Liberia: Presidential Candidates Cummings and Gongloe Commit to War Crimes Court

MONROVIA, Liberia—Two of Liberia’s leading candidates for president have committed to establishing a war and economic crimes court to try alleged leading perpetrators of Liberia’s civil wars if elected in the October elections.

Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, standard bearer of the Liberia People’s Party and human rights activist, has long been a staunch advocate for a court, and Alexander Cummings, standard bearer of the Collaborating Political Parties, advocated for a court in his last presidential run in 2017 and has repeated that commitment now.

“Our nation, out of the fear of confronting the difficult past which has led to the present fragility, has only ensured we have remained a fragile society that is, unfortunately, living under a yoke of debilitating fear of repeating its ugly history rather than forging ahead united in the purpose of nation building,” said Mr. Cummings in a statement to FPA/NN. “The War and Economic Crimes Court will deepen and accelerate processes of national reconciliation and healing, strengthen the bonds of a divided nation through justice, and bring much-needed closures to years of wars and tenuous peace.”

The court has been a controversial issue for Liberia’s two postwar presidents—Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her successor, George Weah. The pair repeatedly ignored calls by citizens and local and international advocates to implement the recommendations of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that a court try the worst perpetrators of Liberia’s civil wars, which left an estimated 250,000 people dead. The wars ended 20 years ago next month when then-President Charles Taylor resigned and went into exile. But campaigners for a court – including Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations – have been unable to persuade either president or the heads of the Legislature to pass a bill to establish a court. Campaigners blame the presence of some of those alleged perpetrators in the Legislature for the political impasse.

Cummings insisted the court will be one of the priorities of his administration, pledging to mobilize everyone involved with the issue.

“We anticipate a speedy national, and especially, international mobilization, as well as commitment of the needed resources to establish the court and support the judicial reform process that is required,” he says. “Our hope is that support for the establishment of the WECC can be provided early so that the process is concluded early. This will be crucial and helpful.”

Cllr. Gongloe said the time for a court is long overdue and he expects the new representatives that join the next Legislature will be more open to passing a bill to establish a court.

“The new Legislature might not have difficulty establishing a court to hold people accountable,” said Gongloe. He said a court is essential to preventing a break down in the rule of law. “If we allow impunity to continue, there might be criminal gangs formed, who will just grab people right in the streets and kill them. And that means, that people will be insecure. So, for the individual and collective security of the humans present in this country, it is better for us to collectively agree that people should be held accountable, especially for taking human lives away.”

Gongloe said as part of a series of plans for the court, he will set up a small committee of Liberian legal experts to relook at a bill the Liberian National Bar Association under his leadership as president and Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), submitted to the Legislature in 2021.

The parties of the other two leading contenders in the election – President Weah of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), and former Vice President, Joseph Boakai of the Unity Party – did not respond to questions about whether they would implement a court if elected. Ledgerhood Rennie, Liberia’s Information Minister, declined requests for comment on whether President Weah would implement a court in a second term. The president called for a court in 2003, but in office he’s backpedaled. Weeks before his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2019, Weah backed the court. But in that speech to the General Assembly and a subsequent press conference, he challenged journalists, activists, and victims for a court to answer, “Why now? We have a serious economic crisis. Why are you talking about a war crimes court?”

Boakai’s UP openly backed the court in a statement in June 2021, but the party has not spoken on the issue since Boakai secured the backing of former warlord, Senator Prince Johnson in the upcoming poll. A UP representative promised an interview with FPA/NN, or a statement on the issue, but neither of those promises were fulfilled.

Activists have long blamed Johnson, war time leader of a breakaway faction of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front, for trading his support to presidential candidates in return for a commitment to block a court. Johnson allegedly mutilated and murdered then-President Samuel Doe and is accused of a large number of atrocities that put him at the top of the TRC’s list of “Most Notorious Perpetrators” list. He has sway in Nimba County, which has the second largest number of voters of the counties, that activists say he uses to trade with candidates. 

In 2021 Johnson was sanctioned by the US Treasury under the Global Magnitsky Act for “pay-for-play funding scheme involving millions of U.S. dollars” and “the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money.” He denied the charges.

When Johnson had an open fallout with Weah earlier this year, he subsequently threw his support behind Boakai. Interestingly, Senator Jeremiah Koung, who now heads Johnson’s political party, is Boakai’s running mate. He said he was in favor of a court in May.

“I am one of those who don’t believe in impunity, because I am a war victim; I was a child – 12 years old when the war came,” Koung told Radio Bushrod. “It destroyed a good portion of my life. I believe people should pay for everything they did during the war. The only thing I don’t support is to weaponize the war crime court. To make it political against individuals is not fair.”

UP and CDC refusal to comment on the issue reflects the absence of a consensus among Liberia’s political elites, according to Aaron Weah, who worked closely with the TRC as part of a CSO and staff with an international NGO, and is now pursuing a PhD at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “Some politicians may not want to be involved at the moment, because they think it could take away votes from them,” he said by WhatsApp. “It’s frustrating to me. It’s frustrating to anyone who sees clearly that Liberia could be farther than what we are today. It is important for the media to put it on record that in 2023, there was an opportunity for candidate “X” to speak to this he refused. Five years later, that information will be very relevant when this person is making an opinion on a matter that he did not want to talk about.”

Although Liberia’s constitution only allows the Legislature to set up the court, the body is often accused by politicians, activists, and citizens of being a rubberstamp—peddling the interests of the president. In Liberia’s presidential system, the president can veto bills, giving him or her immense weight and influence. In 2021, the Legislature failed to pass a Bar’s led bill for the court. On a rancorous day of proceedings, House leader, Bhofal Chambers constituted a “special committee” for members to consult constituents on the matter before the bill was reconsidered.

Weah urged alleged war perpetrators to support the court to clear their names of charges against them. He warns not establishing the court would set a bad precedent for Liberia.

“Today, we’re dealing with corruption on a scale that is without proportion,” said Weah. “Where do you think that is coming from? It’s coming from a society, where people wake up in the morning and they see someone riding in a very nice vehicle who committed atrocities and he’s not been prosecuted. So, an assistant minister feels justified taking $US150,000, because someone who massacred an entire village has never been penalized.”

It is unclear how important a war crimes court is to voters. As the economic and corruption crisis gripping the country continues President Weah’s argument that a war crimes court is a diversion from the real issues may resonate. Voters may also be persuaded that justice is essential if Liberians are going to reconcile and build trust in government.

*Correction: This story has been updated to show that Alexander Cummings first spoke in support of a war crimes court in 2017. An earlier version of this story said he was announcing his commitment for the first time now. New Narratives/Front Page Africa regrets the error.

This story was a collaboration with FrontPage Africa as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.