Liberia’s civil wars back in the spotlight

By Jonathan Paye-Layleh May 04, 2021
Sierra Leonean national Gibril Massaquoi wears a face mask during the first day of his trial in Tampere, Finland, on February 3, 2021. Getty Sierra Leonean national Gibril Massaquoi wears a face mask during the first day of his trial in Tampere, Finland, on February 3, 2021. Getty

Seventeen years after the Liberian conflict ended, victims are still fighting for justice. By Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia.

More than a quarter of a million people were killed and a million others displaced during the 14-year, back-to-back civil wars that ravaged the fabric of Liberian society following Charles Taylor’s insurrection on Christmas Eve 1989.

Suspected Sierra Leonean warlord Gibril Ealoghima Massaquoi is facing trial in Finland, where he now lives, for his role in the conflict, but victims are asking why nobody has been tried in Liberia itself – 17 years after the war ended.

Fighting in the West African republic ceased the moment Taylor stepped down from the presidency and took refuge in Nigeria on August 11, 2003.

His replacement, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, vowed she would use ‘motherly sensitivity’ to settle the issues haunting the post-war country.

However, Sirleaf did not commit to prosecuting those involved because she was herself connected to the violence.

She admitted to a post-war Truth and Reconciliation Commission to lending financial assistance to Taylor to unseat the country’s former dictator, Samuel Doe.

Modelled on that of post-apartheid South Africa, the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission drew up a long list of recommendations, including prosecution for those bearing the greatest responsibilities for the killings. But the recommendations have never been implemented.

Even the election of international football star George Weah has not led to charges being levelled against anyone for their role in the conflict. Weah, who insists he didn’t have a hand in the war, was expected to take on the task of establishing a war and economic crimes court to deal with the country’s immediate past.

To the disappointment of victims, the country’s chief prosecutor, Solicitor-General Seyma-Syrenius Cephus, is quoted by the online publication Info.Net as declaring the government was more interested in stability than setting up a court to try war and economic criminals.

This was echoed by Information Minister Ledgerhood Rennie, who said in a radio interview that the government didn’t have the resources to set up such a court.

But rights groups have countered these assertions, insisting once the government exercised the needed political will, its international partners would provide the necessary assistance to get the court going.

Hopes of post-war justice were also dashed when President Weah, in his address to the UN General Assembly in 2019, rejected pressure on his government to take the lead in setting up the much-requested war and economic crimes court.

‘Why now?’ he asked, later repeating the rhetorical question to journalists on his return to Liberia. ‘I don’t understand what you all want,’ Weah said.

‘Since we came to power, I have not one day called for [a] war crimes court… When we have economic issues, we’re trying to develop our country, why focus on war crimes court now?’

In 2018, a member of the US House of Representatives’ Committee on Foreign Affairs, Daniel Donovon, sponsored a resolution for Liberia to set up a court for war criminals.

He tweeted that the Committee had passed the resolution ‘supporting full implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, including the establishment of an extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia’.

He added that ‘stopping war crimes before they happen is just as important as to ensure that justice prevails afterwards. Without justice, there cannot be healing for the victims and the circle of turbulence will become anew’.

The announcement again raised the hopes of war victims, but it is not clear where the US Congress now stands on the matter.

One of the chief campaigners for a war and economic crimes court in Liberia is Larry Youngquoi, an outspoken Member of the House of Representatives from Nimba County, in north east Liberia, where the insurrection started.

He has been making frequent radio appearances in the capital, Monrovia, to present his case.

‘Liberia needs a war and economic crimes court so that the ugly chapter of lawlessness and impunity in our country can be closed,’ Younquoi told NewsAfrica.

‘Keeping alleged war and economic criminals untouched and seeing them in high places in government and other public offices, while their victims live with the scars of the harm done to them by these perpetrators, is a prescription for future conflict.’

He added: ‘Whenever human right abuse takes place with impunity, the international community looks at such country with disdain. It also sends a wrong signal to the young segment of the population that crimes can be rewarded with good jobs and all the goodies that go with them.’

The killings in the Liberian crisis were on a massive scale. They included an attack on a church occupied by displaced people in Monrovia, where government soldiers in July 1990 killed between 600 and 1,000 people.

Massa Washington, a newspaper journalist who went on to serve on the post-war Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was among Red Cross workers visiting the massacre scene.

She spoke of the bodies of people hacked to death.

‘I saw the scene and kept saying to myself, “why, why, why?”’ Washington said in an interview to mark an anniversary of the killings.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented hundreds of other massacres involving fighters in the conflict. Some of the survivors of those massacres have formed themselves into an advocacy group called Liberia Massacre Survivors Association, which travels the country unearthing mass graves of war victims never documented.

To mount pressure on government and seek international attention and assistance in ensuring the court gets established, rights activists have been reaching out to places where some of the worst killings of non-combatants happened as rebel rival forces clashed for control of towns.

Adama K Dempster, secretary-general of the advocacy group Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia, has just visited a town in central Liberia where, in September 1994, more than 800 people fleeing fighting between rival rebel forces were killed and most of their bodies dumped into an open well.

Dempster took photos of a rock in the middle of town on which, survivors say, victims were beheaded.

He quoted locals in the town as saying the killings were so gruesome, with the flow of blood running into a creek, that it ‘turned the creek bloody, and the creek is today named the Bloody Creek’.

There was a sombre ceremony 10 years ago to bury the remains of those killed in the massacre.

The killings, which have become known as the ‘Kplokpai Massacre’, were blamed on fighters of the inappropriately named Liberia Peace Council (LPC), one of seven warring factions existing at the time.

The displaced people had run from clashes between Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front rebels and rival rebel groups in the central town of Gbarnga, and were resting in the coffee-growing town when LPC fighters came across them.

But in his appearance before the post-conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the defunct LPC’s George Boley, a current MP, said a lot of false allegations were made against people and groups during the civil war because Liberians ‘are gullible people’ who believe all they hear.

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