In order to establish a foundation for my line of reasoning regarding why the ECOWAS peace mission in Liberia was a failure, I begin my analysis in this document by defining my relationship with some ECOMOG soldiers.
This article is designed to examine the shocking roles of ECOMOG in the Liberian war, to provide detail and first-hand explanations to students and scholars of international relations, political science as well as mediators who may have had great interest in the Liberian crisis. We shall also focus on the Liberian traditional justice system and why such models of conflict resolution should be applied along with the UN win-win model when addressing conflict in Africa.
Along with other young Liberian boys, I worked for the Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Senegalese ECOMOG soldiers. Polishing their boots, washing their uniforms, arranging girls for them, introducing them to people who had valuable objects/items to sell (which they bought and shipped home), spying on the Armed Forces of Liberia, collecting money from taxis and bus drivers at ECOMOG roadblocks, and the list goes on. We did all of these things in exchange for food. Also, while in exile in 2009, I was able to reunite with three of my Nigerian ECOMOG friends. I met with Sargent Mauzu Saluzu (who agreed that I can publish his name) in Port Harcourt, Captain X in Kaduna State and Lieutenant Y in Lagos State, Nigeria. Together we discussed and laughed over our past experiences in Liberia. Chatting in such relaxed environments, far away from where the action took place (Liberia), they surprisingly told me why ECOMOG was involved in lots of dirty deals, not only in Liberia but in Sierra Leone as well.
The Liberian civil war, which lasted for fourteen years (from 1989-2003) was one of the deadliest wars ever fought in modern days. Human heads with fresh blood dripping from them were displayed at roadblocks and mothers who covered the eyes of their babies from seeing such things were shot and their babies’ heads were smashed against nearby rocks and walls. Pregnant women’s bellies were opened and their babies were taken out of their wombs simply because they were members of an enemy tribe. Civilians were forced to eat human body parts, and I am not an exception to this cruelty. On April 11th, 1996, we were captured from school and taken to areas that were controlled by the rebels. There, I was forced to drink what the rebels described as “warm Juice” but in reality it was a cup full with human blood. Children were told to kill their parents or relatives. When I became a soldier, to prove my loyalty to my commander; General Chris Friday, I was told to burn Matan (my childhood friend) alive. As he struggled with his life, running from one direction to another with a flame of fire covering him, he shouted out my name reminding me of the days we played together as children. I was deeply touched and so I spoke to the general for the fire to be turned off but he slapped me in the face and accused me of being an enemy. He then instructed me to cut off Matan’s head, open his belly and feed his intestines to the dogs. While most women were raped before being killed, others were raped by dozens of men before being forced to carry arms. I grew up in an environment full of constant violence and never thought I would survive, let alone give an account.
The list of horrors that took place in Liberia goes on and on, but the world turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to the cries of innocent Liberians. Not even the United States, with whom we (Liberians) have long historical connections with, came to our aid. America’s position was clearly stated in a statement released by the then US Ambassador Peter John De Vos, who said, “America considered the civil war as Liberia’s internal affairs and therefore we would not interfere in any way.” “We are not involved and we have no intention of being involved in the internal problems of this country.”(African Research Bulletin, 1991)
Moving on, it’s important to note that the Liberian crisis erupted at a time when major political developments were taking place in Europe. Between 1989 and 1991, most Western European governments were preoccupied with the disintegration of socialism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The Unification of East and West and the then escalating conflict in Yugoslavia. Faced with these historical changes in their own backyard, it was understandable that Europe paid scant attention to conflicts elsewhere, particularly in Liberia which was of no diplomatic or military significance to them.
Nonetheless, help came from where we least expected. As the crisis intensified, ECOWAS leaders decided to find an international (Sub-regional) solution to the crisis. From August 6th -7th 1990, the then ECOWAS mediating committee leaders- President Babangida of Nigeria, Dawda Jawara of Gambia, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Lansana Counte of Guinea, Joseph Momoh of Sierra Leone, as well as the foreign ministries of Togo and Mali agreed to establish and dispatch to Liberia without further delay the ECOMOG, with Ghana’s General Arnold Quainoo as the commander.
ECOMOG was mandated to keep peace in Liberia, separate the three warring factions, and ensure a route to normalcy. ECOMOG forces were asked to open up the routes to ensure much needed food, drugs, clothing and other needs to be transported to Liberia to help the starving and sick people, especially refugees. They were mandated to establish a security zone around Monrovia to enhance peace and to maintain law and order. ECOMOG forces left Freetown on August 23, 1990 and landed in Monrovia on the following day.
