Meet Fubbi Henries, the Victim Advocating for a Liberian War Crimes Court
Monrovia – On April 5, this year Fubbi Henries joined scores of protesters on the streets of Monrovia. They rallied for accountability for crimes committed during Liberia’s 14-year civil war (1989 – 2003) and the pillaging of the country’s coffers even up to today. Dressed in white T-shirts, they brandished placards saying: “We Demand War and Economic Crimes Court”. The protest ended peacefully, leaving the impression that they had banished the demons of Liberia’s April hoodoo.
Report by James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent
That April protest was Fubbi’s second since he became head of the Citizens United for War and Economic Crimes Courts in Liberia in May 2018 to petition the House of Representatives at the Legislature to set up a court. Though the petition has yet to get a response from the Capitol, Fubbi is firm in his advocacy.
“We are going to keep pushing until we can get justice,” he tells FrontPage Africa.
He is a regular Facebook user, and this past Easter Sunday he offered his followers “history lessons” on Liberia’s dark past. A collage of war photographs forms his cover photo. Fubbi’s has a Radio Monrovia program on justice and he seizes every opportunity to get his message across.
Fubbi gets the impulse for his advocacy from the experiences he had during the war. He was born in 1979, the same year of the Rice Riot, where protestors fought with the police, led to the deaths of at least 40 people and injured 500, which marked actual beginning of the Liberian Civil War. Before he turned one, the April 12, 1980 coup d’état by Samuel K. Doe toppled the government of then President William R. Tolbert and the Americo Liberian regime which had dominated Liberian politics since the settlers arrived from America to colonize the area in 1821. Doe killed Tolbert and 13 members of his cabinet, including Richard Henries, Fubbi’s grandfather who was Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time. The war that so scarred the country broke out on Fubbi’s 10th birthday, December 24, 1989. He says the war stole his childhood and replaced it with horrid memories forever.
“I was at JFK on August 2, 1990 when the JFK Massacre took place…” Fubbi recalls the massacre in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report in 2009 said soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) loyal to then President Samuel K. Doe killed 250 people. “They were placed in pickups and taken to the James Spriggs Payne Airfield for execution. The very first dead bodies I saw with my two eyes were at JFK,” he says.
Another war memory that Fubbi says keeps haunting him was that of two people who were forced to have sex in a roadside pond on Bushrod Island. Bushrod Island, according to Fubbi, was under the control of Senator Prince Johnson, then leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). “Those are things, when you keep thinking about them, the memory stays fresh.”
Fubbi fled to Ghana with his family on September 3, 1990—barely a week before President Doe was killed by Prince Johnson and his men—and stayed there until 1999. But life on the refugee camp was far from better. “Growing up as a refugee in Ghana was also another stressful life for any African child,” Fubbi recalls. His family couldn’t manage a meal everyday, he says, and many days they ate at 11 pm. “Those were experiences we don’t want to see our children go through.”
On April 24, 1999 Fubbi moved back to Liberia with his family on a United Nations repatriation program, but they met the Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) incursion in Lofa County. The war would continue up to 2003 when then President Charles Taylor—having been elected in 1997—stepped down. Taylor went into exile in Nigeria in an ECOWAS-brokered deal to finally stop the hostilities in Liberia. (Taylor is now serving a 50-year term in a British prison for crimes he committed in neighboring Sierra Leone.)
“If you see the traces, it has had so much negative impact on me,” Fubbi says, adding he had to drop his ambition to be an agriculturalist to pursue a career in accounting, because the Stella Maris Polytechnic college of agriculture in Bomi was in crossfire between pro-government militia and LURD. “Growing up, there were a lot of opportunities that…many Liberians missed because of the war. These are things that when we think about them we hold them in high esteem and say we need justice…”
Fubbi is not just an advocate. He is a politician as well, and has twice contested a seat in Montserrado District #9 and lost. In the last elections in 2017, his platform was the reduction of the salary and allowances of lawmakers. Before that, he advocated against the passage into law of the Affirmative Action Bill that sought to give women 30 percent of the seats in at the Legislature.
His advocacy against the Affirmative Action Bill was successful but not the one with the salary and allowances of lawmakers. But his lack of political victory so far has not broken his resolve, not even by an inch. “The citizens as a whole have not embraced the vision yet,” he says. “They only get there and talk about it, and when you bring it out they say you want to be representative. Things that I believe in—whether in government or out of government—I am still going to push. I don’t necessarily have to be in government to stand up for the things I strongly believe in. I intend to contest. I will keep contesting for public office until I reach the age that I cannot. If I am successful, I will go and push my vision.”
If Fubbi manages to get a seat in the Legislature, he will be the first Henries in a public position since the execution of his grandfather. The Henrieses have avoided public office since 1980, he tells FrontPage Africa. Many who fled Liberia after the bloody coup have not returned. Those who remain in Liberia are lawyers, businesspeople and, among others, accountants. They do not want to end up facing an executioner.
But Fubbi sees the tragedy of his grandfather as an inspiration rather than a bad omen for the family. He dismisses the fear expressed by his relatives and asks for calm. “I told them that me and my grandfather don’t have the same fate,” he says with a shrug. “I am not tied to whatever happened to him. I should only learn from what happened and ensure that I don’t repeat the things that were done during his era of leadership, especially the negative ones,” he says. He says a Liberian war crimes court will be a tribute to his grandfather and the approximately 250,000 people who died during the war.
Fubbi, however, disagrees that staying away from politics prevents the family from a tragedy like the one that befell his grandfather. When the late Speaker Henries was arrested after the night of the coup, Fubbi remembers, the soldiers took his relatives with him in jail. In fact, Fubbi says, the white cloth wrapped around the waist of his doomed grandfather was the shirt one of his sons. He says it’s an obligation to speak out, protest and disagree. It is not a choice.
“We see that with our guys,” he says of his analogy. “Now they have a new idol, everything seems right. Nothing is wrong as long as it’s from their idol George Weah. When you point it out, you’re enemy of the state.”
Franklin Henries, Fubbi’s father, was initially concerned about his son’s security but now supports him in his endeavor. He wanted him to be an entrepreneur and an innovator like Bill Gates but says he couldn’t temper with Fubbi’s destiny. He only asks that Fubbi be principled.
“Later on I had a reflection and I realized that from small he has always been interested in politics,” Mr. Henries says of Fubbi, the fourth of his 15 children. “I said, ‘Maybe that is his calling. Who am I to say don’t do it?’”
Fubbi has come in for criticism from politicians and advocates alike. Advocates say his political affiliation draws the campaign for justice into the political fray, while politicians say he is in the pocket of Alexander Cummings, the leader of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) whose ticket he ran on in 2017.
But he enjoys the confidence of some war court campaigners like Franklin Wesseh, who alongside him petitioned the Legislature for the court last year. “Throughout my working with him, I’ve known him to be a very honest young man, hardworking, results-oriented,” says Wesseh.
“When I started affiliating with him in pursuit of the establishment of war and economic crimes courts, lots of people were like ‘He belongs to a political party and might be infusing his political sentiments in his advocacy’, but I did not see that from him,” Wesseh says. “He was very purposeful and straight to the objectives, advocacy, which calls for the establishment of war and economic crimes courts.”
Fubbi has an advice for all those advocating for the court. “The necessary precaution is just know who to hang out with. Don’t be at places you know you don’t feel secure being. You have to draw that thin line.”
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.