***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story carried an image of a family member of Melvin Sogbandi. FrontPage Africa and New Narratives regret the error ***
By Eric Opa Doue, Senior New Narratives Justice Reporter
JUAH TOWN, Grand Bassa – James Diggs broke down in tears when he heard the news of the death of Melvin Sogbandi. Sogbandi led “Strike Force Marine”, one of the deadliest divisions of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) during the civil war.
Now 64 and blind, Mr. Diggs cannot forget when, he says, Sogbandi terrorized people here. Mr. Diggs says Sogbandi made him and others walk for days with loads on their heads.
“No one dare say ‘I am tired’ or you got killed and eaten by the rebels,” according to Mr. Diggs.
“I experienced so, so bad, bad things, because they beat me, they did all kinds of things to me,” Mr. Diggs says. “They put me in the kitchen, they put fire under it and the smoke left small to kill me.”
The former NPFL General died on January 31 at the Fidelity Hospital, in Monrovia, aged 53. Sogbandi was listed number 88 on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Most Notorious Perpetrators” list for allegedly committing human rights violations of killing, torture, massacre and looting.
Diggs lost his sight five years after the end of the war. He now lives here in a town called SOS, one of the former rebel bases, with his wife and two of his ten children.
Rose Korkollie says her brother was killed by Sogbandi’s forces. Unlike Mr. Diggs Madame Korkollie, 67, and living with her grandchildren in District 2, says she is glad Sogbandi is dead. She says his early death is a reward for all the atrocities she says he and his men committed.
“Bad can always pay bad, good can always pay good,” Madame Korkollie says. “The way they themselves they do bad, bad thing to us and even make for our brother to die that kind of nasty way. The things they used to do to people, the place where he was thinking he was never going to go, that’s the place he laying down.”
Alphonso Gargar was a boy aged 10 when he says Sogbandi’s rebels killed and ate one of his small friends right before his eyes. Gargar, now in his late 30s and a motorist in District 2 still carries rage. He says he would set Sogbandi’s corpse ablaze if he had the opportunity.
The TRC found Sogbandi had been involved in a June 1993 massacre of 600 people at Harbel in Margibi County. The Report also found he gave orders for the killing of 26 unarmed civilians in Gbah, Bomi County in January 2000.
Sogbandi is the second alleged war criminal to have died in Liberia in less than a month. Former General Alhaji G. V. Kromah, head of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (or ULIMO) faction died on January 18 at the age of 68. According to the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Kromah’s ULIMO is responsible for over 11,500 different forms of abuses and atrocities committed during the war. Neither man faced justice for their alleged crimes. Kromah and Sogbandi join a growing list of ex-warlords who have died without facing justice. Some of them include former-Vice President Moses Blah, Edward Mlehn, Christopher Vambo, alias Gen. Mosquito, George Dweh and Gen. Charles Julu.
The recent deaths of suspected war criminals are a disappointment to those pursuing justice for the victims of the civil war says Hassan Bility of the Global Justice Research Project (GJRP). Mr. Bility says government should take the lead in passing a bill to establish a War and Economic Crimes Court to prosecute those accused of committing human rights violations during the wars in Liberia.
“I really blame the Liberian Government, the Executive and the legislative branches of government. They are responsible for policy, they should have been able to implement these,” Mr. Bility says. “But the whole thing has been politicized to the extent that the implementation has become difficult.”
Mr. Bility says that all those accused of war crimes in Liberia might die without being prosecuted. Despite pressure from national justice advocates, donor governments and the UN, two successive governments – that of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and George M. Weah- have ignored calls for a court.
In June 2021, the Liberian National Bar Association led a group of civil society organizations to formally present a bill to the Legislature for the court but it has yet to come up for discussion in the House chamber. The Speaker of the House of Representatives has the sole authority to decide what appears on the House agenda, according to the body’s rules, but current Speaker, Bhofal Chambers, a one-time advocate for the court, has yet to do so. That failure has provoked criticism from advocates for the court.
Campaigns for the court seem to have been overshadowed by politics as Liberia braces for next year’s presidential election. President Weah, seeking re-election, has enjoyed the support of some former rebel leaders—notably, Senator Prince Johnson of vote-rich Nimba County. Senator Johnson tops the TRC’s list of most notorious perpetrators.
President Weah will be looking forward to being re-endorsed by Mr. Johnson during the election, although the latter’s popularity has dwindled in recent elections.
The Legislature has the constitutional power to set up the court, even if the President vetoes its action. It can override his veto.
Although Liberia’s Legislature is indecisive about setting up the court, the US House of Representatives approved a resolution for the court and the full implementation of the TRC recommendations in 2018—an action that was viewed in the human rights community as the clearest indication yet of the U.S. support for accountability for war-time atrocities.
International prosecutors have given up on Liberia holding the accused to account and have been prosecuting alleged war criminals in their jurisdictions. Alieu Kosiah, a ULIMO commander, was convicted in a Swiss Criminal Court in 2021. Another ULIMO Commander, Mohammed Jabbateh was sentenced to 30 years in prison by a Philadelphia court in 2017. The same court convicted Thomas Woewiyu, Charles Taylor’s number two, in 2018. He died of Covid before being sentenced. Sierra Leonean commander Gibril Massaquoi of the Taylor-allied Revolutionary United Front is awaiting a verdict on charges of war crimes in Liberia by a Finnish court. Kunti K. also of ULIMO will face trial in France later this year.
Former Liberia Peace Council (LPC) leader George Boley was deported from the U.S. over his role in the civil war. Boley was subsequently elected as member of Liberia’s House of Representatives. Men like Kromah and Sogbandi did not risk traveling overseas in recent years where they may have have been forced to face justice.
Victims like Madame Korkollie and Mr. Diggs and others here will never have the sense of justice that victims of Jabbateh, Woewuyu and Kosiah have had. Justice advocates like Billity say this gives a greater urgency to the need for a court now.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.