THE DEATH OF PRESIDENT SAMUEL DOE
At first, most Liberians saw ECOMOG as the Lord’s people, but that was short lived, as ECOMOG Field Commander, General Quianoo of Ghana betrayed the trust of the host President. The arrest of President Doe by INPFL men right inside the headquarters of ECOMOG and his subsequent death at the hands of Prince Johnson reminded humanity of the arrest and brutal murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumuba of Congo in 1961 by one of the factions in Congo right under the nose of the United Nations peacekeepers.
On September 9, 1990, Doe took a short drive from his Executive Mansion in Monrovia to the seaport, Headquarters of the peacekeeping mission. On his way to the meeting, he stopped at the Barclay Training Center (one of the two areas that were under his control) and there he was accompanied by 100 trained Israeli bodyguards. However, the President and his men were unarmed during their visit to the seaport.
“I still remember his face when he stopped at Sokosaka (the military hospital) that morning. He looked much stressed as all the Generals tried to convince him not to make the trip, or at least they should be armed if they were to visit the port, but he insisted that it was a peace meeting and that there was no need to carry arms. Only Captain Telley, a traditional warrior (from the same tribe with Doe, the Krahn ethnic group), openly challenged the president and said he’ll take his arm along because he didn’t trust the peacekeepers. The President had Telley arrested and jailed and promised to execute him when he (Doe) returns from the peace meeting.”
My father, Dr. Victor Julu Wratto, a former Director at the Sokosaka hospital and a member of the Krahn tribe, narrated the story to us (his children) after we had returned from Sierra Leone in 1991 and asked us to pass it on to our children if we survive the war.
One may ask why Doe took such a risk in a war zone?
- Doe needed “peace” more than any of the factions and he clearly demonstrated this by welcoming the peacekeepers whom he believed would have been of help in bringing the war to an end.
- The second factor that may have motivated him to disarm his men was that, a week before the peace meeting at the seaport, Prince Johnson, the leader of INPFL, came with food, medical supplies and a white flag, as a sign of peace at the Barclay Training Centre.
Again, the former president proved that he needed peace. Though almost every soldier living in the BTC at the time wanted the heads of Prince Johnson and Charles Taylor (the leader of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia) because together, the two men disregarded the rules of war and cut off every supply route to the Executive Manson and the BTC, thereby denying the soldiers and their families, including innocent civilians seeking refuge in the camps of Doe, food and medical supplies. To survive, they first started by eating their pets and other creeping things. Later, they started to eat leaves and grasses, and drank water from their toilets from which many fell sick and died. Although I didn’t believe these shocking stories told by my father and other survivors initially, the evidence was all around me. Of the thousands of palm, shade, fruit and coconut trees we left on the beaches before leaving for Sierra Leone, not a single one was standing when we returned to Monrovia.
So when Johnson arrived at the BTC Barrack, the soldiers eagerly awaited Doe’s command for Johnson’s execution but Doe refused. According to General Butt Naked (a traditional priest of the Krahn tribe, the then spiritual adviser to President Doe and later a general of ULIMO J., responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 Liberians), “When Johnson visited the BTC Doe disregarded our advices and promoted him to the rank of Field Marshal because he thought they (Doe and Johnson) could work together, but I knew that was the end of Doe.” Youtube:Joshua Blahyi -(1 of 9)- (Fmr. Gen. Butt Naked) TRC testimony (1 0f 9).
Regardless of what his men may have thought of him, Doe may have reasoned: having Johnson on his side meant having control of the seaport (although by now Johnson had turned the seaport over to the peacekeepers to be used as their headquarters, he still had control over it) where the food which his men and their families had lacked for months was situated.
Thirdly, with the peacekeepers on the ground, Doe thought it wise to cement the relations between his Krahn forces and the Gio and Mano forces led by Prince Johnson through the Doe-dee’s accord. (We shall discuss Doe-dee in details later) This way, he would have additional manpower from Johnson to fight off Taylor and reunite the country. “The question remains, why trust ECOMOG when, since their arrival in Monrovia, they haven’t visited you as the Commander in Chief”? Seated in the same hospital wall with some Generals from the Armed Forces of Liberia; (who came to visit their wounded comrades), I overheard them discussing the death of Doe and his betrayal by ECOMOG. Unlike other visitors, I could go to any corner of the hospital without being stopped by the Military Police. As they sadly discussed about the former president, one of the survivors from the meeting said,
“When we arrived at the Freeport, Doe went upstairs to Gen. Quainoo’s office while we sat downstairs and waited for the result of the meeting. Johnson was expected but he did not take the main gate, instead his men took the emergency exit at the back of the compound. Those dogs stormed the premises killing almost 60 of our brothers and proceeded to shoot and search until they found our father (Doe) in Quainoo’s office. They shot him in the legs and then put him in the trunk of his limousine and took him to their Caldwell base. There he was severely tortured, mutilated and later executed.”
