GANTA, Nimba County – If Nimba’s most famous son, Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, is to be believed, this is one county that will not back the growing call for a war crimes court.
“My people believe I am a hero while others think I am a devil,” said Johnson recently of his support in Nimba. “When they were being killed, I stood for them.” Johnson tops the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report’s “Most Notorious Perpetrators list” and is widely expected to be the first person to face a war crimes court for his role in Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia and later, as the head of his breakaway the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
“Go grab Prince Johnson, you won’t be able to even come close,” Johnson told his Monrovia congregation recently. “You won’t even catch me because the resistance you will receive from young guys will be maximum, uncontrollable and ungovernable.” Johnson has vowed to mobilize young men from Nimba to take up arms and join him in the forests to resist the court.
But on a recent visit to the county, FrontPageAfrica found Johnson’s confidence to be at odds with opinion on the ground.
“Senator Johnson can’t depend on me,” said ex-General James O. Kabia. Kabia joined Charles Taylor’s NPFL at a very young age. He rose through the ranks to general. Now 40 with greying whiskers and four children, he is studying for a Masters degree in Anti-Corruption Studies and runs a small family business. He values the peace of the last 15 years.
“Let me tell you something, Senator Johnson is not even brave to start a single barrel war again… The war is over! We disarmed! We will not allow anyone to use an inch of Nimba County for war again.”
Kabia is one of many prominent Nimba sons, who have openly joined the call for the setting up of the court. He fought in most parts of Liberia, including Monrovia and Lofa County, until he and other ex-combatants were disarmed by the United Nations peacekeepers in late 2003. Kabia claims to know all of Nimba County’s 720 towns, 11 administrative districts, nine electoral districts, six cities and six statutory districts. He warned young Nimbaians to not be misled.
“Anyone, who will try anything to disrupt the peace, me, working with the government of Liberia and the international community, will move on that person and arrest him.”
Hassan Bility, a prominent advocate of a war crimes court and another son of Nimba, said it was laughable to think that Johnson or any warlord had access to a stash of hidden weapons. “Let me tell you, any weapons that have been stored in the ground for 25 years are no longer operable,” he told a recent Okay FM radio panel. Bility believes Johnson does not have the support in Nimba that he claims.
Kabia and Bility have been joined by Nimbaians Spencer Glay and A. Zawolo Gorgboyee, in calling for a war crimes court. Glay and Gorgboyee are two civil society activists based in Nimba’s commercial city of Ganta.
“Nimba wants a war crimes court for Liberia. Today we need it. We want it now!” said Glay.
Out of loyalty to county and kinsman, all three men said they supported Johnson in his three elections to represent Nimba in the Liberian Senate but when it came to the war crimes court, they felt compelled to separate from him.
“The issue of war crimes court is not about an individual. It is about people who perpetrated war crimes during our civil crisis,” Gorgboyee said. “Justice must prevail. Without justice, someone too will bring war because he or she might go with impunity.”
For Glay, a court is essential for future peace. “People committed crimes during the civil war and those people should be made to account for their actions so that it can serve as deterrent.”
All three men concede they have faced threats for their position on the court.
“People around here are taking it very personal,” said Gorgboyee. He blamed Johnson for inciting the threats. “Imagine, he is telling his supporters that when the war crimes court comes, he and his men will rise up against it with single barrel.”
While there is no formal movement in support of a court in Nimba, the three said their individual efforts are yielding some fruit. They claimed Nimbaians are opening up to the fact that the court is not about a particular person or about stopping development or about arresting everyone who held a gun during the 15-years of civil war.
Also joining the group is Larry Younquoi, a Nimba lawmaker who represents District 8 in the Legislature. He spoke recently of Senator Johnson’s “diminishing influence” in the county and said because of this, Johnson has resorted to threatening supporters of the court.
“Prince Johnson should stop fooling himself,” Younquoi told the FrontPageAfrica. According to him, it was “blasphemy” on the part of Johnson to carry himself as the “godfather or savior” of the county.
Rep. Younquoi was frank about where he wants Johnson to spend his last days. “I think the best place he belongs is where Charles Taylor is. He should go to jail.”
Another lawmaker from Nimba, Rep. Samuel Kogar, was more cautious but did question Johnson’s actions. “Why is the Senator running all around the place and crying? Maybe he has smelled the rat,” said Kogar.
Kogar further said that given Liberia’s status as a signatory to international conventions that call for post-war justice, it should abide by that obligation. “If the court would have issues with Senator Johnson, he should be willing to appear and face it and stop making noise all around the place,” Kogar said.
But not all of Nimba’s leaders are lining up against Johnson. Thomas Grupee, Nimba’s other senator, said he would support all of the TRC’s recommendations being implemented including the one that barred people such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from office.
“But if there is a political witch hunt to say that one person out of the 250 should be subjected to a war crimes court, leaving out all others, then of course we will speak out.”
Grupee encouraged Nimbaians to remain united and forge ahead in developing their county.
It was not easy to find strong supporters of Johnson among Nimba’s leadership. FrontPageAfrica reached out to Nimba County Superintendent Dorr Cooper but he said he wasn’t ready to speak on it.
Senator Johnson, now in his late 50s, father of 12 children, is a son of a bush hunter in Nimba County. He first resorted to arms as a member of the failed 1985 General Thomas Quiwonkpa invasion, which was intended to topple the Doe regime. Quiwonkpa, a son of Nimba, was arrested and butchered when the uprising failed. Johnson fled into exile.
This infuriated President Doe, who sent members of the army to Nimba. Nimbaians, including women and children, were slaughtered and that massacre is known today as the “Nimba Raid.”
Johnson and Taylor launched Liberia’s civil war on December 24, 1989 and crossed over into Nimba, through Butuo on the border with Côte d’Ivoire. Johnson splintered from Taylor soon after and formed his own rebel group, the INPFL. When, in 1990, Johnson captured, tortured and killed Doe, Nimbaians, remembering the Nimba Raid, hailed him as a hero and savior.
According to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the INPFL can be held liable for just two percent of the total violations —2,588 —tallied in its final report.
Though this figure is low compared with Taylor’s NPFL with 41 percent (63,843 violations), INPFL leader Prince Yormie Johnson is documented as having the highest number of violations ever recorded for individual perpetrators during the whole civil war, which lasted 15 years. Johnson earned this record in comparatively short spell (1990 to 1993) in the civil war.
In addition to killing Doe, the TRC documented other crimes committed by Johnson’s INPFL: “Two trucks filled with native Krahns and Mandingoes were captured from ECOMOG by the INPFL and apparently killed since they were never accounted for,” the report reads.
Among Senator Johnson’s violations, according to the TRC, are killing, extortion, massacre, destruction of properties, force recruitment, etc.
Many international and local rights groups have called for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court. But the present Liberian government under President George Manneh Weah is showing little or no interest in this call, which is also backed by some in the US Congress. The UN Human Rights Council gave Liberia until July 2020 to implement some acceptable form of justice or it will face increasing international pressure including possible sanctions.
As the drumbeat for a court continues and pressure on Prince Johnson grows, Nimbaians may be forced to choose to fight with their Senator or to hand him over to face justice.
This story was a collaboration with the New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.