Meeting the hard man of Liberia  


 

By Bill Law
November 4, 2006
BBC News, Liberia


We had just parked up outside the Capitol Building in downtown Monrovia. It was another sweltering afternoon and it felt like hard rain was just a moment away.

"I'd like to see this man," said our driver James. "Do you mind if I come with you?"

We didn't mind at all. James had been guiding us heroically through the decaying and potholed streets of this war-battered capital city for a couple of days now.
Usually he would wait patiently in his ageing Nissan while we went about our business. But I could understand his interest in the senior senator from Nimba County.
Prince Y Johnson is better known as the man who presided over the torture and assassination of the then Liberian President, Samuel Doe, in September of 1990.
Even by the standards of the time it was a particularly brutal slaying. Before he was killed, Doe was mutilated, his ears sliced off. Prince Johnson supervised the proceedings sitting in a chair while one of his soldiers fanned him.

The whole affair was video-taped. And bootleg copies, I was told, are still doing the rounds in the markets of Monrovia.

My litter moment

The lights were out in the Capitol Building so we had to feel our way down darkened corridors to Prince Johnson's office. Samuel Doe was killed in 1990, a decade after the coup he led An aide, built like a tank and just about as menacing, gestured me to a chair to wait for his boss.

James hunched up in a corner. I picked idly at bits of weed that had caught on the cuff of my trousers, dropping them on the floor. Suddenly the tank barked: "What are you doing? You are littering. Stop now!" I weighed up a cheeky response - something about the teeming mess and chaos that is Monrovia and thought better of it.

Then the senator from Nimba County swept in. A big man wearing a traditional African robe, a man used to giving orders and being obeyed. It was his forces coming from the north, from Nimba, that had routed Doe's soldiers back in 1990, driving them out of a region where they had committed numerous atrocities.

'Old news now'

These days Prince Johnson says he has found God: "I am a pastor, a Christian. God is in control. I have no fear."

He doesn't want to talk about the killing of Samuel Doe.
"Old news, dead news," he says, one big hand slicing down emphatically to make the point. "The people are tired of fighting. Change must be done through the ballot box. No more bullets."

But he does want to talk about the army. It was disbanded as part of the peace accord that three years ago finally brought an end to a brutal 14 years of civil war. Under the deal, ex-soldiers were to be honourably discharged and paid off. They have been demobbed but many of them have not got the money and they are not happy. In his role as chair of the senate committee on national security Prince Johnson has positioned himself as their champion.

"It's a very dangerous situation," he says, "that's why I have told the senate to address the issue."

According to him, these ex-soldiers have easy access to arms. As in the past, they are prepared to fight for whoever will pay their wages. So is he telling the president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of his concerns?

He sighs: "She needs help, she is getting bad advice. My advice is being ignored."

Prince Johnson fell out with Johnson-Sirleaf's party prior to last year's election. So he ran as an independent in Nimba County. He did not get around to campaigning until 10 days before the vote. When he did, his message was eloquent, if not Christ-like in its simplicity:

"I said, people of Nimba don't forget yesterday. God used me as an instrument to save you. So choose between those who ran away and I, Prince Johnson, who give my life for you."

They got the message and he romped home with a huge majority. And since he had raised that prickly question again, I asked him if he was responsible for Doe's murder or was it the case that he had lost control of his soldiers?

At that he bristled: "I was in perfect control. The commanding officer takes responsibility for what his unit does. Anything happened to Doe, I was responsible."

It was then the large aide abruptly fired another broadside. The interview was over, the senator had another pressing engagement. I had one more question though. Did he have presidential ambitions? Prince Johnson paused.

"I cannot rule it out," he said. "But let me tell you I always ask God to help me live one day at a time."

Then the senior senator from Nimba County ushered me out.

In the forecourt James coaxed the Nissan into life. As we slid out of the parking lot blinking in the harsh afternoon light he scrunched down in his seat.

"That man," he said, "is a hard man. What he says, he means. I was shaking the whole time you were talking to him."

 

 
   
Source: BBC

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