War Crimes Court: What it means for Liberian Body-Politics and Fragile Security

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Monrovia, Liberia- In recent weeks, there have been an outcry for the establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia; mostly from members of the opposition block. These outcries by some political actors have made references to atrocities committed during the 14-year civil conflict, as well as implementation of recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While these outcries are growing daily, there are also some who are against the establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia, terming it as a security risk to the nation’s fragile peace. After carefully following the political debates from all sides on the issue in the past few weeks, the Senior Editor, Publisher and Chief Executive Officer of The Liberian Billboard, Varney Anasters Teah, critically analyzes the issue.

It is no secret that many of us were victims of the 14-years civil conflict, in fact, had it not been for an American NGO called Concern Worldwide, I would have died from malnourishment in the late ’90s. In addition, staying in Liberia throughout the 14-year civil conflicts made me to experience many of the atrocities committed by warring factions first hand. As a matter of fact, my father’s home was burned down during the April 6, 1996 conflict because of our tribe (Krahn); my dad had never ever taken part in the war. I had friends and relatives killed either intentionally or unintentionally; I had female relatives sexually assaulted and exploited, I saw people living in conditions that even animals wouldn’t have bore; and the experiences were countless. If you ask me whether I want to see the people who committed those crimes prosecuted, my answer will be simple, and with a lot of energy, “Hell Yes!!!”

Charles Taylor, Prince Johnson, Alhaji Kromah and Sekou Damante Conneh were all recommended for prosecution by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Despite mine and the desire of many others to see those who committed atrocities during the war prosecuted, there are realities at play that we have to take into consideration. Pertinent among those realities, are the Political and Security implications if a war crimes court is established in Liberia.

Political Implications:

Liberian politics have always been strongly aligned with tribal or sectarian association. For instance, the Liberian civil conflict dragged on for a long time because of the tribal influences which led to the formation of many warring factions. For 133 years, Liberia was ruled by Americo-Liberians, considered by then as the upper class people in Liberia. During most those years (since 1877 when the True Whig Party won elections), Liberian Politics was defined basically by a one-party system and one group of people. After the coup of 1980 which introduced multi-party system in Liberia, the country’s political system immediately got the taste of tribal politics, primarily because of the winner of the elections and his closest rival. As a matter of fact, the election of ’85 was the gateway to the civil conflict in Liberia; international observers during the election said, Jackson F. Doe from Nimba County was the true winner of the election.

After the election of 1985, which was held in October of that year, a coup was initiated by Thomas Quiwonkpa of Nimba County. President Samuel Doe of the Krahn ethnic group saw Quiwonkpa’s action as retaliation for his fellow kinsman lost during the elections, and with the coup foiled, the President descended his wrath on Jackson Doe and other political opponents. A massacre in Nimba followed, and from that day, Liberian politics changed forever.

Fast forward to 1990, Charles Taylor and counterparts idea of a rebellion resonated well with the Mano and Gio ethnic group from Nimba County, famously recruiting some known sons from that political subdivision. Pertinent among them was General Prince Y. Johnson who had served in the Liberian army and was a part of the Quiwonkpa’s failed coup attempt. An internal power struggle led Prince Johnson to form his own faction out of the original rebel group known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). The Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, (INPFL), as his group was known, succeeding in the capturing and killing of President Samuel Doe, which the people of Nimba saw as a victory. When the first war ended, and Taylor elected, Johnson went into exile, and after the war finally ended in 2003, he seized the opportunity to return and contest for a Senate seat to represent his county. This seat, Mr. Johnson won easily.

Senator Prince Johnson during his days as leader of the rebel group INPFL which killed President Samuel Doe

Since Johnson election to the Senate in 2005, he has been a major player in Liberian Politics, firstly, because he represents the second most populous county in Liberia, and second, but most importantly, because he is extremely popular with his people in his county. Senator Johnson was a deciding factor during the 2011 and 2017 elections after endorsing former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and now President George Weah. The fact remains that Mr. Johnson still maintains his political significance in Liberia.

If a War Crimes Court is established in Liberia, Senator Prince Johnson will have to be prosecuted because of his involvement in the war and based on recommendations from Liberia’s now disbanded Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Prosecution of Senator Johnson will have some major impacts on Liberian body-politics; it would work against the current ruling party or against the opposition in the next election, based on how the people of Nimba see it.

Firstly, the people of Nimba have a strong historical attachment to warriors. Nimbaians always take warriors at a very high esteem, and ultimate value; and that’s the advantage the like of Senator Prince Johnson enjoys. The reaction of the people of Nimba towards any prosecution of Senator Johnson will depend on who they think influenced or caused it. If they think the government did, the CDC and President Weah would have a 50-50, if not 40-60 chance of maintaining power. On the other hand, if they believe that the opposition were the cause, there would be absolutely no chance of them making major breaks in Nimba, and a lost by any political party or coalition in Nimba county, dims your chance of winning a Presidential election. Therefore, holding all factors constant in favor of a War Crimes Court being established in Liberia, and Prince Johnson is prosecuted and found guilty of crimes, the messaging of the ruling party and the opposition to convince the people of Nimba will be an enormous task.

Meanwhile, establishment of a War Crimes Court is a process that has to do with governmental approval; it has to be approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the President. The problem is, with a CDC House Majority and an influential Senator Prince Johnson in the Senate, any idea of a War Crime Court to even pass a committee room seem far from happening. Senator Johnson is an asset that the CDC will not want to lose, and will put every lobbying resources available to kill any attempt to pass a bill on the issue in the House of Representatives or Senate. In addition, recent statements by Senator Johnson, indirectly reminding the President about his support which ultimately led to him winning Nimba is evidence that the President whose party has a Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Vice President as President of the Senate, will use all political play at their disposal to kill all attempts of a War Crimes Court Bill. Furthermore, Grand Gedeh County, where President George Weah has a huge support base has some of their notable sons on the TRC prosecution recommendation list. Like Nimbaians, Grand Gedeans have strong attachments to warriors, and prosecuting the likes of George Boley and others will also have major political impacts.

Security Implications:

Another important point to identify is the security implications. With the United Nations recent departure, Liberia’s security is still in a fragile state. It is a fact that most of the the names recommended for prosecution by the TRC still has ardent and loyal followers. From the other side of the political aisle, proponents are saying that rumor of chaos due to the establishment of a War Crime Court are just scared tactics being thrown out by perpetrators. However, from investigations, the likes of Prince Johnson, George Boley and others still has a lot of loyal followers who can go at any length to defend them. They might get arrested and ultimately imprisoned, but they will not be held liable for the actions of their supporters and followers. Therefore, calls for a War Crimes Court need to take the security of Liberia into serious consideration.

 

George Boley who now represents a district in Grand Gedeh County in the Legislature, is seen here as head of the Liberia Peace Council

The End Game:

With all of the variables and implications at hand, establishment of a War Crime Court in Liberia is far from happening. Firstly, and as stated above, the political implications will make any bill impossible to pass the House of Representatives. By law (the constitution), the Legislature is the arm of government that has the power to approve the formation or establishment of any court in Liberia, and with the card at play (Senator Prince Johnson), government will use all its lobbying efforts to kill any bill hitting the corridors of the Legislature. In addition, if the results of a national referendum for prosecution are true (85% voted against Prosecution), as stated by Senator Prince Johnson last week, then that will be a major basis for the legislature to trash any bill for a War Crimes Court establishment. Once the political cards are played, there wouldn’t be any worry about the security implications. At the end, we will have to maintain a forgiving spirit, and live with perpetrators as we have been doing since the war ended in 2003.