When I asked Captain X (in 2009) who was at the scene during the capture of Doe, this was what he had to say, “We believe this was a planned work because after Johnson captured Doe we awaited Quainoo’s instruction to arrest Johnson and his men but instead Quainoo ran into our (Nigerian) gunboat pretending like he was in danger.” Youtube: LE PRESIDENT SAMUEL DO – torturé et exécuté devant les caméras.
THE FREE PORT MASSACRE
In spite of the fact that ECOMOG had international backing from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Mano River Union (MRU), the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU), the United Nations (UN), and the European Union (EU), to mention a few regions that called for an immediate ceasefire in Liberia after President Doe had been captured, General Quainoo and his men did nothing to rescue ordinary civilians. According to survivors from the Free Port Massacre, General Quainoo and his ECOMOG soldiers watched INPFL rebels lock Krahn women (same tribe with Doe) and children up in huge containers at the Free Port without food and water for days. Most of them suffocated or starved to death. Some were forcefully taken out of the containers during midnight hours and slain, while others were buried alive. One of the survivors who were taken out of the container happened to know an INPFL fighter and the fighter told him to hide behind a crane. Later after the other Krahn victims were slaughtered, the INPFL fighter returned and escorted his friend out of the Free Port fence to safety
In addition, innocent Krahn citizens who travelled along with Doe to the Free Port of Monrovia, as well as those who were already displaced there and were awaiting their turn to embark vessels that were transporting Liberian refugees to other West African destinations, they too were hand-picked and slaughtered from among displaced persons at the Free Port of Monrovia because they were identified as Krahn by other Liberians who were strong supporters of Johnson.
Although General Arnold Quainoo who was believed to have taken some huge amount of money from Prince Johnson refused to save innocent Liberians and their children, few were willing to take the risk and save lives. Krahn citizens who managed to escape stated that one of the ECOMOG commanders from the Gambian Contingent, Colonel Gaye, helped to release some of them when General Quainoo was reluctant to secure their release. For many Krahn families Colonel Gaye was an Angel sent from above to save their relatives and loved ones, but the hard truth is there were more Quainoos than Gayes.
In addition, by disarming the National Army (the Armed Forces of Liberia) and leaving the various rebel groups armed, ECOMOG contributed to the deaths of lots of innocent children in the BTC. While many died at the bombs and guns of the rebels, others died at the hands of their own people. To fight the rebels without arms, the soldiers became traditional warriors who rejected the rules of modern warfare and subjected themselves to evil traditional practices. Their new sources of power were traditional priests who demanded human sacrifices to make them bulletproof. At this time, the BTC was the worse place to be on earth as a child because we had external enemies who were dropping bombs on us, and internal enemies who were hunting children for such sacrifices to take place.
Ill Treatments and the Killing of Innocent Civilians
Our West African brothers were respected by ordinary Liberians when they first came, but they soon took full advantage of the situation and turned themselves into lords. Many of us were treated like dogs by the peacekeepers. I personally was beaten twice by two different groups of ECOMOG soldiers. The fear of ECOMOG was the beginning of wisdom. Thousands of men, boys and women were wrongly accused by ECOMOG of being rebels. While many were shot on the spot, others were beaten and tortured for days to confess that they were fighters. I have seen the brutality of ECOMOG and that of the rebels; believe me, there is no difference. Whenever an ECOMOG soldier got killed on the frontlines they extended their anger to innocent civilians. For instance, three young boys were arrested one morning and accused of being fighters. The boys were then stripped naked and tied. One was kept in a den of giant ants to confess; the soldiers then lit lots of waterproof bags and dropped the flames from the bags on the other boy’s body until he died from shock. In addition, they pierced the genital part of the third with hot metal until he too died. Later, the one that was kept with the ants was shot.
GREED, CORRUPTION AND THE LACK OF MILITARY DISCIPLINE OF ECOMOG
Prior to the war, most Liberians had a negative perspective on banking. Hence, they chose to save their moneys at home in barrels, but when the war (Operation Octopus in 1992) was at its peak, hunger and diseases started to kill more people than guns and bombs in my side of the city. Only aged eleven at the time, my friends and I were professional grave diggers. The soldiers (of Liberia) admired the speed of our hands with shovels and our bravery in gathering and burying the body parts of their comrades from the frontlines. Amongst those we buried were also innocent civilians who died from starvation. Consequently, wealth became useless, but for many ECOMG soldiers this was a once in a life-time opportunity. They started to steal and sell the Liberian people’s food from the seaport which was now ECOMOG Headquarters. For example, on my side of the city (The BTC) ECOMOG soldiers sold a cup or rice or beans for thousands of US dollars, cars, gold, or anything of value to those that could afford it. The goods were then shipped to their home countries. Things were so bad that we ate grass and mushrooms that grew around decomposed corpses from which many of us became sick and developed swollen bellies, legs, and hands. Today, even twenty years after, I still find it difficult to look at or eat mushrooms as it brings back painful memoirs I have long struggled to bury in my inner mind.
