Liberia Election: George Weah Faces Demands for War Crimes Tribunal

by MMC
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  • By Azeezat Olaoluwa and Yūsuf Akínpẹ̀lú
  • BBC News, Monrovia

Former soccer star George Weah is seeking a second six-year term as Liberia’s president, but he appears to have scored an own goal by not tackling the issue dominating the airwaves and mood in the streets : requests to set up a tribunal for economic and war crimes.

The 57-year-old came to power promising to create jobs, transform lives and establish a court. But after taking office in 2018, he claimed that looking back on past crimes would not be the best way to achieve development – ​​something Frederick Tulay, 24, considers a mistake.

“As a first-time voter in 2017, I believed President Weah. But he refused to tackle corruption in the public sector. Many young people use drugs because they are unemployed,” he said. he told the BBC, saying he would not do so. voting this time for Mr. Weah and his party, the Congress for Democratic Change.

Image source, Frédéric Tulay


Frederick Tulay, who voted for George Weah in the last election, says the president let him down

Mr Tulay lost his job at a construction company factory two years ago when his former employer could no longer pay his salary. He now works as a taxi driver but his business is not thriving: “The roads are in very bad condition and gasoline is expensive. My dream is to leave the country.”

His comments reflect a widely felt anger: 20 years after the end of the country’s two brutal civil wars, in which an estimated 250,000 people died, most people are still struggling to survive.

The country operates a dual currency system, meaning those paid in Liberian dollars often have to pay for imported food or other items in U.S. dollars, making life extremely expensive. Two financial scandals in recent years have also shocked Liberians, leading the United States to impose sanctions on several officials, including Mr. Weah’s chief of staff.

For Peterson Sonyah, 49, the inability to heal the wounds of the past has led to this culture of impunity.

A survivor of a horrific civil war massacre in a church in the capital, Monrovia, he now spends his time campaigning for the prosecution of the perpetrators of civil wars and those who financially benefited from them.

At the age of 16, he sought refuge in the church with his father, who was among around 600 people killed by soldiers in 1990.

“When the soldiers ran out of ammunition, some of them went to get some and people tried to run away but the soldiers started attacking them with machetes,” he recalls, showing the impacts of bullets on the windows of Saint-Pierre Lutheran Church.

Image source, BBC/Ufuoma Gift


Peterson Sonyah says returning to St Peter Lutheran Church is a haunting experience

The need for a court is urgent, he says: “Some are already telling me that since there is no justice, we must take up arms and start waging war on the people.

“They believe that if we did this, in the future we will get lucrative jobs and live the best life because they see the example. We are all human beings, people can indulge.”

Nineteen other candidates challenge Mr Weah for president next Tuesday, including former Vice President Joseph Boakai, businessman Alexander Cummings and human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe.

All three contenders have pledged to create the court if elected – although some have expressed doubts about Mr Boakai’s commitment, given his alliance with former warlord Prince Yormie Johnson , now a sitting senator.

He wants all the alleged perpetrators of these crimes to have their chance in court, including himself.

“We want the economic war crimes tribunal… because I want to go there and be able to exonerate myself. Let people know the evil I did and be penalized for it.”

Much appreciated by young people, the child rebel turned politician walked briskly, like a soldier, to sit on a plastic chair in his press center set up in a poor neighborhood of Monrovia for our interview.

Like Mr. Sonyah, he believes the tribunal would allow Liberia to move forward and heal: “If we don’t do it, it means we continue to encourage war. The reason we behave violently is because we have not been punished.

“If I go to prison for brutalizing people, for killing people, do you think I’ll hold a gun again?”

He is angered by what he sees as attempts to silence him on the subject by offering him lucrative positions on parliamentary committees.

Information Minister Ledgerhood Rennie told the BBC the president would not comment on such allegations, calling Mr Kolubah a “well-known mad agitator”.

The deputy finance minister stressed that the final decision on a war crimes tribunal essentially rests with Parliament.

“Citizens should tell their legislators to make this issue the priority of their campaign and to stay committed to this issue,” Samora Wolokolie told the BBC.

Mr Rennie said the issue may even need to be put to a referendum.


President Weah’s supporters say he successfully managed the country during the Covid crisis

But the Liberian group Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), which has documented evidence of war crimes, believes the government is not interested in facilitating either option.

Its director, Hassan Bility, said a letter signed by more than 50% of MPs, including Mr Kolubah, calling for the issue to be discussed in Parliament, had been “lost” twice by the speaker. House of Representatives.

“The peace that Liberia is enjoying, I don’t believe it is sustainable or sustained because there is no deterrence mechanism in place,” Mr Bility told the BBC.

The elections will be the first since the departure of UN peacekeepers deployed after the official end of the civil wars in 2003.

Mr Wolokolie says President Weah must be credited for guiding the country through Covid-19 and creating jobs in the public sector.

His supporters also applaud him for the road construction that has taken place across the country over the past six years – he once said he was the medicine needed to treat bad roads, earning him the affectionately nicknamed “medicine for bad roads”.

The former Fifa World Footballer of the Year can still draw huge crowds to his rallies. He has this star quality and many fans in the capital.

Image source, Moses Garzeawu


President Weah supporter Wleh Potee says conflict in Liberia delayed his university studies

Wleh Potee, a supporter of the president who sells wristwatches and sunglasses in the heart of Monrovia, notes that the economic crisis is not specific to Liberia. And even though his own sales are down significantly, he says he and other merchants are happy with the president.

“In the past, the police seized our properties and we spent a lot of money and time to get them back. But under this administration, the police no longer harass us. So, with the little money we earn, we have peace of mind.”

But the 46-year-old salesman, who is a qualified accountant, also favors the creation of a court, saying he would have a doctorate by now if it hadn’t been for the wars: “Let them bring the court to hang them all.”

Mr. Sonyah hopes that whoever is elected president will listen to the wishes of the people and MPs and support efforts to bring crimes of the past to justice to ensure a brighter, corruption-free future for Liberia.

“Peace without justice is like tea without sugar,” he said.

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