Liberia: Lawmakers Leading Advocacy for Implementation of TRC Recommendations in House of Representatives
The future of a war crimes court lies in the hands of lawmakers. In this two-part series, Alpha Daffae Senkpeni looks at the key supporters and their reasons for backing of a war crimes court.
Monrovia – Thomas Goshua vividly remembers the day of April 7, 1996. It was the second day of clashes between forces loyal to Charles Taylor and Roosevelt Johnson and Monrovia would face one of its worst civil-war battles. A bloody month would pass before a truce would be brokered.
Goshua, now a representative for District 5 in Grand Bassa County, was 18 years old when the clashes occurred. He, his siblings and father were recovering from the first phase of the war and Goshua had resumed high school at the College of West Africa. But everything would soon fall into disarray again.
Goshua remembers this day as one of the worst he experienced during the conflict. He and his family had fled their home in Jallah Town, which had turned into a battleground.
They sought refuge at Graystone, a compound owned by the US Embassy in the diplomatic enclave of Mamba Point, where many Liberians sought refuge during the war.
Goshua and his family maneuvered into the compound. Soon after Goshua witnessed a brutal killing.
“There was a lady on the line who had her baby on her back. She was trying to squeeze through the crowd to enter the compound too, and we started to push our way in,” he explains.
“Right within that instance, the lady had her foot in [the compound] and while the security guard was hauling her in, we saw General Butt Naked who held the baby from her back and dragged the baby away. She entered the yard but the baby stayed outside with him,” he recounts.
“And Butt Naked said, ‘this is an NPFL Baby!’ and he used his cutlass and butchered that child.”
Goshua refutes the notion that ‘Butt Naked’ now known as the famous evangelist, Joshua Blayee, is a man-of-God.
Joshua Blayee was not listed among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) list of “most notorious perpetrators” who were recommended for prosecution, because the commission claimed he spoke truthfully about the crimes he committed and expressed remorse. Blayee told the commission he killed at least 20,000 people and made human sacrifices from as early as the 1980s.
Bassa hit hard by the civil war
It has been over 22 years since Goshua witnessed the gruesome killing of the baby. Now a 41-year-old representative, he has also emerged on Capitol Hill in Monrovia as a staunch advocate for the establishment of war and economic crimes court in Liberia, as recommended by the TRC’s final report released in 2009.
“We still have people going around with the pains and hurts and deformity, and people must be held accountable,” says Goshua.
Back in his district, which is very remote and lacks basic social services, including roads and health care, his constituents are still scarred by the war.
They often confront him about the war crimes court, he says.
“I don’t feel good when I get in my district and I hear people who still have elements from explosives in their bodies. There are people with stray bullets that are still in their bodies – and there has been no form of punishment,” says Goshua.
Grand Bassa County suffered from some of the most brutal abuses and killings during the first phase of the war. Rebels belonging to the different factions including National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and the Liberian Peace Council (LPC) battled for control of the county. As they fought, thousands of people were displaced and hundreds more suffered grave atrocities.
“People were put in their homes and burned to death and pregnant women stomach were opened and babies were taken out,” explains Peter Porkpah, 41, who lived briefly in Grand Bassa County during the conflict.
He fled the county due to the rising number of atrocities carried out by rebels of NPFL and LPC.
“Sometimes when they [LPC rebels] don’t want to kill you, they would tie you up and set fire to a five-gallon container and burn the entire gallon on your body,” Porkpah says.
The TRC documented 6,227 victims and 1,0739 violations were recorded from Grand Bassa County, out of the total 16,3615 recorded from across the country.
Legislature set up TRC but fails to follow through with recommendations
The TRC Act was passed by the Legislature in 2005. It came from the back foot of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord signed in 2003 as a landmark peace deal to end the second phase of the two decades of hostilities.
The Legislature mandated the TRC to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by recording and reporting gross human rights abuses, crimes against humanity and war crimes between 1979 and 2003.
