Afew months ago I attended Sunday service at the Chapel of Faith Ministries in the main hall of a primary school in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. The pastor, Prince Yormie Johnson, became a celebrity of sorts in the early 1990s when he filmed his execution of the country’s president in the first months of what would turn out to be a brutal 14-year civil war. He has since found Jesus: ‘I am the servant of God whom He took from the battlefield and cleansed with His blood.’ I had come to hear him proclaim the Word. I wasn’t looking for an interview and knew in any case that these days he wasn’t inclined to grant them, but I wanted to see him and hear him and sit in a congregation that still believed in miracles. If I was lucky, I might even see one: miracles are said to be his stock-in-trade. The hall itself, which can seat 160, was only half-full, mainly women and children in their Sunday best, some of whom smiled shyly at me but otherwise kept their distance. As I waited for the service to begin, I made a few discreet notes and presently looked up to see Prince Johnson himself striding towards me. He wore a light grey silk suit and pale pink tie, a matching handkerchief in his breast pocket. He was shorter than I had expected but bulkier and without the beard he had worn three decades earlier. He shook my hand firmly, looked intently at me through his steel-rimmed glasses and hurried away before I could speak. He was back an hour later for a brief, unremarkable sermon and took straight off before I was out of the building. I lingered in the front yard for half an hour in the hope that I might catch sight of him again – but without luck.
I first visited Liberia in November 1989, the month the Berlin Wall came down. At the time, I was on the Africa desk of Index on Censorship and preparing a report on threats to freedom of expression. There was no shortage of material in Liberia and the other countries I visited. In that pre-digital era of one-party states and military dictatorships, locked into place by the Cold War, journalists were often in danger, whether they worked for monolithic state-owned radio and TV corporations or in the precarious world of independent print media. The regime in Liberia, one of the worst, was headed by Dr Samuel Doe, a master-sergeant who had shot his way to power in 1980 when he was 28. One of the cases on my file was that of the TV reporter Charles Gbenyon, who called into question the results of the 1985 elections. Doe had him arrested, stripped and taken to the Executive Mansion. His body later turned up carefully arranged on the beach, with his throat cut, head towards the sea and feet towards the mansion. One month after I left, rebels under Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) invaded from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire and rapidly occupied 90 per cent of the country. Less than a year later, Doe himself met a gruesome end and Prince Johnson achieved a fabulous notoriety.
Johnson, a former career soldier, had been Taylor’s second in command in the NPFL but they had fallen out by the time of Taylor’s invasion. Johnson was biding his time on the outskirts of Monrovia and was only prevented from capturing the Executive Mansion – as was Taylor – by Ecomog, a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force: Nigeria’s military regime didn’t welcome the prospect of a former army man in civvies or a political creature like Taylor overthrowing another military regime in a nearby country. Even so, Doe was becoming a thorn in Ecomog’s side, his judgment clouded by drugs and alcohol. He had refused Nigeria’s offer of asylum when it became obvious that his time was up. Johnson, who had made his peace with Ecomog after abandoning Taylor, got the green light from Nigeria to get rid of Doe and give Liberia a fresh start. Or so the Nigerians hoped.
Doe’s death quickly became a scandal. Some of the murder scenes are available on YouTube. Drinking Budweiser and slapping his open palm on the table while a minion fans him with a towel, Johnson orders his men to cut off the president’s ears. Worse follows. Johnson’s reputation was terrifying. He would, for example, kill a person one day and ask after them the next. Taylor was incensed by Johnson’s defection from the NPFL and sweet-talked him back into the fold before turning on him for his treachery. Johnson fled once more to the safety of Ecomog and was lucky to be given asylum in Nigeria – which is where he became a pastor. So did a number of former Liberian warlords, including General Butt Naked, who as his alias suggests went into battle without a stitch of clothing, and who was said to be more terrifying than the Prince himself.
Unable at first to gain full control of Liberia and seize the presidency, Taylor expanded his operation by unleashing the Revolutionary United Front, an aspiring insurgency in Sierra Leone, whose members had supported him in his attempt on Liberia and now wanted help in return. The RUF, aided and abetted by Taylor’s special forces, wreaked havoc in the country. In 1997, after an internationally brokered peace agreement in Liberia, Taylor finally took office as president. He continued sending men and materiel to the RUF in Sierra Leone and, by 1999, was back at war in his own country, under siege from two new opposition groups. By the time the war in Sierra Leone ended in January 2002, at least fifty thousand people were dead; in Liberia, where Taylor stepped down after a peace deal was signed in August 2003, the lowest estimate was half a million. The symbiotic rebel movements in the two countries had rekindled dismal images of Africa as a primitive and backward continent just as the sheen was wearing off South Africa’s ‘rainbow’ transition. But the peace in Liberia held, and Johnson returned to run for a Senate seat, which he won, in the 2005 election. The same year, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in Monrovia, along the lines of the South African model. In its final report in 2010, it described Senator Johnson as ‘the most notorious’ of the rebel commanders, responsible for more than 2500 killings in two years, and recommended that he, along with Taylor and 114 others, be tried for war crimes by a special criminal court; a further 49 were to be barred from public office for thirty years.
