Monrovia – Joseph S. Kannah Jr. was just five years old when his father was allegedly gunned down by Prince Johnson’s forces. More than 28 years on, Kannah, whose father Joseph S. Kannah Sr. was the Assistant Minister of State for Logistics, is yet to locate his father’s remains for burial.
“My father’s death is a tragedy and a nightmare for me and my family. We are still hurt because there is no justice and perpetrators are paid for the evil they unleashed on humanity,” said Kannah Jr.
Kannah Jr. is clear about who is to blame for his father’s death: Prince Johnson. Now Senator for Nimba County, in 1990 Johnson was the head of his own militia known as the Independent National Front for Liberia (INPFL). Johnson had broken from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for Liberia after a dispute. Both groups were fighting to overthrow Doe’s government.
While Kannah Jr. and the rest of his family had fled to neighboring Ivory Coast as Liberia’s civil war worsened, his father remained in Monrovia and continued to serve in Doe’s government.
Kannah is speaking up now as the push for a war crimes court in Liberia gains momentum. The international community and local activists are putting immense pressure on the legislature and the president to approve a court finally for Liberia, 16 years after the guns fell silent. Kannah is one of thousands of Liberians who have come forward to demand justice for the death of family members. Prince Johnson heads the Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report’s “Most Notorious Perpetrators List”, and is by far the combatant most named by victims interviewed by New Narratives reporters.
Kannah’s father was a member of Doe’s entourage killed
Joseph S. Kannah Sr. was at the Freeport of Monrovia along with the late president Samuel Doe in September 1990, according to Kannah Jr.’s late uncle Robert Kannah and his mother Lucy Kannah. His family believes Kannah Sr. was there to join an ECOMOG boat that would carry them out of the country and to safety as anti-Doe forces closed in. (ECOMOG was the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group sent by the regional body to help restore peace during the Liberian civil war).
“Doe was captured at the temporary headquarters of the ECOMOG at the Free Port of Monrovia and killed along with some 70 members of his guard battalion on September 9, 1990 by Prince Johnson. A gun battle lasted for 90 minutes and Doe was seen tortured-to death- in a video documentary recorded by his assailant, Prince Y Johnson,” according to the Truth and Reconciliation’s final report In fact, a widely shared video shows Johnson’s men torturing Doe under Johnson’s order but does not show Doe’s death.
Other accounts, cited in Stephen Ellis’ book on the first Liberian civil war, The Mask of Anarchy, assert that ministers and government personnel and staff were also present in a 20-car motorcade that followed Doe across the Gabriel Tucker Bridge to ECOMOG’s headquarters at the Liberia Industrial Free Zone Authority, Doe’s entourage was made to disarm by the ECOMOG forces and ambushed by Johnson’s men.
Robert Kannah, Kanneh Jr.’s late uncle, witnessed and survived the attack, and claimed Kannah Sr. was killed under Johnson’s orders.
Johnson’s appearance before the TRC
Prior to Johnson’s appearance before the TRC in 2009, the former rebel leader accused the commission of “witch-hunting” and warned that it was “treading a dangerous path that will lead to chaos.” He claimed there would be “massive resistance across the country.”
Johnson’s testimony was the most anticipated. Crowds gathered on the balcony at the Centennial Pavilion to hear him testify. During the hearings he admitted to killing Doe and claimed to have buried him and justified his acts as “legitimate acts of war.”
Calls for a war crimes prosecutions mount
Kannah Jr. joined other advocates and victims demonstrating outside the Legislature last November, and said he would join demonstrations scheduled for next month. He carried a poster with writing asking Senator Johnson where their father’s body was buried.
“My siblings and I support the bringing of war crimes court because killers are celebrating their evil without fear,” said Kannah during an interview at the protest.
“Youths are emulating the acts of evil people like Charles Taylor, Prince Johnson, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and others, and there is no court that has jurisdiction to adjudicate war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said Kannah.
Johnson was recommended for prosecution by the TRC in two categories: first as head of a warring faction and then as one of more than a 100 “most notorious perpetrators” of the war.
In March of this year, the Liberia National Bar Association and the Transitional Justice Working Group, which is made up of a coalition of 20 civil society organizations, endorsed the establishment of war and economic crimes court in the country.
Kanneh Jr. in September last year petitioned the Legislature to query Senator Johnson for his father’s remains
Johnson claims actions were legitimate acts of war
The senator has repeatedly claimed his actions were legitimate acts of war and has threatened to take up arms should a war crimes court attempt to prosecute him. He has also said the citizens of Nimba County would take up arms to defend him.
When contacted Senator Prince Johnson said his mother was also killed during the war and he is keeping silent because he wants Liberia to be peaceful.
Senator Johnson said Kanneh Jr. should have appealed before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to testify what he Johnson did to his father.
Senator Prince Johnson said he cannot speak more on the issues because people are being paid to tell lies about him now that there is a call for war crime court to be established. a Born Again Christian pastor who now runs a school and church called Chapel of Faith Ministries in Paynesville, spoke at a recent Sunday’s service at his church. He said he entered into politics “to kill corruption, nepotism, and favoritism and deal with vices based on my principles”.
Channeling sorrow into charity
In between his activism for a war crimes court, Kannah Jr. runs a non-profit organization he established in 2014 in honor of his late mother, Lucy Kannah, who he said suffered from “inhumane treatment” during the war and in exile. She was 30 years old, when her husband was allegedly killed.
Kannah Jr. said the organization serves war-affected women who face humiliation, sexual gender based-violence and helps young women with schooling and vocational education.
He said his mother struggled to raise them in exile in the absence of her husband and he and his siblings found it difficult to complete secondary school.
Kannah Jr.’s mother grieved for her husband until she died, Kannah said. She also refused to support Kannah Jr. when he ran for the legislature in 2017 in District eight, Montserrado County, reminding him of how his father died.
“She was worried and it was mental tension that probably killed her,” Kannah Jr. said.
“She saw Prince Johnson as a nightmare, and if I sit and don’t avenge for my dad, she will get mad,” he added.
Yet other families, who were alleged victims of Johnson’s forces, remain fearful about speaking out and taking action. Former government minister, Senator Fred J. Blay was reportedly executed by the INPFL on August 1990. His family did not testify at the TRC.
Blay was executed by INPFL forces along with Congressman William T. Jabbah due to their Krahn ethnicity, according to the TRC’s final report.
The family both in Liberia and the United States said they were traumatized by the incident and refused FPA’s request for an interview due to safety concerns.
“I have given your request a serious thought and decided that it is unsafe for my family to give an interview, at this time,” one of the family members responded and asked not to be named.
But war crimes court advocates are showing no sign of relenting, with demonstrations scheduled for next month.
Fubbi Henries the head of Citizens United for war and Economic Crimes Courts in Liberia claimed that prosecutions are the only war forward.
“Retributive justice is what we need to end the culture of impunity. If we don’t set precedence, we will see a deadly war in future than we had in the past,” he said.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Funding was provided by Australian Aid. The funder had no say in the story’s content.