SAMAY, Bong County – On October 27, 1994 fighters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, stormed into Samay, a town on Kokoya Road towards Bong County’s border with River Cess, accusing the people of the town of supporting the rival Liberia Peace Council (LPC). The NPFL rebels killed 27 people that day in what came to be known as the Samay massacre.
By Obediah Johnson, with New Narratives
Sarah Getalah, 57, remembers the day well. She says she was one of a number of people called out by the rebels to be executed. She was carrying her baby at the time and had a small son standing with her. “‘Give the child to somebody because we going to kill you,’” she recalls the rebels saying. “I told them that if you’re killing me, nobody here to take care of this baby and this boy. So, if you’re killing me, y’all kill them too.” One of the soldiers gashed Getalah her with a knife on her chest but let the family live. She still carries the scar.
It is a surprise then, that despite her ordeal with Taylor’s forces, Getalah is a staunch supporter of the former president.
“Taylor can come back because he is a citizen of Liberia,” she told FrontPage Africa. “His time in Liberia was good for me. When war was fighting, Taylor was giving rice to us. When Mr. Taylor comes back and run (for elected position), I will vote for him.”
Getalah’s view of Taylor is commonplace in Bong County, 17 years since he stepped down as president in Liberia and took a deal to go into exile in Nigeria. He was later surrendered by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which found him guilty of war crimes in 2012. Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in a UK prison.
The scheduled December 8 senatorial election has refreshed Bong County’s love for the imprisoned former president. Menipakei Dumoe, an independent candidate for the county seat is using Taylor as a key part of his pitch to voters. “Join me. Let’s work to bring former President Charles Ghankay Taylor back home,” says his campaign literature. Dumoe’s vehicles and flyers, carry photographs of Taylor.
“The people are wishing that Taylor comes back, even if he does not become President,” says Anthony Sheriff, Assistant Superintendent for Development in Bong. “The people said during Taylor time they used to buy rice L$800 and now they are [now] paying L$3300. Any part of Bong County you go and talk about Taylor-out of 50 persons, only five persons will talk negative things about him.”
Dumoe, 35, is hoping a nostalgia for Taylor among young voters who were too young to remember Taylor’s crimes, will get him across the line.
History and numbers, however, tell a different story. NPFL, Taylor’s forces, committed 41 percent of the crimes committed during the war and recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the highest number of any faction. Taylor had formed the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG) in Bong’s capital Gbargna, after his Christmas Day invasion into Nimba from Ivory Coast in 1989. Taylor envisaged a future Liberian capital be moved here from Monrovia, a call that resonated with people here. It was from there that Taylor launched attacks on rival warring factions in the southeastern, northern and western parts of the country. He also ordered attacks on Monrovia, where the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), led by Dr. Amos Sawyer, sat. The interim government had taken over in the aftermath of the murder of President Samuel Doe by forces loyal to Prince Johnson.
During this time, Kpelle people, who dominate Bong County and are the largest tribe in the country, suffered the most human rights violations of all of Liberia’s 16 tribes recorded in the TRC report. Almost 19,000 of them were killed, enslaved, raped and tortured—among other crimes. Over 22,000 human rights violations were committed in Bong County as a whole, the second highest number of violations, behind Montserrado County. The TRC recommended more than a decade ago that Taylor face a war crimes court for Liberia over the crimes his group committed in the country.
Dumoe hopes to capitalize on Bong County’s obsession with Taylor in today’s vote.
“My campaign to free Taylor is really based on the call for African solidarity. This is very dangerous game played here. LURD [another faction in the civil war] rebels invaded Liberia from Guinea. What if Liberia was to insist that we want Guineans to be arrested for the destruction of our country in the early 2000 because of LURD? This could lead to regional tension. The way to avert this is to have a situation that our leaders meet and we forget about the unfortunate wars of the early 90s and early 2000 as neighbors.”