The TRC collected 22,000 testimonies, held more than 800 hearings and made more than a hundred recommendations when its report was released on July 30, 2009.
The previous generation of legislators has been apathetic about the implementation of the TRC report.
A vocal Female Lawmaker
But now Goshua and a small group of lawmakers are openly lobbying their constituents and fellow lawmakers for the establishment of the war crimes court.
Montserrado Country’s District 4 Representative Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis is one of Goshua’s allies. Her vocal advocacy for the court has earned her the alias ‘War Crimes Court’ amongst her fellow lawmakers.
Dennis chairs the House’s Committee on Claims and Petition, on which Goshua is a member. The Committee is currently reviewing a draft resolution that is pushing for the full implementation of the TRC report, including the establishment of a war crimes court.
“As a committee, we have come to the conclusion that yes, the people of Liberia are ready now for the establishment of war and economic crimes court and I think the people want justice for crimes that were committed against them during the time of the war,” she says.
After being petitioned by a group calling itself Citizens of Liberia for the Establishment of War and Economic Crimes Court, the House of Representatives then handed the petition to the Dennis’ committee to investigate the possibility of establishing such a court.
“There are a couple of us that want to see this thing happen,” adds Goshua. “So, don’t be surprised that immediately the resolution or the draft hits the flow it will pass.”
‘A very Challenging task’
Despite the optimism, Goshua and his supporters in the Legislature must convince their colleague to get the votes.
Goshua and Dennis would need two-thirds, or around 50 of the 73 members of the house of representatives to vote in favor of the resolution for it to be put into effect.
The resolution would then be forwarded to the Senate for concurrence. The Senate, which has 30 members, would also concur with a simple major vote by following the same procedure in the House.
“It is true that the Liberian people will decide whether or not there will be a war crimes court in Liberia, but we as the people deputies in the legislature have to make that decision for them,” says Goshua.“We will urge our colleagues to go back to their people and hear from them about what it is that their people want,” he adds.
For Dennis, convincing other ‘on-the-fence’ lawmakers to support the resolution is the foremost “challenging task.”
She asserted that representatives of vote-rich Nimba County, who have openly backed Senator Prince Y. Johnson, may use their numbers to lobby against the resolution.
Johnson is infamous for allegedly committing atrocities during the war and playing a leading role in the brutal murder of President Samuel Doe. Now a senator, Johnson remains a vocal opponent of the establishment of war crimes court in the country.
Johnson’s Nimba County is the second highest with nine. This means his county votes are significant to influencing decisions in the lower House.
Based on the Nimba County factor, Dennis claimed President George Weah remained unclear about his stance on the court because he doesn’t want to lose Johnson’s leverage on the county’s votes during future presidential elections.
“I’m a little bit disappointed that President Weah could not be a champion for this war crimes court endeavor,” she says.
In contrast, Goshua doesn’t believe Mr. Weah would cripple the resolution by influencing lawmakers to vote against it.
He said he expects President Weah to focus on “galvanizing support from the United Nations and other international partners to fund the establishment of the courts just as other nations that suffered war crimes have done in recent decades”.
‘Stooge’ of the West?
Outside the walls of the Capitol, Dennis, Goshua and other lawmakers calling for the courts have come under fire from critics. They have been dubbed “stooges of the West”, who want to plunge the country back into chaos.
These critics, among them Senator Prince Johnson, claimed the court would open old wounds and destabilize the fragile peace. But there are also critics of the court within the community.
“We know that people are getting foreign people money to be talking about war crimes court. Why they didn’t talk about war crimes court during Ellen [former President Johnson-Sirleaf], time?” says Richard Gono, a resident of Paynesville city. “They know what they are getting now that’s why we can’t hear our ears about war crimes court… I think the time is not right for us to open old wounds.”
Goshua claims what he endured during the war is enough reason to be on the side of justice.
“We want to go after people that have done so much hurt to this country; let them be made accountable … let’s go through this process – it is part of the healing of our country,” he says.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. The funder had no say in the story’s content.