When the situation got very bad in my family, my mother gathered all the money and jewelleries she had and sent me to call an ECOMOG soldier to have them exchange for food. When the soldier arrived, he collected the money and jewelleries including our tribal masks that were in the sitting room. My mother immediately went on her knees and begged the soldier. In tears she explained how important they were to her; but the man insisted to take the masks or there would be no deal. Prior to that time I didn’t believe anything that had been said about traditional masks, but from that day on, my thinking changed; “I’ll do it for of my children.” Mother said, but she never ate from the food. She said she would rather die than eat such food. In any case, as children we were excited that we had food.
To stay alive in this helpless situation, many who couldn’t afford such high prices began to secretly eat dead bodies that lay along the beaches. I also nearly ate human flesh once because I was starving, so for us, exchanging our wealth for food was a blessing, but looking back I keep asking myself; were these not the people that were sent to help us? When I asked Lieutenant Y in late 2009 about ECOMOG activities, this was what he had to say, “sorry Charles, but for most of our boys, Liberia and Sierra Leone was a blessing. You can see for yourself how things are here in Nigeria. The Government is paying our boys N 15,000 ($100) which is not enough for them and their families; that’s why most of them had to do everything in their power to send something home, at least to build a house because we’ll retire from the army one day.” This became very clear to me in 2010 when Sargent Mauzu Saluzu paid a huge sum of money to bribe his commander in order to be among the peacekeepers that were sent to Sudan.
Sexual Violence, Criminal Activities, and Human Sacrifices by ECOMOG Soldiers
During the war, most of our sisters were abused countlessly by all armed groups including the so called “peacekeepers.” Currently, there are lots of fatherless children in Liberia partly because their mothers were conditioned during the war to sleep with ECOMOG soldiers either for five or ten USD or for a little amount of food. Consequently, most of the girls got pregnant and were abandoned by the perpetrators.
In addition, lots of our sisters were killed by some ECOMOG soldiers and their body parts mutilated either for spiritual protection or blood money (Black Magic or Juju), a dark and evil side of the African tradition which claims the lives of thousands of men, women and children every year across the continent. This was a common practice amongst the Nigerian soldiers. Those ECOMOG soldiers that were caught by Liberians in the act were rescued by the comrades and victims’ families were told that the soldiers will be sent home to face “court-martial”.
Also, some ECOMOG soldiers were involved in armed robbery and rape. For an example, while spending time with Sister Mamie, our eldest sister in Paynesville in 1995, we heard some shootings one night. Surely we didn’t deny ourselves the sleep because from the sounds of the guns we could tell that it wasn’t an attack. However, in reality a family was in danger. The thieves had successfully robbed the family but wouldn’t leave until they raped the girls. Unfortunately, while struggling with one of the girls in the next room, she grabbed a screwdriver and stabbed the rapist in the eye. She then untied her father who took the rapist’s gun and exchanged fire with the other three men. The injured man bled until the next morning. When the angry crowd woke up and was about to burn him alive for his crimes, he then confessed of being a Nigerian ECOMOG soldier and gave up the names of his three comrades who had managed to escape the shootout. I was standing among the crowd when the case was turned over to ECOMOG to handle, but that was the end of the story.
Furthermore, most of our sisters were taken to foreign lands by ECOMOG without the consent of their parents or relatives. For instance, my eldest sister Mamie later got involved with a Nigerian soldier. All we know of her is that she got pregnant and her “boyfriend” gave her an address to go before he did, since she wouldn’t be allowed on the military ship that was to take him home in 1997. During my stay in Nigeria, which lasted for a period of ten years, I travelled to four military bases trying to find her but I didn’t succeed. However, it was during this time that I came across Sargent Mauzu Saluzu and other officers that served in Liberia. Only God knows where she is. As for my father and other parents, the pain of losing a child to an unknown person had left permanent scars in their hearts.
