Liberia’s First-time Voters Overwhelmingly Back a War Crimes Court Survey Finds

MONROVIA – As Liberia commemorates 20 years since the end of the civil conflict that left devastated the country and left 250,000 people dead, a survey of first-time voters conducted in two of the country’s biggest counties found overwhelming support for a court. Nine out of 10 of the participants surveyed – all of whom had been born after the war ended in 2003 – said the establishment of a war and economic crimes court was “very important” to their future and the future of the nation.

In a potential warning to presidential candidates, 93% of participants said the candidates’ position on a war crimes court was “very important” in their decision about whom to vote for. Only two of the leading candidates for president in October’s elections – Alexander Cummings of the Collaborating Political Party and Tiawon Gongloe of the Liberia People’s Party – have committed to establishing a court. The governments of incumbent President George Weah and Joseph Boakai, former vice president now a candidate for the United Party, blocked a court and have not responded to FrontPageAfrica/New Narratives questions asking whether they would implement a court.

There has been keen interest in the view of this large new cohort of voters who could have a decisive impact on the outcome of the election. Commentators were unsure how these youth voters – who did not experience any of the violence and deprivation of the war – would feel about the need for justice. But the survey shows they are almost united in their desire for justice. Just 8 of the 81 surveyed said it wartime justice was not important – all of them cited the risk of renewed violence as their reason. Many of those who wanted a court cited the fact that accused warlords are in the Legislature and government as a point of anger.

“It’s important because those people that fought the wars and killed innocent people are still ruling us and the president, we put there, can only talk about it (a war crimes court) but then it goes down,” said Anthony Geekor, 20, Point 4, Duala. Weah expressed support for a court at the UN General Assembly in 2019 only to dismiss it on his return to Liberia.

“Because people that killed in this country are ruling the country and in the districts, so they should pay for what they did,” said Ishmael Jackson, 20, in West Point.  

“Many people during the war killed other innocent people, so those who did bad things during the war let them be locked up,” said Jeremiah Joe, 18, of Silver Compound in Bong County.

There is no publicly available polling of voter opinions on the need for war time justice. For this reason FrontPageAfrica/New Narratives surveyed 81 young people between the ages of 18 and 20 in six communities in Montserrado – West Point, Point 4, Duport Road, Joe Bar, New Georgia , Barnesville Supermarket and eight communities in Bong- Civil Compound, Frog Island, Joekpemmue, Barwolor Quarter, Lorma Quarter, Sugar Hill, Lelekpayeah, and Rubber Factory. (Experts warn the survey number is small and conducted by journalists rather than trained polling experts, leaving room for error. But the overwhelming support for the court in the findings suggests it is likely a good indicator of popular sentiment.)

Montserrado was the scene of intense fighting throughout the 14-year conflict culminating with violent battles in 1999-2003 when new factions Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) fought to finally drive 1989 coup leader and former President Charles Taylor, out of the country. Taylor was later convicted for his role in Sierra Leone’s civil war and is serving a 50-year sentence in a UK prison. Bong County was the stronghold of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which overthrew former Samuel K. Doe in 1990.

A first-time voter in Bong County talks with a reporter

Almost all first-time voters surveyed were unemployed. Some blamed their economic struggles on the widespread corruption in the Liberian government and cited that as their reason for wanting justice for war crimes. Advocates of a court have long argued that justice for war crimes is essential if Liberians are to regain trust in government.

“If a war crimes court comes to Liberia, nobody will steal our country money,” said Amie Y. Wilson, 20, in Joe Bar, Paynesville.

“Justice is good for Liberia’s future because, during the war, some people just decided to hold guns to be firing people. They were killing innocent people so I believe that when they bring the court in this country it will be better for us,” said Oretha Kangomah, 18, in Frog Island Community, Bong County.

For many years opponents of a court argued that a court would reignite fighting. That fear was cited by some older generations of Liberians interviewed by FPA/NN over the years. But many first-time voters surveyed said a court was needed to deter future warlords.

“War is not ever good. We don’t ever want war to come back in this country. We want this country to be peaceful,” said Martha Garmu, 20, from a family of eight children living in the home of an aunt after their West Point home was washed away by rising sea levels. She has high expectations the next president will turn things around for her. 

Though they did not experience the fighting themselves, almost all youth surveyed said they had grown up hearing about the horrors suffered by their parents and families.

Twenty-year-old Thomas R. Wiggins of Duport Road in Monrovia said his mother told him about the horrors she suffered while pregnant with him in the final days of the war amid a shortage of food, killings,  and constantly fleeing fighting as it moved across the county.  

“Those people that are responsible for the wars, if they are judged accordingly to what they did, us as young people who have heard about some of them even though some of us were not born at that time, us as young people will learn from the past so that we can avoid them in the future,” Wiggins said.

During Liberia’s back-to-back civil wars all warring factions committed serious human rights violations according to the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (TRC). The TRC Report recommended that Liberia establish a mixed international and domestic court to try those most responsible for the violence and economic crimes. Since then the administrations of presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and George Weah blocked the establishment of a court. Both have cited a fear that a court would divert attention from economy building and reignite conflict. Proponents of a court have accused both of sacrificing justice in the quest to secure the political backing of warlords – particularly Senator Prince Johnson of Nimba County, who would likely be tried by a court.

In the meantime Switzerland, France, Finland and the United States have all prosecuted Liberians living in their countries accused of human rights violations. Victims have traveled from Liberian to testify. The Finnish court actually traveled to Liberia to hold hearings on three occasions. Liberians have received widespread news coverage of those trials and have seen for themselves that justice can be obtained in a court. At the same time there has been no sign that the trials have provoked renewed fighting.

The strong support for a court among first-time voters is not surprising according to Hassan Bility, head of Liberian justice advocate organization Global Justice and Search Project, which has gathered evidence used in the international trials.

“The advocacy that Liberians have been doing has been having impact. It has permeated to a larger extent in the Liberian society,” Bility said. He said older generations’ fear of reignited violence because of a court has abated. “The establishment of a war crimes court is not going to create any war. If Liberia is so concerned about the repercussion negatively then we can have the court situated in another country. For example, the special court for Sierra Leone when the court expressed security concerns over the prosecution of former President Charles Taylor the court was moved to the Hague in The Netherlands.”

At an event held Friday to commemorate the signing of the Accra Peace Accord in 2003, Leymah Gbowee, who was awarded a Nobel Peace prize for her role in the peace talks, called on voters to reject presidential candidates who did not support a court. She said Liberia cannot move forward without justice.

“Everything you see happening in this country is because of our attitude of impunity — until we start dealing with those who gave us war on a silver platter, stop rewarding them with votes, until we make the justice issue key to our daily lives, we cannot see peace,” Gbowee said.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia project. Funding was supplied by the Swedish embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.