In the interval, Sierra Leone had also set up its own TRC, along with a special criminal court (the two sat concurrently), to try people suspected of human rights abuses during the country’s 11-year war. Controversially, Taylor was the only non-national whose misdemeanours came under scrutiny. When the court published its indictment he had nowhere to run: in return for resigning the presidency, he had been promised asylum in Nigeria, but this was only a ruse designed to get him out of the Executive Mansion. In 2006 he was handed over to Liberia and then transferred to Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, where the special court sat under the authority of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. To add to the controversy, it was decided to try Taylor at The Hague on the grounds that his presence in Sierra Leone for the duration of a lengthy trial might subvert the precarious peace. In 2012 he was convicted and sentenced to fifty years, though he never took part personally in the atrocities committed by his ‘special forces’ in Sierra Leone.
Today Liberians still argue bitterly about the Taylor trial and the sentence handed down by the ICC, but the real source of contention is not whether Taylor was or wasn’t a war criminal but why he became a focus of international justice in the first place. The issue here is even-handedness. The court in Freetown was set up under the aegis of the ICC after a request to the UN Security Council from the Sierra Leonean government. But three permanent members – China, Russia and the US – are not party to the treaty that established the ICC, and there is scepticism not just in Liberia but across the continent as to why three major world powers should approve the prosecution of war crimes in Africa when they wouldn’t dream of letting their own citizens go before an international criminal court.
There was also the awkward fact that the George W. Bush administration (in concert with Tony Blair’s government) was at the time waging an even more devastating (and equally illegal) war on Iraq, also to unseat a president, and that a previous administration had supplied arms to the Libyan rebels to overthrow Taylor’s mentor. But the ‘international’ NGOs were on hand to provide the moral imperative to justify this latest example of realpolitik that has latterly seen only Africans indicted. One of them, Human Rights Watch, even put out a short documentary detailing their efforts to help establish Sierra Leone’s special court in the first place, and their subsequent success in convincing ‘the entire’ Security Council that Taylor’s exile was ‘only temporary’, which they proved by making it ‘clear’ to the then Nigerian president that while on a trip to Washington he would not meet with Bush unless Taylor was surrendered to justice.
Liberia’s refusal to set up a criminal court or implement any other recommendations from its own TRC in Monrovia made it possible for Johnson to run for a second term in the Senate, in 2012, the year Taylor was sentenced. Johnson won again. The Liberian TRC granted amnesty to 36 of the most egregious ex-combatants, including General Butt Naked, on the grounds that they ‘co-operated with the TRC, admitted to the crimes committed, spoke truthfully before the commission and expressed remorse’. Johnson had mocked the entire process by turning up at the hearings with much flurry and fanfare and ridiculing the commissioners. This looked rash on the face of it, but he had little to fear. The country’s first postwar president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former World Bank staffer and Nobel Prize-winner (and Africa’s first elected woman leader), was among those the TRC recommended banning from public office for her part in Liberia’s tragedy. (It transpired, among other things, that she had given money to Taylor, whom she had worked alongside in President Doe’s cabinet before both aides fell out with their boss.) Johnson Sirleaf was not going to let the TRC get in the way of a possible second term and dismissed out of hand the TRC’s call for a special court. ‘Truth and reconciliation … has transformed into the Palava Hut,’ she declared, ‘And so I don’t care what you say.’ Hillary Clinton described her as ‘a very accomplished leader dedicated to the betterment of the Liberian people’. The UN Human Rights Council is still muttering about imposing sanctions on Liberia in the coming year if the government fails to implement the TRC’s recommendations, but only the Security Council is empowered to do that, so nobody is taking the threat seriously.
Johnson Sirleaf mostly made the right noises about fighting ‘public enemy number one’ – i.e. corruption – but when asked by the local media why she had failed to sack twenty corrupt ministers all she could say was: ‘Because our system is like that … you need to understand our culture, our values, our systems.’ During her second term she appointed three of her sons to various lucrative positions. One of them, Charles Sirleaf, is currently facing charges of economic sabotage, misuse of public money and criminal conspiracy following the alleged disappearance of more than US$100 million in newly minted Liberian banknotes during his tenure as a deputy governor of the central bank. Another, Robert Sirleaf, is implicated in the collapse of the national oil company. When asked why she had appointed them, Johnson Sirleaf said it was because the country needed ‘specialised skill’.