Most of us (the young boys) who worked for the peacekeepers did not perceive them as only soldiers but as father figures as well. We did everything they asked of us, but when we needed them the most they turned their backs on us. For example, my good friend Sargent Saluzu was in charge of the food for his battalion in Paynesville, Coca cola Road. Whenever the supply trucks came at night, be it 3:00am or 4:00am, I was called upon to help unload the goods from the trucks to the store house. Also, as part of my daily joy, I walked an hour’s journey every day to the Coca Cola factory to get drinks for his friends and himself. On one occasion I was asked to dig a hole of 20ft wide and 10ft deep because there was rumour that the owner of the house in which Saluzu was living had buried his treasures on that very spot before leaving the country. I worked for him without regrets because by then I saw him as an elder brother. Nonetheless, when the war resurfaced in Monrovia in 1996, I was captured by the rebels and taken to the SOS Children Village in Maltale Estate. There, the rebels came every night and killed people from my tribe. To stay alive I have to sleep in the swamps. One night I travelled through the swamps from Maltale to Paynesville which was a safe and faraway place from the war zone. Bypassing deadly roadblocks, I finally arrived at Saluza’s place early the next morning. Shockingly enough, when he saw me, he acted like we hadn’t met before. He later sent his girlfriend (now his wife) to tell me that I was Krahn and that my presence would draw the rebels’ attention to him. Because we (his girlfriend and I) were from the same tribe, she too pleaded with him to accommodate me but he refused and told me to leave. I sat on the ground in frustration. With my lips trembling, my heart crying and my eyes refusing to shed tears, I struggled within myself not to think of the unknown. Although I survived the war and can now share my story, I couldn’t have been captured the second time and forced to be a soldier. Helping me would have also meant saving the lives of those (like my friend Matan) I was forced to kill. The list of mayhems and heinousness committed by ECOMOG goes on and no.
Why Was the Mission a Failure?
There are lots of reasons for the failure of the intervention in Liberia, some of which are already stated above. Although we shall discuss a few more, let’s bear in mind that there are lots more reasons which can be discussed under political, economic and social groupings.
The first thing that should be taken into consideration is the fact that within eight months of the war (December 24th, 1989 – August 24th, 1990) the rebels had taken over the entire country excluding the Executive Mansion and the Barclay Training Center, the two military bases that were left under the government’s control. The ECOMOG arrived on August 24, 1990, and they were welcomed by President Doe and Prince Johnson. Furthermore, president Doe wanted to negotiate, which made the task very easy for ECOMOG, but unfortunately the peace keepers didn’t take advantage of this opportunity. In addition, the president was captured right under the nose of the peacekeepers. The fact that the rebels then drove away unchallenged out of the port with their prisoner, bypassing hundreds of heavily armed ECOMOG troops was the ultimate insult and a slap on the face of the “peacekeepers.” In addition, under the supervision of ECOMOG, the war lasted for thirteen extra years, 1990-2003. Furthermore, with ECOMOG overseeing the situation, the number of warring factions grew from three to eleven. Namely, The Armed Forces of Liberia, Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, Liberia Peace Council, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, Lofa Defense Force, Movement for Democracy in Liberia, National Patriotic Front of Liberia, National Patriotic Front of Liberia – Central Revolutionary Council, United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy – Johnson faction, United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy – Kromah faction.
Secondly, the Liberian crisis reawakened the spirit of brotherhood and the need for Africans to be their brother’s keepers, a value long associated with Africa but which had been dampened by colonialism and individual capitalist values. Although African leaders came together in the spirit of brotherhood to find a solution to the Liberian carnage partly due to the fact that there was great fear in West Africa that the crisis may attract the big powers which may come into the subregion to play out their usual selfish games and test their new weapon systems, the approach used by ECOWAS leaders to address the problems, and the torturing and killing of innocent civilian including rebels who surrendered to ECOMOG in Liberia and Sierra Leone can only leave unanswered questions in our minds. YouTube: THE EMPIRE OF AFRICA (part E), The Rebels – Sierra Leone.
The Lack of Cultural/Traditional Approach
Since the conflict was viewed by ECOWAS leaders as an African problem, there was a need for tradition approach to be applied alongside the military intervention in Liberia. This in my opinion would have been the fastest way in dealing with the situation since over 90% of the fighters were indigenous Liberians who strongly believe in the customs of their forefathers. For instance, all the ethnic groups of Liberia are interrelated either by blood or by marriage, or through traditional cultural institutions such as, the Poro, Sande, Negee, Grebo Bush, Blonyloon, as well as other traditional secret societies through which traditional Liberians preserve their culture and history. Therefore, there are many cultural, linguistic and historical connections that unite us rather than divide us. In addition, our forefathers used these cultural connectives to make peace, to keep peace, and to build a culture of peace through our historical and cultural heritage long before and after the land was called Liberia. Below we shall discuss few of these traditional connections that unite us.