Dumoe also plans to also pressure the Weah led-government to ensure that it protects Taylor. He claims, without evidence, that the ex-Liberian leader is not being treated “fairly” in a foreign cell during the Coronavirus pandemic.
“The people of Bong County- just like the people of Liberia are saddened by the fact that a progressive national leader who led a popular people uprising to rescue democracy will still be in jail 17 years later. The international judicial process that led him in jail has generated so much global controversies,” Dumoe claims.
Dumoe says he does not want Taylor’s vision to perish in the wake of “extreme love” he claims citizens of Bong County have for the former Liberian President.
“Charles Taylor ran the National Patriotic Reconstructive Government from Bong County. He made Gbarnga the seat of government. He understands the geographic centrality of Bong County. He left the people of Bong County with a vision that they should think big and look beyond the present circumstances. Bong County is the natural center of Liberia and this is where the national capital city should be. This is where a greater Liberia can rise from”.
Dumoe tells voters, without evidence, that the trial of the ex-Liberian leader was marred by flaws and claims the TRC report, which banned Taylor and others from participating in Liberian politics and recommended him to face prosecution for war crimes, was biased because Taylor did not take part in it. Taylor was on trial in The Hague when the commission did its work.
“How can you condemn a man without hearing his side? The TRC report is unfinished, its half-baked justice and it lacks credibility.”
Some Ex-NPFL fighters have endorsed Dumoe’s candidacy.
“Mr. Taylor holds a special place in my heart and I feel proud associating with anything that carries the name Charles Taylor,” said Thomas Flomo, 36, a former NPFL fighter, in November. “Whether Dumoe will release Charles Taylor if he wins the Senate election or not, I am voting for him because he means well for Charles Taylor.”
But Taylor has plenty of opponents here. Jerry B. Cooper, another survivor of the Samay Massacre, wants the perpetrators to be held accountable.
“I want justice to be done to those who killed our people unnecessarily. Let these guys be punished for the acts they committed,” Cooper says. “I feel so disappointed for people to still be following Taylor’s party-NPP. I am not supporting him and I am not feeling good about him. I don’t know whether when he comes back he will bring trouble again.”
Bong County is the stronghold of the National Patriotic Party (NPP) founded by Taylor. Jewel Howard Taylor, Taylor’s former wife and the party’s current leader, won two successive terms as senator for the county in 2005 and 2014. NPP and the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) entered into a political marriage to contest the 2017 presidential and legislative elections. The merger prompted the formation of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and the George Weah and Howard-Taylor ticket became victorious. The 2017 presidential results in Bong County show that the CDC amassed 61,520 votes, or 40 percent of the total votes cast in the county.
Other candidates in the Bong senatorial race believe that Dumoe’s strategy to free and bring Taylor back to Liberia will not appeal to voters.
“I don’t see the Taylor factor playing in this election,” says Prince Moye, the current Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, who has been endorsed by the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP). “Taylor has been out of here long since. In fact, some of those that will be voting now did not have the opportunity to even understand what Taylor did here. How can you use the face of Taylor to run campaign?”
Aaron Juakollie, County Director of the Foundation of Human Dignity (FIND), attributes the Taylor-mania to misconception and illiteracy.
“My generation at the time was used as child soldiers. They used them to do nothing but to loot and kill people,” Juakollie says. “That was the order of the day and people grew up in that kind of life for years. So, [they thought there was] nobody they could trust besides Taylor. That’s why they think that Taylor was a good guy.”
“The illiteracy at the time. I am told that the Doe regime had sent for rice that hit Buchanan port. Taylor was the first to hit the Buchanan port and he seized the rice. He started distributing [it] and people thought that it was Taylor, even though he is fighting the war, but he is feeding people.”
Though Taylor has been out of Liberia for nearly two decades, voters, particularly his supporters, see his dreams being alive in Dumoe’s political strategy. Whether that association with Taylor is still enough to get a candidate over the line in Bong will be tested in today’s vote.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.