Preachers, Warlords, Senators

From warlord to preacher to lawmaker: Notorious Liberian reinvents himself

December 8, 2005


MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ With an angry burst of AK-47 fire, he executed a pleading relief worker accused of profiteering. He chugged beer while his men infamously hacked off the ears of a captured president stripped to his underwear who begged unsuccessfully for life.

Once a powerful faction leader, more recently an evangelical preacher-in-exile, Prince Johnson helped drive Liberia into a catastrophic civil war. Today, he's a senator-elect promising to rebuild this West African nation _ and he is not the only lawmaker with a notorious past.

"We're talking about a new Liberia, a new future. We have an enormous job to do," Johnson said during a recent interview in Monrovia, shifting in a faux-leather chair at one of this bombed-out city's hotels. "The country is in ruin, total ruin. I've come back to help rebuild."

Johnson's brutal past is no secret, even if he says little now about his role in a war that took the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, turned millions into refugees and left even the capital without electricity or running water. The rise of Johnson and others tainted by charges of brutality or corruption raises could undermine Liberia's chances of recovering and building a democracy.

"Can they really turn around now and be a bastions of democracy? It's a big concern," said Corinne Dufka, a researcher at Human Rights watch.

In 1990, Johnson's militia captured President Samuel Doe and tortured him to death. A video of the event shows the just-captured leader half-naked, tied up and bloody, begging to be spared. Johnson orders the terrified leader's ears severed.

Around the same time, Johnson personally executed a Liberian relief worker he'd accused of profiteering from rice sales, calling him a "traitor." An Associated Press photographer who witnessed the scene reported the crumpled victim briefly lifted his head and asked "Why, why?" before Johnson finished him off.

During the war, Johnson also reportedly summarily executed some of his own commanders and briefly took 22 foreigners hostage in a bid to provoke international intervention.

"My regret is that we fought one another for nothing. It was a senseless war," Johnson said. "Whatever reason I may give you now for getting involved in the war, it does not erase the fact that this country was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt."

The war ended two years ago when warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor stepped down amid a rebel mortar barrage on the capital. Johnson's militia fought fierce street battles with Taylor's forces in the early 1990s, but he left in 1992 and became an evangelical preacher in Nigeria's Christ Deliverance Ministry in Lagos. A simple mustache and red cap have replaced his scraggly wartime beard and military fatigues.

Johnson returned for the first time last year.

In October, Liberians elected 30 senators and 64 representatives who take office in January under a government led by president-elect, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, Liberia's bicameral legislature is modeled on that of the United States.

Sitting alongside Johnson in the new legislature will be Adolphus Dolo, a Taylor commander known as Gen. Peanut Butter, who campaigned on the slogan: "Let him butter your bread."

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has gathered testimony from witnesses who accuse Dolo of recruiting child soldiers during the war, and supporting rebel attacks on civilians in neighboring Ivory Coast's own conflict in 2003. His troops also carried out extra-judicial killings.

Also elected to the senate was Charles Taylor's wife, Jewel Howard-Taylor. She, along with two other legislators-elect is under a U.N. travel ban and assets freeze for constituting "a threat to the peace process in Liberia."

Taylor, in exile in Nigeria, has been indicted on war crimes charges by the U.N.-backed special court in Sierra Leone for his role in supporting that country's own brutal rebels.

U.N. officials, as well as President-elect Johnson-Sirleaf, say Johnson and others were free to run for office because they had not been charged by Liberian courts with any crimes.

"All of them have been elected ... in a free and fair democratic process, and unless there are charges that come from someone affected or aggrieved, there will be nothing I can do," Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman elected president in Africa, told The Associated Press.

Johnson has strong support in his native Nimba County. He garnered 34 percent of the vote there, more than any other senator in the country. Dolo took the second Nimba County seat with 17 percent in a field of 15.

Johnson is still popular among many for taking a stand against Taylor and overthrowing Doe.

Poor human rights records have never been an obstacle to gaining high office here. Taylor took the presidency in a landslide vote in 1997 that was deemed fair _ though many believe he won because of fears he would re-ignite war if he lost.

"It's embarrassing," said 24-year-old Mamadou Kromah, one of several young men selling video CDs documenting Liberia's horrific war-history _ including images of the ex-warlord overseeing Doe's torture. "Prince Johnson should be put on trial, not put into office."

Copyright 2005 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.