For years after the end of both the first and second Liberian civil wars, there’ve been ruminations about how, or if, the Liberian government would assemble a war and economic crimes court to hold accountable those who committed and continue to commit atrocities against the nation’s men, women and children.
Recently, grassroots activists and government officials have reignited calls for the judicial body. These demands come amidst both the rise of a former warlord to a top senatorial position and ongoing allegations of corruption and violence within the administration of Liberian President George Weah.
While the rallying cry has reached a fever pitch within a matter of weeks, some Liberians across the globe, including Robtel Neajai Pailey, have long used their platforms to espouse support of the court along with other measures that would allow Liberians to confront the deep-seated problems plaguing their small West African nation.
“It’s almost like the elephant in the room. People have to pay for those crimes,” said Pailey, the author of “Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa” in which she challenges the popular notion that dual citizenship would improve Liberia’s socioeconomic situation. Additionally, she makes the case for Liberians to establish an identity outside of what the American Colonization Society manufactured in the early 19th century.
In her book, Pailey posits that since the country’s founding, Liberia has struggled to formulate citizenship norms under which each and every Liberian, regardless of ethnic identity or economic standing, feels included.
She said the relevance of this perspective comes at a time when those responsible for human rights abuses during the war continue to walk among the people and hold positions of power.
“People are still very supportive of the war crimes court [because] the level of impunity doesn’t bode well for the future. It sends a message that anyone can do anything,” Pailey said.
“How do you create social cohesion given that people have legitimate grievances? The question of citizenship, national identity and the failed diaspora project goes back to post-war transitional justice.”
A War That Lives in Liberians’ Collective Conscience
At least 150,000 people died in the Liberian Civil War as thousands more became refugees.
A report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would later designate theft and rape of women as the primary means of control among rebel leaders. It also implicated all involved warring factions for committing human rights violations while touting the war and economic crimes court as a form of reparations for affected Liberians.
However, that has not been the case throughout the Weah presidency or that of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, his predecessor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. While alleged mismanagement of funds and intimidation of political rivals incited opposition for nearly two decades, recent events have served as icing on the cake.
Earlier in May, the successful elections of Nimba County Senator Prince Y. Johnson as head of the Liberian Senate’s Committee on Defense and National Security and Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney Sherman as head of the Committee of the Judiciary drew the ire of both Liberians opposed to the Weah administration and the U.S. Embassy in the Liberian capital of Monrovia.
Johnson, a Liberian rebel leader-turned politician, has been connected to multiple murders committed during the Liberian Civil War, including that of Liberian President Samuel K. Doe. According to witness reports, Johnson and his troops publicly tortured, mutilated and killed Doe who killed his predecessor, President William Tolbert, a decade prior.
As for Sherman, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned Sherman for his alleged bribery of judges, so ruled in two corruption cases (2010 and 2019), one of which involved the approval of a government contract with a British mining company.
A Weah Critic Speaks
Since Weah, a world-renowned soccer star and Congress for Democratic Change [CDC] party leader, entered office in 2018, Liberia’s economic situation has remained unchanged. Neither has the Liberian government convened a war and economic crimes court.
Throughout the duration of the Weah Administration, few have been more critical of the president than radio host and opposition leader Henry P. Costa who has not only criticized Weah on broadcasts but organized protests and helped usher the defeat of CDC senatorial candidates during elections in 2020.
In a recent broadcast, Costa made the case for a war and economics crime court by envisioning a world in which Weah did not win reelection in 2022 and a new political party, most likely his, took over the executive office.
“Weah and them would have destroyed the country so badly, it would be a while before the people could feel the impact of the new government. You won’t be able to make things happen overnight [because] the economy is so bad. In order to not be unpopular, the new government would have to go after the old people. You can’t go into power, see the people suffering and let the old government people go free,” Costa said during his May 24 broadcast.