the TRC submitted its final report with over 200 recommendations, including punishment and persecution for the alleged perpetrators of the war. The executive of the government was to implement the recommendations while the legislature was to oversee the implementation. However, President Sirleaf did not implement the recommendations during her entire 12 years of administration, seemingly because the report implicates her as an accused key perpetrator of the war. Secondly, some of the warlords were elected in the legislature and thus making it difficult to conduct its oversight responsibility relative to the recommendations.
Current President George Weah, while serving as UN peace ambassador, called in 2004 for the establishment of a war crime court for justice for the victims of the war. Other UN representatives have made similar statement requesting implementation of the TRC recommendations.
Some Liberians argue that the time is not right to bring war and economic crime court in Liberia, that the court will not bring back the deaths, that there are more important matters, such as the economy and education, that need to be addressed first, that establishing the court would be costly and persecution could cause war, since the accused perpetrators are powerful politicians threatening to bring chaos and national disunity.
Other Liberians differ. They maintain that the time is now for the court, that the new president is innocent of the war and his administration will institute justice without prejudice, that social, economic development and peace will not come about when injustice and impunity exist, that impunity would create fear, empowering perpetrators to always become kingmakers and hence fostering more fear, intimidation, and a country without law and order. The result could be the return of Liberia’s dark days and would throw the country back. They argue further that the international community, in its desire for a peaceful Liberia, will assist in financing the establishment of the court as the community has demonstrated in the war crime court for Sierra Leone.
Gbehzohngar Findley, Weah minister for foreign affairs, has recently suggested that the question of war crime court should be put in a referendum so the Liberian people would decide. Massa Washington, the TRC commissioner stated earlier, criticized the suggestion saying that apparently, the minister did not read the TRC report because it does not suggest a referendum. She indicated that the report states the method for implementation. Others said a referendum would not be appropriate because its wording could affect the result.
The current speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives Bhofal Chambers called for restorative justice, a “palava hut” styled gathering of war victims and perpetrators discussing peace and reconciliation. Cletus Wottorson, former pro-temp of the Senate during Sirleaf first term, had proposed this suggestion. However, critics said “it lacks teeth” and does not really and practically address the pains of the victims. They also said that it lacks the persecutory action to stop future atrocities.
The call for the court is getting louder and louder from my observation since I have been in Liberia. Most Liberians want the court while others do not for reasons mentioned. Additionally, Ambassador Rapp, who persecuted war crime in Sierra Leone, has alluded to possible international assistance in financing court cost. Therefore, Liberia may not bear the cost.
Opponents make a good point regarding possible reprisal from ex-warlords and it could create a problem: unless protection is given to court testifiers, the lives of powerless Liberians could be in jeopardy, causing serious consequences.
A case in point is the Fernando Po investigation of the early 1930s when Liberia was accused of forced labor practice and slavery. After the forced resignation of President Charles King and his Vice President Allen Yancy, the League of Nations representatives conducted the investigation and found Liberia guilty. But King’s supporters and President Edwin Barclay took revengeful action against those Liberians who testified against King. A result of this retaliatory measure was the Sasstown War of that period. The war lasted for about 5 years and killed many people.
While the above debate is going on, President Weah has relatively been silent. Since his election, the president has been dragging his feet regarding the recommendations and his previous pledge. Some analysts and observers view that Weah’s reluctance is due to political factors in that some of the accused perpetrators supported his election, and the president has expressed protection of the former president Sirleaf.
The assertion is true. In the 2017 election, Prince Johnson, whom Savice stated in his story, supported Weah in the second round of the election. Johnson is a powerful two-term senator from Nimba County, the second largest county in Liberia and is a vote-rich political subdivision. He was a rebel general and an ex-ally of Charles Taylor.
Weah did express protection for Sirleaf during the election. Whether that meant to protect a Liberian citizen from danger or from criminal persecution, only Weah and Sirleaf know. Further, there is no tangible evidence that Sirleaf supported Weah financially or by vote. Sirleaf Unity Party (UP) accused her of not supporting her Vice President Joseph Boakai, who was in the race. Therefore the party and others may have suspected her support to Weah. Before, it was speculated that she supported Liberty Party Candidate Charles Brumskine. Boakai was a weak candidate, but UP had no choice. He was the most experienced politician in the party and was loyal VP and committed party member.
An analysis of the election results shows that Weah would have won anyway without the senator support. Weah would have still won the 14 counties. But his total vote percent would have lower. Johnson’s support, nevertheless, weakened the already broken back of the Boakai candidacy, forcing the vice president to making a desperate coalition with failed opposition candidates of the Congo stock. Secondly, contrary to assumed view, the Sirleaf factor appeared to have no impact on Weah’s victory. One hypothesis was that a public support of Weah by Sirleaf would have hurt Weah. Sirleaf’s popularity was declining in the closing months of her presidency factored by the disunity and infighting within her party. Another factor was her failure as president. Let us get back below to the current debate on the issue.
