Questions of Post War Justice in Liberia

By Abdoulaye W. Dukule

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 17, 2009


My friend’s question about postwar justice, war crimes tribunal and so on made me to wander off in the depth of my mind to find an answer. I had thought about the issue many times, discussed the it with others in various forums but this was the first time that I was asked my personal opinion by a very close friend. I could not be evasive. We were having dinner at Rosie’s Restaurant, in Airfield, a real culinary experience.

To answer my friend, I started with generalities. I said we Liberians were not vindictive people. We easily forgive, just as we are easily capable of hurting one another, sometimes like children at play. I spoke of the fact that we don’t seem to care to know really who and how many people died in the war. The numbers being thrown around – 200,000 or 300,000 - all emanated from the international community, with nobody knowing really how we got that number. We, Liberians, never stopped to say, “Look, can we catalogue all the victims of the war?” There is no memorial for victims of the wars; there is no registry where families can submit the names of those they lost during the various stages of the conflict. We have not decided to crystallize one moment, one monument or one phrase in our collective memory that would remind all of us of the past, so as to never forget what we did to one another and therefore not repeat it.

I went on and on, while chewing on my succulent country chicken cooked in a hot pepper sauce. I talked about the fact that 83 percent of Liberians elected Charles Taylor in 1997 no one raises an eyebrow when his many followers and partisans organize church services to pray for his return. Perpetrators of some of the most heinous crimes are now parading in shiny SUV, earning high salaries paid for by taxpayers who elected them to run the affairs of the nation. People who looted national coffers proudly display their ill-gotten wealth and are embraced in churches, social functions and in every political circle. During the arduous peace negotiations in the 1990s, whenever Liberians stopped temporarily killing each other to fly to different West African capitals to negotiate another accord, enemy factions had their lunches together, huddled in conference corridors and embraced each other. Then, when they returned to the conference tables or to Liberia, they resume their positions as bitter enemies.

My analysis did not convince my friend who wanted to have my personal view, rather than a socio-spychological analysis of Liberians. She had her own opinion on the matter. How lightly we take everything and how we always seem to get away with simple phrases like “You gah best!” “I hold your foot…” “I really sorry yah…” Of course, we accept the fact that people holding high office n government become rich quickly, less we accuse them of being “stupid.”

Can one blame this laissez-faire or carefree attitude to our over-religiosity? Could it be blamed on the fact that, be it in our traditional settings or in our modern religious (Islam and Christianity) we always submit unquestionably to a Higher Order? Is it possible that in this almost pre-civilization culture we have forgone any notion of critical thinking and just accept Destiny?

Organizing a war crimes tribunal in our country will be a daunting task. Not because we won’t find some of the perpetrators of the crimes, but because like in every civil war, it will be difficult, if not impossible to decide the level of responsibility. In the court of law, the conditions of the crime or what led to the crime do matter in deciding to impose a penalty. The historical context matters. People did not just get up one day to pick up guns to shoot other people.

For example, in consideration of the timeline of the period covered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), members of the People Redemption Council (PRC) of the 1980 military coup could be brought to justice for overthrowing an elected government. But the great majority of Liberians, the historical context of the PRC somehow justified the overthrow of the ruling oligarchy. Similarly, the military dictatorship imposed by the regime of Samuel Doe that allowed no breathing room for any other political movement justified the massive rebellion that turned into a civil war. Every modern constitution somehow gives the people the right to take up arms and overthrow regimes that deny them basic human rights. Once angry people – and especially untrained young people - take up guns, they will commit atrocities for many numbers of reasons, related or not to the bigger political objectives.

Just as Liberians in their majority may have found justification for the 1980 military coup, they also anxiously awaited the arrival of Charles Taylor to remove Doe. By allowing his fighters to go on killing spree and abuse, Taylor opened the gate for others to fight him. This led to the escalation of the war and the burgeoning of warring factions. None of this would justify the human rights abuses that occurred. There is no excuse for arming, drugging and sending kids on rampage and give them license to kill with impunity.

The fact that the hearings at the TRC turned into a circus and became a stage for (almost) everyone to grandstand foretells how Liberians would react before a war crimes tribunal. Either we can’t just bring ourselves to tell the truth or we don’t distinguish between sticking to the facts and making up stories. So often, at the TRC hearings, the lines between fiction and facts were blurred that Liberians just tuned off. From General Butt-Naked now known as Pastor Joshua who claimed to have killed 30,000 people to George Boley who said that the Liberian Peace Council (LPC) never shot a single bullet, TRC reports could definitely serve as a study of the Liberian subconscious.

The most ferocious supporter of the institution of a War Crimes Tribunal, a certain Mulbah K. Mulbah is now turning into a relic. There was little sympathy for him when he was arrested and allegedly maltreated by the police for staging a demonstration during the International Women’s Colloquium in April 2009.

The bigger philosophical issue is whether the ultimate goal of a war crimes tribunal is to put on trial a historical event or punish actors thrown into situations they hardly have any control over. In hindsight, it is rather easy to classify crimes.

Without out right rejecting the principles of punitive justice – lock them up and throw away the key -. I strongly support any move towards reparative justice, especially in the case of a civil war such as our wars. I think many Liberians would hastily come forward with the names of relatives and victims if a bank was set-up to compensate for war loses.

To move forward, the emphasis must be on bringing relief to the victims. The second priority must be on ensuring that the people never forget what happened and how to avoid the conditions that led to the wars and the destruction. Unfortunately, the appearance is that Liberians do not want to be reminded of the war.

To take someone to court, one must be angry about something and feel the urge to seek justice. Liberians should be angry about the massacres that took place at the Lutheran Church, at the Fendell Campus, at Camp Carter, in Bakedu and in many small villages in Nimba or Lofa. It makes no difference who was the victim, someone was killed and someone has to be angry and someone needs to account for the crime.

Some “natives” will always venerate Samuel Doe for overthrowing the hundred year old oligarchy just as many “settlers” will always praise Charles Taylor for removing him. The Nimba people would always be faithful to Field Marshall Prince Y. Johnson because he brought to them the “head” –literally- of the man who killed so many of their children. Mandingoes will always remember that Alhaji Kromah left the serenity of a refugee life as UN consultant in Guinea to take up arms and stop the carnage the NPFL meted against the Mandingo people while the world looked on. The same goes with George Boley and and the late Roosevelt Johnson for the people of Grand Geddeh. The only culprits, who would have committed crimes against humanity without historical justification, are the former child soldiers, who are as victims as everyone else.

The questions really center on the sense of justice of the Liberian people in general. Do they want a war crimes tribunal? Are they ready to come forward and speak about the crimes they witnessed or committed in total truthfulness? Or a war crimes tribunal would be just another imported forum where Liberians will just be paid actors and spectators?

It behooves on Liberians to take stock of what happened here. They must count the dead and decide how they want to bury them. They must decide how they want to move forward. The fact that they had their civil war three hundred years after the American civil war or the French Revolution makes no different from those social uprising that resulted in same type of human horrors. In the end, I think I can say that I am not in favor of a war crimes tribunal. This was our war and we must take time to dispose of it, on our terms and according to our cultural values.

© 2009 by The Perspective

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