The word slah (in the Krahn language) means traditional sacrifice. The concept demonstrates traditional Liberians’ spiritual belief in making animal sacrifices to appease the spirits of our forefathers. Sacrifices are either made before we begin a journey that requires God’s blessings and protection as well as the approval of the spirits of our forefathers, or after we have sinned against God and man. We also make sacrifices after a successful farming year or after a disaster occurred, such as the Liberian Civil War. In essence, “Slah” is a basic spiritual component of peace enforcement in the traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation model. It is carried out to seal a covenant between parties to a conflict and it binds all parties to the decision that is made by the council of elders, chiefs, and zoes (A Zoe is a person responsible for customary rituals). The process also includes a pause in hostilities which allows the “Doe-dee agreement” to be successfully negotiated between the warring parties under the supervision of the elders, chiefs and Zoes before a “Slah” is performed. In the Krahn language, Doe-dee means from the same mother and it demonstrates brotherhood among all Liberians. In addition, it is forbidden for “Doe-dees” to shed one another’s blood. Hence, it translates as meaning that all mankind are brothers and sisters from the same ancestry. That is why in the African/Liberian cultural setting we are expected to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in accordance with the “Slah” or “Doe-dee” traditions.
Furthermore, the descendants of these ethnic groups are spiritually and co-sanguinely related. For instance, the Krus, Greboes, Bassas, Gbis Gborhs, Bellehs, Dewions and Krahn are traditional Doe-dees. Also, related through marriages, the Krahns, Manos, and Gios are Doe-dees. However, in a situation where any of these ethnic groups engage in hostilities against one another and shed blood, it is traditionally customary for a “Slah” to be made in order to appease the spirits of our forefathers for breaking the traditional law that prohibits “Doe-dees” to shed one another’s blood. Subsequently, had it been closely studied, it’s safe to say that our traditional beliefs also provided an opportunity for both ECOWAS leaders and ECOMOG to easily resolve the disputes. This would have been achieved by ECOMOG playing a supervisory role (and preventing the parties from attacking each other) while the council of elders, chiefs, and zoes navigated between the warring parties for the “Doe-dee’s accord” to be reached, given that the war was mainly between ( Traditional Doedees) the Krahns, Gios, Manios, and Mandingos.
“Slah” is usually done by slaughtering cows, sheep, goats, chickens, etc.; and by preparing and eating together a sacred meal called “Gbowah.” Also, because Gbowah is usually prepared by the women and children from these different ethnic groups; Slah does not only bring together the warring parties but also their families. It’s cost effective but most importantly it removes the curse of national insecurity, mayhem, and human carnage from our heads as a nation. As simple and straightforward it might sound, it’s more result oriented when resolving a conflict among tradition Liberians.
Simply put, Due process means fundamental principles of justice as opposed to specific rule of law. The traditional justice system of Liberia emphasizes the fact that there are consequences for our actions. This is done in order to punish, reduce, or stop undesirable behaviours in society. Examples of traditional due processes may include but are not limited to: (1) court proceedings; (2) traditional sassy wood; (3) palava hut agreements heard by heads of family households, council of elders or chiefs, and (4) deliberations under the palm wine tree. In all four traditional conflict resolution and reconciliation processes, there is always a binding decision that will be reached; as well as impartial peace negotiators to determine who is right and who is wrong based on traditional customary laws and beliefs. Hence, not only does this traditional Liberian justice system assure all citizens of their right to due process but it also assures them of sustainable peace, reconciliation, security, and enough room for national development.
Traditional Sassy wood
SassyWood is the belief in ancestral spirits and a tribal justice system which has been practiced for generations in Liberia. In most formal criminal justice proceedings, guilty persons may escape punishment and innocent persons may be wrongly convicted; but the justice system of Sassywood is so transparent to the point that everyone standing by is a judge. There are various kinds of Sassywood performed against people accused of committing crimes. In one sassywood ritual that I have seen, a machete was put into a fire. When it gets red hot, the machete was then rubbed on the legs of several suspects; those innocent were unharmed but the guilty got burnt. In fact, in most cases, the guilty usually confesses to his crimes before the machete gets close to his leg. This is relevant to our discussion in that, there were lots of human rights abuses during the fourteen years civil war in Liberia; and most perpetrators had denied their involvement and quietly returned to their respective communities unpunished. In addition, most of them are working in the current administration of Liberia thereby leaving deep wounds in the hearts of their victims due to the weaknesses of our formal criminal justice system in dealing with small-scale grievances. Furthermore, perpetrators can take full advantage of the structure of a formal justice system and deny their involvement in a crime; which could make the trial last longer and be more expensive. The trial of Charles Taylor is a clear example, it took nine years and nearly $250 million dollars before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague sentenced him to 50 years in prison after convicting him on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Charles Taylor shamelessly denied his role in the Sierra Leonean war, but until my dying day I’ll never forget when his men attack Goan (the village I lived in as a refugee in Sierra Leone) which is very close to Bo Waterside (A border crossing town between Liberia and Sierra Leone). It was around 5:00 am that morning when the killings started. It’s now twenty two years; but I am not yet healed from the scars of that day. We were the first to experience the unspeakable horrors during the Sierra Leoneans’ war.