In 2018 she handed over the presidency to George Weah, a former striker for AC Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City, inter alia, and three times African Footballer of the Year. In round two of the elections, running against Johnson Sirleaf’s vice president, Weah took more than 60 per cent of the vote. He has a history of fiery behaviour: during his time with AC Milan he lashed out at a Porto defender in the players’ tunnel after an away draw, apparently in response to racist taunts. Whether he is fit for high office is anybody’s guess, but the same was true of Doe, Taylor and – disappointingly – Johnson Sirleaf. In any case, people express their doubts quite openly. I arrived in Monrovia as preparations were underway for a demonstration the following day organised by an umbrella group, Council of Patriots, to protest against bad governance, corruption and economic hardship. There was some concern that the security forces might react with their usual heavy-handedness but the protest went off peacefully. The EU, which runs a generous budget support programme in Liberia, had warned that any government violence would be unacceptable.
The Reverend Johnson and his devoted congregation are happy with the idea that Weah could hold out for two terms. In a recent sermon Johnson proclaimed him ‘our leader for 12 years’. This was after he had received assurances from Weah’s people that he would not be handed over to a court – national, regional or international. But he was also advised to zip his mouth, which is why he gave me the slip when I turned up for Sunday service. Jewel Taylor, Charles’s wife, is also happy with her post as Weah’s vice president: she affects to know nothing of her husband’s behaviour before and during her stint as First Lady. ‘Mind you,’ she told a local newspaper, ‘they were talking about Sierra Leone. It was not a Liberian issue.’ Lack of accountability, among powerful families, clans, political colleagues and comrades-in-arms, is guaranteed to flourish when we Africans invoke ‘our culture, our systems, our values’ as our best defence, as Johnson Sirleaf did. But we’re not alone in this.
Corruption and hypocrisy tend to be systemic: if you see them at the top you’re sure to encounter them at the bottom. Liberia has been rebuilt with impressive speed; the road networks are now even better than they were when I was last there. But the graft has got worse. On my trip in a shared taxi from the border of Côte d’Ivoire to Monrovia, a journey of about eight hours, we were stopped more than half a dozen times by Immigration and Customs and charged an informal fee each time. On one occasion on the Liberian side, having refused to pay, I was singled out for a one-on-one interview by a ‘chief’ in the privacy of his office: ‘a big man like you’, he said, could surely ‘find something’ for him. We both laughed as I peeled off a few notes from the wad of local currency I had to cart around for this sort of occasion. Anyway, he explained, it was a security issue: no money, no surveillance, and no safety for travellers or foreign nationals. Didn’t I know about the civil war that had raged in Liberia back in the day? I was later told that he and his colleagues hadn’t been paid for months.
Monrovia has been reconstructed from the ruins of the conflict, but a second wave of postwar building, including a new National Assembly complex, courtesy of China, is the most striking change. Not far from the Executive Mansion, the downtown area, which was badly damaged during the war, is now again as commercialised as it was thirty years ago, with street vendors crowding out the entrances to the shops, but the Lebanese-owned hotels, once popular with travellers and diplomats, are shuttered, along with their ground-floor restaurants where food used to be plentiful and cheap. Monrovia has become more dangerous, according to its residents, though there are no up-to-date crime figures: the evidence is anecdotal. Gangs of adults known as ‘boys’, many of whom fought as children in the civil war and have been rejected by their families, roam some parts of town. They’re older now, but still ready recruits for the next warlord with a bit of cash to hand out and a promise to fill their heads with.
Even though he has been advised to keep his politics to himself, Johnson has threatened to restart the war if the TRC remains intent on a special criminal court for Liberia (‘a dangerous path’, in his words, ‘that will lead to chaos’). It’s never a good sign when people look back with fondness to the relative stability of the Cold War years. An old friend, a civil servant who lived through the war as a teenager, spoke of Doe’s period in office as a welcome moment of peace. I asked him if he’d like to come with me to Johnson’s church, but he was sickened by the idea of a murderer preaching the Gospel. It struck me that Johnson isn’t unique in this, but I heard the sentiment repeated by other people I ran into – including journalists such as the editor of the Daily Observer. My visit to his office left me feeling melancholic about the state of the press. When I was last in Monrovia, his was one of two fiercely independent newspapers that had borne the brunt of Doe’s fury: Doe had the office firebombed over the matter of the disputed elections that had cost Charles Gbenyon his life.
At the time, I was astonished by the energy and commitment of the journalists I met. Now it felt different. The Daily Observer can print whatever it likes, but the commitment has dwindled, along with the readership: everybody is getting all the news they could want from the internet. The editor, browsing on his screen as we talked, told me the paper was scraping by on government ads. His predecessors would have been scornful. Bring back the old days? It’s not a thought I want to hear myself thinking. The one I trust is that Liberia is not alone in this part of the world. Nigeria is prey to the same kinds of corruption and drift, as it was when it entered the Liberian war nearly thirty years ago as the de facto head of Ecomog. According to one source, the generals in Abuja looted four-fifths of Ecomog allocations over the years, as they let people like Johnson and his army of children terrorise the country.