While Liberians at home express for war crime court, in the United States, former representative Daniel Donovan of New York introduced a bill in Congress calling for the implementation of the TRC recommendations and “the establishment of an extraordinary criminal tribunal for Liberia”. The bill, HR. 1055, was co-sponsored by Georgian Congressman Hank Johnson and others. The bill has been passed in the lower house and referred to the Senate. A motion is drafted by votes and put on the Senate calendar. In the passage of a bill, the Senate version and the House version are reconciled. The final version is sent to the president for signature. The president may sign, veto, or pocket the bill. A vetoed bill can be overridden by 2/3 vote of Congress. A signed bill becomes law. A bill, while signed, can be debated for funding and implementation.
Donovan, though was defeated in this Midterm election, is close to Trump and has discussed the Liberian issue with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. Donovan can lobby for the bill. Hank Johnson, a Democrat, was re-elected. He and the other colleagues can fight for the bill.
Lobby efforts and public opinions help drive bills in the US. As stated in my recent article regarding the Midterm election, there are Liberian and American groups advocating for the bill. There seems to be a strong chance that the Senates would pass the bill and Trump could sign it. Another factor is that five American nuns were brutally murdered by rebels in the civil war. Their killer, or the person responsible, is said to have confessed. The American people would want justice for the death.
Other Americans could object to the bill saying that the president and the Senate should focus on US domestic affairs and America should not police the world and that the establishment of a criminal tribunal in Liberia would cost American tax dollar. But as also indicated in the article, even if the bill encounters a problem in the Senate, Trump could take a special presidential action on the Liberian matter as the chief architect of US foreign policy.
The below discusses what I think would be the consequences if the bill is passed, signed, and ready for implementation.
To begin with, President Weah, in his right mind will not refuse to comply with the resolution after serious thought. Although Liberia is a sovereign nation, the United States has great impact and influence on the country. Both countries have a strong historical tie, which goes back to the 1820s. As others have expressed, “Liberia is US responsibility”. Liberia, as a sovereign independent state, was founded by the American Colonization Society, which in 1821 transported US Black ex-slaves to Liberia.
But let say that Weah refuses to comply. The US will enforce the policy. America could put on Liberia economic pressures, including the refusal to give aid, business investment opportunities, and diplomatic cooperation. US companies could be advised not to do business with the Weah government. America could also request her international partners and their companies not to invest in Liberia. She could classify the country as a nation which encourages the culture of impunity, corruption, and injustice. She could warn that any major US company doing business with the Weah administration is doing so at its own risk. No rightful and serious business would take such risk. US action would get UN support as some of the organization officials had advised Liberia to implement the TRC recommendations. US or Trump could argue that Weah had been warned and Weah’s continual behavior of protecting and supporting criminals and impunity could lead to instability in the West African sub-region and thus threatening international peace.
The US could also ban high government officials of the Weah government from traveling to America. Trump, through the State Department, could recall his ambassador in Liberia for consultation (the first act) and ask that the Liberian embassy in Washington reduce the country team, key staff of the embassy. As US pressures and those of her partner countries mount, domestic oppositions and instability would increase, calling for Weah resignation or removal. This internal pressure would not only come from the established political oppositions, but also from the masses who would greatly feel the economic pain.
The now political oppositions would like this because they know they cannot gain power through the ballot box. Their poor performance in the 2017 election attests to the fact. They know the Liberian people will not elect them. So seizing this opportunity would be welcoming. But that will not help Liberia future; interim administrations never worked well in Liberia. Amos Sawyer and Gyude Bryant governments are examples.
Sadly moreover, most of the opportunists around Weah would jump boat, denouncing Weah calling him a dictator who does not listen. Madam Sirleaf, Senator Prince Johnson and others accused of the civil war would also denounce him saying that they wanted the war court to clear their names, but Weah advised against it. Jumping ship, denouncing, and putting blame on the leader are what usually happened in this scenario.
The above scenario is not to create fear but to indicate what could happen. It is to say that America is not a joke and you should not take her “for fun”.
HAS THIS HAPPENED BEFORE?
Yes. Though not exactly in the above fashion; US influence has helped remove leaders whom the government claimed were bad and difficult. Maurice Bishop, Grenada, 1983; General Manuel Noriega, Panama, 1989; Saddam Hussein, Iraq, 2003; Muammar Gaddafi, Libya, 2011, Samuel Doe, Liberia, 1990; and Charles Taylor, Liberia, 2003. Perhaps before exercising its influence or policy action, the US administration warned the leaders of the situation.
Beside Doe and Taylor, international pressure was put on Liberia in the past. For instance, President Edwin Barclay practiced a culture of impunity when he tried to protect President King and to revenge on advocates. The League of Nations and domestic pressure forced King from power and later made Barclay implement requested reforms, which also put the country financial structure under international management. Here Liberia almost lost her power as a sovereign nation.