When the rebels attacked our village, I saw mothers throwing away their babies to enable them run faster. I saw and heard the very old who could not move all by themselves calling the names of their sons and daughters and grandchildren to come and carry them; but they too had ran for their lives. I saw flying bullets choosing who was to live and who was to die. I heard people cursing the day they were born into this world. I saw streams of fresh blood moving between the houses down towards the football field. I saw different faces of corpses; the sad faces, the bloody faces and the crying faces. There were corpses that were cut in two and there were some that were unrecognizable; most of them were people I knew. I saw what I hate to remember even up to this day. From beneath the dead bodies I finally hid myself, I heard two rebel soldiers speaking in simple Liberian English, and a few seconds later, one of them even spoke in Gio, (A native Liberian language). Regardless of all the evidence pointing out his involvement, the criminal was brave enough to tell lies both to the judges and to the world all because he wasn’t taken under the Sassywood tree which would have produced the result within minutes. (http://blogs.cgdev.org/globaldevelopment/2012/05/was-the-charles-taylor-trial-worth-the-price-tag.php)
Another question that keeps disturbing my mind is where was the ECOMOG? During late 1990 and early 1991, ECOMOG soldiers constantly came to our refugee camp which wasn’t far from the Liberian side of the border (where they were officially meant to be at the time, and not in Sierra Leone) to pick up young Liberian and Sierra Leonean girls. It was impossible (and I say this with a high degree of certainty) for the rebels to have attacked Sierra Leone without the knowledge of ECOMOG.
Palava Hut Agreements
Palaver means a prolonged discussion. It’s a traditional circular hut made from clay and bamboo or wood, with a thatched roof. Traditionally, villagers gathered in the palaver hut to discuss an issue until it was resolved. Although the concept of discussing in huts has been in practice long before we had any contact with the West, the word “palava” was later introduced by early Portuguese traders to describe their negotiations with the native Liberians. Also, in Liberian villages, it is traditionally where visitors are received. The location of the hut can be selected by the village elder, chief, or spiritual elder, and the villagers work together to construct the hut.
Apart from the Sassywood and Doe-dees agreement, the Pavala hut is another peaceful means through which disputes are resolved among conflicting parties in traditional Liberian settings. The hut is a symbol of brotherhood and unity; this is why every family of the village is represented during its construction. Furthermore, unlike the formal courts system where there are special seats for the judges and the accused, as well as security guards who are assigned to the court which sometimes intimidates the defendants, in the pavala hut everyone is equal and the decisions that are made here are binding. This is one of the reasons why it’s designed in such a round form. Another advantage of the pavala hut is that the parties will not leave until they reach an agreement regardless of how difficult the case might be. When a decision is finally reached, the case is then concluded with the guilty party accepting that he/she is wrong and apologizing to the other party. Tired of the killings in their country, the mothers of Liberia used a similar approach to that of the palava hut agreement to bring peace to their people after fourteen years of war.
In 2003 the Women of Liberia met with Charles Taylor and extracted a promise from him to attend peace talks in Ghanato negotiate with the rebels from Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy and Movement for Democracy in Liberia. A delegation of Liberian women went to Ghana to continue to apply pressure on the warring factions during the peace process. They did so by staging a sit in outside of the Presidential Palace, blocking all the doors and windows and preventing anyone from leaving the peace talks without a resolution. The women of Liberia became a political force against violence and against their government. They were women from different enemy tribes, different religious backgrounds but untied by the same traditional values, and so in the end they achieved what the “peacekeepers” did not achieve for thirteen years. Their actions brought about an agreement during the stalled peace talks. As a result, the women were able to achieve peace in Liberia after a 14-year civil war. YouTube Video: PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL – trailer
Palm Wine Tree Deliberations
This traditional pattern of resolving conflict usually takes place under a palm wine tree and unlike the Doe-dee’s agreements, Sassywood or palava huts agreements, women are not allowed to be a part of this deliberation. However, if the matter involves a woman, she would be represented by a male from her family. During this process, the men will leave the village or town and go deep into the forest; there they will sit under a palm tree and drink the wine from it. The wine is white in colour, which according to traditional Liberian beliefs is a sign of purity and openness of heart. In addition, the parties in dispute, the elders and witnesses will all drink from the same cup which indicates oneness. After having drunk a larger quantity of the wine, the parties will then present their grievances for deliberations. Just like the pavala hut agreements, the men wouldn’t leave the forest until they get to a compromise. When an agreement is reached, all parties (guilty or not guilty) will acknowledge their wrong, apologize and embrace each other before leaving the bush.
