“You Can’t Look Back”

Liberian warlord-turned-senator Prince Johnson speaks out about the war crimes charges against him and his plans for the future.

Photo by Glenna Gordon
Photo by Glenna Gordon

At the end of last week, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a report examining the causes and consequences of Liberia’s 14 years of brutal and gruesome civil war. The war may have ended six years ago, but Liberia’s 3.4 million people are still reeling from a conflict that displaced a million people, left a quarter of a million dead, more than three fourths of women raped, and everyone traumatized.

The commission’s report has made waves in the Western media for its condemnation of internationally popular President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf over her past support for rebel groups. But the charges against another high-ranking government official are far more serious and might have more-lasting consequences.

Prince Y. Johnson is now a Liberian senator. During the war, he headed a notorious rebel group called the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. The final TRC report names him the No. 1 most notorious individual perpetrator and recommends that he be prosecuted for gross human rights violations and war crimes, specifically mass murder, extortion, destruction of property, forced recruitment, assault, abduction, torture, and rape. Johnson labeled the report a "joke" and vowed to resist with force any attempts to arrest him, raising fears of renewed violence. Last week, just before the report was released, freelance journalist Glenna Gordon went to his home on the outskirts of Monrovia for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

Johnson discussed the (then forthcoming) TRC report, which he saw as biased and aimed at the wrong targets:

TRC is supposed to be neutral. It’s supposed to be an institution that people of Liberia can depend on to help reconcile. But instead, it has disappointed the people of this country. It is supposed to bring together perpetrators and victims to reconcile both sides. But the TRC chose to keep the victims away from the so-called perpetrators. They never brought the two people together, so where is the reconciliation?

Reconciliation is not an overnight thing. It is a gradual process. There are many programs that can bring people together. If two people have a problem, how do you solve it? By keeping them apart? No, by bringing them together. The perpetrator can remember what he did and he may or may not say sorry. That’s the first phase to begin reconciliation, and [it] was not done. And if you cannot reconcile yourself you cannot reconcile a nation.

Who supplied the guns to them? Who supplied the finance to buy the weapons? Who provided the training? It’s a whole lot of questions that need answers.

The first group of people that bear the greatest responsibility is not the fighting man but the people who supplied and bought the weapons. I don’t know who planned and bought all the weapons, but the men didn’t just come here shooting guns from the sky.

When justice itself is unjust, there is injustice. So if you want justice, … you have to go for the big Nigerian men who got the weapons, who supplied so many things. They are still in power.

I spoke at the TRC and said, "Forgive me for my sins, but when two elephants fight, the grass suffers." I was repentant. I’ve accepted Jesus.

Every country in the world knows the history of Nimba [Johnson’s county]. They know what [former President Samuel] Doe did to my people. I had to defend my people.

Johnson originally allied himself with former President Charles Taylor, who is now on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone. The two leaders soon became enemies as rebel groups splintered and fractured. Johnson thinks that Taylor came to power with the aid of the United States:

The people who helped Charles Taylor escape from jail in the U.S.A. said that upon the removal of Doe, this is what you should do: Return to speedy democracy and let us come in to vie for public office. But Taylor decided, I cannot work for you to enjoy!

To be frank, there was absolutely no need for Taylor to send people to Sierra Leone. Removing the government of Doe was the only problem. After the removal of Doe there was a need for reconstruction. Not only the roads, the schools, but the minds. To reconstruct the mind. Taylor was to focus on that. He didn’t need to go to Sierra Leone to make new war.

I do not have any communications with him now. How can I communicate with him while he’s in jail? He wants to be Jewish to be free! He thinks that the American officials, most of them are Jewish. [Taylor’s wife recently told the BBC that her husband had converted to Judaism while in prison.]

Although Johnson is thought to be semi-literate and never to have finished high school, he speaks about the importance of wisdom over knowledge and why he might still run for president:

In Liberia, 99 percent of our leaders who have a university degree do not represent their home county. The framers of our Constitution did not make education a criteri[on] for political office. Don’t look at anyone [as] ignorant because you have [a] master’s degree.

If people say go there [run for president], I’ll go. Leadership does not come from how much you know. Leadership does not go by how much education you have. A leader that is born, you can see the characteristics.

I’m honest, straightforward, disciplined. When I say "yes," it’s yes. These are characteristics that make people … trust you. Tolerance, etc., etc. It’s a gift. An individual gifted with wisdom is more than the man who is knowledgeable. When you gain knowledge you also gain wisdom. But there is no institution where you can gain wisdom. You got too many institutions that teach knowledge. Wisdom is a gift from God.

Johnson wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of President Samuel K. Doe, which he says sold a million copies. In 1990, Doe — then Liberia’s president — was tortured and executed. A videotape of the ordeal was distributed to news stations around the world. It showed Johnson sitting at a table and sipping a beer while Doe’s ear was being cut off. Johnson says he has no regrets over what happened to Doe:

The problem with Doe was that he listened to advice that led to his attack on Nimba, and that’s why we had to fight back. He was in our custody, so we are responsible for whatever happened. He was with us, that’s all I say.

If you want to move forward, you can’t look back. Jesus never looked back. He never looked back. We need to look forward. When you look back, you look left, you look right, you get distracted. You need to focus on what you want done for this country.

I sleep sound; I sleep good. I snore.

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