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
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
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."