Law and Order, and the Rule of Law
By law and order, I mean the strict enforcement of the traditional customs of the people of Liberia, as well as the maintenance of social stability. Also, with respect to the rule of law, it can be defined as an authoritative principle set forth to guide the behaviour or actions of Liberians. In traditional days, Liberians were ruled by very powerful kings, queens, council of elders and sometimes by military dictatorships. However, in modern times, the roles of traditional Liberian kings and elders were minimized especially when the Western governance structure that calls for a republican and democratic form of government was introduced in the Liberian society since the early 19th century. Against this backdrop, traditional Liberian elders strictly adhered to the traditional laws of the land and they made sure that justice was meted out to all individuals without favour and irrespective of the status of those who breached the law. For example, President William V. S. Tubman used the traditional council model to resolve many national and traditional disputes during his administration.
Retributive and Restorative Justice
The Traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation process is based on retributive justice wherein something is done or given to somebody as punishment for something he or she has done. Hence, by so doing, traditional Liberians clang on to the retributive and restorative justice system overtime because firstly both methods of justice seek to find out who breached the law and then secondly give punishments based on the magnitude of the offence committed by the individual culprit while in many formal justice systems in Liberia perpetrators do bribe judges.
Differences between the Traditional Model and the UN Win-Win Model
In view of the foregoing, there are differences and contradictions between the traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation model and the UN, AU, and ECOWAS peace model because of the following reasons: (1) the traditional Liberian conflict resolution and reconciliation process is based on rule of law, law and order, due process, retributive and restorative justice. Whereas, in the UN peace model for Liberia, peace accords were written and signed by parties to the conflict but they were not implemented as agreed upon; (2) there are consequences for our actions in the traditional model but there are no consequences in the UN peace context because they contend that nobody is to be blamed and due to such reasons we still have some warlords working in the current government; (3) the traditional model requires perpetrators to rehabilitate and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation; whereas, in the UN, AU, and ECOWAS peace model (a) nobody takes the blame for the mayhem and carnage that took place in Liberia; (b) there is a so-called win-win situation whereby nobody “gets best”; (c) those who breached the laws of Liberia are rewarded with the leadership of Liberia and they are subsequently entrusted with the security of their victims by partial peace brokers; and (d) due process is solely secured to protect the offenders and perpetrators of heinous war crimes and to subjugate their victims to continued duress and human degradation.
I started by defining my relationship with ECOMOG and the events that led to their mission in Liberia. I also pointed out how the arrest of president Doe right under the nose of the peacekeepers, and how the arrest and killings of innocent civilians by ECOMOG cost them the loss credibility in Liberia. I addressed the issues of greed, corruption, and the lack of military discipline by some ECOMOG soldiers which even made the war to further escalate. Addressing the conflict with an African approach was also suggested. In addition, various traditional conflict resolution models of Liberia, such as the Slah, the Doe-dee’s agreements, the Palava Hut agreements, the Sassywood, the palm wine tree deliberation, retributive and restorative Justice, as well as law and order, and the rule of law were all mentioned. There were also some comparative analyses between the traditional Liberian models and the UN, AU, and ECOWAS win-win models of conflict resolution. I also emphasized that the coming together of Liberian women to seek peace, which led to the end of the Liberian civil war, does sends out a STRONG message that traditional approaches should be inclusive in the peace building processes in Africa.
By Charles Wratto
At the age of 8, Charles fled his homeland to neighboring Sierra Leone following an attack by rebel forces led by the Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. At the age of 10, as another rebel group emerged in Sierra Leone (Revolutionary United Front), he began to wander the turbulent West African countries in search of safety. After years on the run trying to survive, he was later captured at age 15 and forced to become a child-soldier. The former soldier, whose childhood was robbed from him, now shares his story and speaks out on behalf of the thousands of voiceless children who are still being exploited by warlords today.
- African Research Bulletin, 1991
- YouTube Video: Joshua Blahyi -(1 of 9)- (Fmr. Gen. Butt Naked) TRC testimony (1 0f 9).
- YouTube Video: LE PRESIDENT SAMUEL DO – torturé et exécuté devant les caméras.
- YouTube Video: The peace-keepers war journeymanpictures.
- YouTube Video: cry freetown-part 1 0f 3.
- YouTube Video: THE EMPIRE OF AFRICA (part E),
- YouTube Video: The Rebels – Sierra Leone
- YouTube Video: PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL – trailer