Posted on July 1, 2024

From Monster to Minister: Is the Past About to Catch Up With Liberia’s War Criminals?

The Telegraph, June 29, 2024

In the weeks before he found Jesus, the evangelist formerly known as General Butt Naked reckons he was sacrificing four or five children a day.

Murder had long come naturally to him. He was only 11 when the elders who had steeped him in the ways of witchcraft first handed him the sacrificial knife.

But never had he killed with such intensity and ferocity as during those weeks in mid-1996 when Liberia’s first civil war reached its calamitous climax on the blood-soaked streets of Monrovia, the country’s battered capital.

Several times a day, the warlord and his battalion of boys, all as naked as he was, would emerge into the maelstrom, firing wildly as they added their own breed of terror to the chaos.

Yet the blood-letting always began before a single bullet had been fired. Before each engagement, Butt Naked, pagan priest and holy warrior, would lay a child face-down on the sacrificial table, slice open his victim’s back and pull out their still-beating heart, thus ensuring magical protection for the coming battle.

“For the ritual to be effective, the child’s heart still had to be alive to make it acceptable to the deity,” he recalls. “If I was fighting I would sacrifice a child every time I went out to fight, and as I was fighting four or five times a day, I made four or five sacrifices a day.”

More than 20 years after Liberia’s second civil war ended, Gen. Butt Naked – a nom de guerre Evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi no longer cares to use – has never appeared in court for the war crimes he so freely admits to. Neither, for that matter, has anyone else, not in Liberia, at least.

Liberia’s killers are no longer resting easy, however. Last month, Joseph Boakai, Liberia’s new president, fulfilled an election pledge by formally accepting a recommendation made 15 years ago by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish a war crimes court.

For many, the order means that two decades of injustice may now be addressed, giving Liberia the chance to heal festering psychological wounds and end a culture of impunity that has prevented its people from thriving.

Others, notably politicians involved in the war and their supporters, warn that the court will do the exact opposite, re-opening wounds and potentially pitching Liberia back into civil war.

Some say it could even pave the way for Russian mercenaries to gain a foothold in one of the most stable and pro-American states in West Africa, an increasingly volatile region where the Kremlin’s influence is on the rise.

Brutal conflicts swept Africa in the aftermath of the Cold War as the United States and the Soviet Union withdrew patronage from the continent’s dictators. Yet few ever seemed as blood-curdling as the two fought in Liberia between 1989 and 2003.

For years, rifle-clutching men and boys, incongruously clad in lurid wigs and feather boas – voodoo charms against the bullets – sauntered down Monrovia’s corpse-strewn streets.

Others, dressed in wedding gowns, negligees or nothing at all, whooped and jigged before the television cameras, a danse macabre performed to the soundtrack of gunfire. This was African war at its most atavistic, conjuring up images that seemed to confirm the worst Western stereotypes of the “Dark Continent”.

The war claimed 250,000 lives, 10 per cent of the pre-war population. More than half of all Liberians fled their homes. The legacy of war remains profound. Liberia is one of the 10 poorest countries on earth, according to the World Bank. More than half the population lives in poverty. Some 56 per cent of children have never been to school. Only one in four Liberians has access to electricity.

Mr Blahyi has become an unlikely champion of the proposed war crimes court. Claiming he is now a born-again Christian, he says he was converted when Jesus appeared to him just after he sacrificed a three-year-old girl whose murder he had regretted because “she was so beautiful and smiled so sweetly”.

Ever since, Mr Blahyi insists he has been trying to atone for his sins, most recently by running a Christian drug rehabilitation centre in Mount Barclay, a town 15 miles east of Monrovia.

Narcotics addiction is one of the most visible legacies of Liberia’s wars. In order to cajole child soldiers onto the battlefield, their commanders gave them drugs. Mr Blahyi says he played a major role in this by selling diamonds and gold to Mexican cartels in exchange for cocaine and ammunition, which he then distributed among his fellow warlords.

Today, a fifth of Liberians use drugs, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Many of the youngsters at his centre are hooked on kush, a devastatingly potent cocktail of fentanyl, tramadol and cannabis.

Liberia’s drugs crisis, Mr Blahyi says, “unquestionably has its roots in the civil war”; so, too, does government corruption, with many of the warlords who plundered the country during the war now serving as senior politicians.

“Liberia cannot continue being a state of impunity,” he says. “It is harming us. Because of the war, people believe you can do anything and get away with it.