The culture of impunity had created domestic unrest and prompted international pressure on Liberia: during Liberian President Daniel Howard administration, the regime protected a powerful politician accused of killing Kru chiefs in cold blood. The alleged killing took place in the Arthur Barclay administration which Howard succeeded. The impunity together with the imposition of taxation without representation led to the Kru revolt of 1915-1916. The resistance caught international attention and caused US pressure on the Howard administration by refusing financial assistance to Liberia.
If should be stated, regarding US influence to remove leaders from power, that in world politics or international relations, no nation or leader wants to be viewed among nations as a bully. Nations and their leaders are cognizant of this reality and therefore behave accordingly. America continues to be a great nation, not only by her might but importantly by her inherent value and principle in justice and in her love and care for her people, providing opportunities and equality for all. It is this culture that attracts others to her shores, and of which others admired.
Even the late Cuban President Fidel Castro, despite the unfriendly relation between the two governments, expressed admiration of the American people care for the little guy in his historic interview with Barbara Walters in 1977. In other words, while the US may use force to achieve her international objective, the American people are generally kind and caring.
IF THE SHOE WAS ON THE OTHER FOOT
Role-playing can be used to see how a person would behave if placed in another person’s shoe or situation. Lawyers, behavioral scientists, and other analysts use it in case studies and to know how it feels.
There are those who wonder why President Weah would refuse to establish war and economic crime court for justice in Liberia, or why would him not pay attention to US call for “implementation of the TRC recommendations and the establishment of an extraordinary criminal tribunal in Liberia”?
Let say that he is refusing or will refuse in order to protect Sirleaf and others charged in the war crime, would either one of them protect Weah if the shoe were on the other foot? Let put it directly, would Sirleaf refuse US warning in order to protect Weah, if she were the current president and Weah were the former? The answer would definitely be no. She would welcome the call to save her administration because she knows very well of US abilities and capabilities. Her action would be justified; self-preservation, protecting oneself and interest. Protecting her administration would be paramount. Why would not Weah do the same?
WEAH COULD BE THE ONE AND AWARDED
If Weah carries out peace, justice, reconciliation, and the implementation of the TRC recommendations, he could become a candidate for world peace award, enhancing his legacy. He would accomplish what Sirleaf could not do. Emmanuel Savice mentioned this award in his speech at the march. Because of justice, foreign capital and businesses would come to Liberia. Needed companies would comfortably invest in Liberia and their investment would be secured.
Corruption could be minimized for fear of persecution because of enforced law and order. Relationship and partnership with the international community would improve because of justice and the care for people. With Weah’s international celebrity status as a world soccer star, carrying out peace and justice as a president would add to his profile bringing development to Liberia and encouraging other leaders to do the same.
It is not late for Weah. He is the country giant and the Liberian people love him. But he must not take his popularity and the love of the people for granted. Protecting just the powerful against the desire of the people will serve him just for a while. He must make difficult decisions without fear. His conscience must be his guide. He must be truthful and sincere to his words, he must stand for what he said when he was not Mr. President. Political friends, kingmakers, and sycophants will not protect and stand with him when the going gets rough. He must write a new page for justice and development in the Liberian political history for generations to come. He must govern with justice, peace, and fairness.
The late US President John Kennedy comes to mind of the need to withstand political temptation and consideration in pursuing one’s destiny and divine purpose. In the 60s, America was faced with the call for racial equality and justice. John Kennedy as a candidate for president expressed concern about the issue and vowed to do something about it if elected. He was the hope of the Blacks, the young, the old, and the new America. But upon election, he started wavering particularly on the Negro question in fear of the Southern politicians, powerful financiers, and kingmakers.
In fact, he tried to stop the civil right and justice advocates from having their planned march in Washington. He invited the leadership at the White House to placate them and discourage them. But they were determined. They staged one of the greatest and largest demonstrations in American racial history. It was at this march Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech, “I have a dream”. Certainly, that dream came in part with Barack Obama, a Black, and an African to become president of the United States of America. He became the first of his race to serve as president of the most powerful country in the world.
Unfortunately, Kennedy was assassinated. His Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Southerner, signed and implemented the civil right legislation, a milestone in the fight for civil right and justice in America. He did so against the wishes and threat of the powerful politicians, kingmakers, and the biggest segregationists and racists. Johnson completed Kennedy’s term and in 1964, defeated Barry Goldwater by a landslide in that year’s election.
Kennedy went on to become one of the famous and greatest American presidents. Johnson became the father of the Great Society and champion of the civil right law with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Again, a leader must make the toughest decision without fear and must stand for justice and right.
Weah could be the one for Liberia!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II is a Liberian national. He came to America as a teenager. Was educated at Georgetown University in international affairs. Was a special assistant to former US Congressman Les Aspin. He worked with the 1993 transitional team of Bill Clinton, his schoolmate. He is a writer and a political commentator.