“If going to jail will send a message that no matter how powerful you are the law is more powerful than you, then I am ready to go to jail. If a precedent is set that General Butt Naked killed people and ended up in jail, then that would be a good precedent.”

Mr Blahyi is quite possibly being disingenuous. In 2008, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended he receive an amnesty on the grounds that he was one of very few war crimes suspects who agreed to appear before it.

In testimony that stunned Liberia at the time, he claimed responsibility for 20,000 deaths – although he told the Telegraph that only “five or six hundred” of those were with his own hands.

Whether or not the amnesty is applied to Mr Blahyi will be up to the prosecutors of the new court. One man who has little doubt that he will end up in the dock is Prince Johnson, who sits at the top of the commission’s list of “most notorious perpetrators” recommended for prosecution.

If Mr Blahyi was more a warlord’s henchman than a true warlord, there is no questioning Mr Johnson’s status.

For many years, in Liberia’s first civil war, he was leader of one of the most feared and powerful rebel groups in the country, his gruesome reputation enhanced by his starring role in perhaps the most notorious snuff film ever to emerge from Africa.

Over 15 minutes of graphic footage, Mr Johnson is shown lolling in a swivel chair and drinking two cans of Budweiser as his men cut off the ears of Liberia’s president, Samuel Doe, in September 1990. Doe died shortly afterwards.

Today, like Mr Blahyi, Mr Johnson is also a preacher who uses the pulpit in the Christ Chapel of Faith in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, to rail against the idea of a war crimes court, something he dismisses as plot against him by the Western media and elements in the US government.

Unlike Mr Blahyi, Mr Johnson remains a powerful political figure who, as a senator with a devoted base in the north of Liberia, has been courted by successive governments.

Saying he will mount a legal challenge against President Boakai’s executive order, he warns that charging wartime leaders like himself could reignite the civil war and allow Liberia to be drawn into Russia’s sphere of influence.

“If you just arrest everyone, some may run into the bush and contact the Wagner Group,” he said. “The Russians are in Guinea and Mali. Do you want them here as well?”

“Mali has driven out the French. Niger has driven out the Americans. You don’t know which country will be next, so leave Liberia alone if you don’t want the same to happen here. If you want to go looking for war crimes, go to Israel.”

For human rights activists, Mr Johnson’s threats amount to bluster, a desperate attempt to avoid a moment of reckoning that he believed would never come.

“The warlords are peddling a campaign of fear, preaching that if you promote a war crimes court, you will get war instead,” says Hassan Bility, a veteran human rights campaigner who was jailed seven times under Charles Taylor, the former warlord who served as president from 1997 to 2003.

Taylor is one of a handful of Liberian warlords in prison, all of them after being tried abroad. The former president is serving a 50-year sentence at HMP Durham after being convicted of instigating war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone in the 1990s. He has never been charged for his actions in Liberia.

Liberia’s singular failure to hold the warlords to account means that the country is forever in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past, according to Mr Bility.

“A war crimes court will help to deter people who want to seek political power in the future from using the barrel of the gun to fulfil their ambitions,” he said. “I believe there are still people in Liberia who may be emboldened to seize power by force if there is no deterrent mechanism in place.”

Yet there is no doubt that bringing justice to Liberia will certainly require deft handling. Above all it will have to be seen as even-handed.

Liberia’s civil war was primarily an ethnic one with militias drawn from President Doe’s Krahn tribe and the allied Mandingo accused of carrying out massacres against the Gio and Mano peoples, whose interests were championed by Taylor and Mr Johnson.

If Johnson, still regarded as a hero by the Gio and Mano, is prosecuted or jailed and Krahn leaders are seen receiving different treatment, or vice versa, latent tensions may be stirred, says Larry Doe, the late president’s nephew.

The young, he notes, know nothing of the civil war. Married to a Gio woman, he says his children have no idea that their grandmother was raped by militiamen from his Krahn tribe.

As he speaks, a casual game of football is underway in the beachside park where his uncle had 13 senior officials in his predecessor William Tolbert’s government publicly shot in from of horrified western diplomats.

“It was a mad time,” Mr Doe says reflectively. “Prince Johnson killed my uncle. My uncle killed Tolbert and his ministers. Then everyone fought alongside each other and then against each other. It was the time that the devil came to Liberia.

“Let’s not invite him back.”