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The Comeback

A notorious ex-warlord hits the campaign trail in Liberia.

Monrovia, Liberia, September 9, 1990: Many Liberians once thought that President Samuel Doe was invulnerable, protected by powerful black magic. But, in the video, he is slumped on the floor, his hands tied behind his back, naked except for blood-stained underpants. A crowd of young men in fatigues surround him, some carrying machine guns, one holding a microphone in front of Doe’s face. As Doe cries, a fighter strokes his head gently and then grins at the man sitting behind a conference table in a black executive chair, underneath a picture of Jesus.

This man is clearly in charge. He is drinking a can of Budweiser, hand grenades dangling from his military tunic. A woman in blue nurse’s scrubs fans him with a cloth. The sound is poor, but Doe is pleading; at one point, the man with the beer points at Doe and says, “I will spare you, but don’t fuck with me.” Doe appears to offer him money, and the young men laugh and jeer. The woman wipes the leader’s forehead, and he takes a swig from the can. Suddenly, the fighters are encircling Doe, holding him down, slicing off his ear with a knife as he screams. One puts his boot on Doe’s neck and mugs for the camera. By the next morning, Doe was dead.

To Liberians, this footage is one of the most infamous records of their bloody civil war. At the time, the video was hawked on the streets of Monrovia; today, a version of it can still be found on YouTube. The man with the beer is Prince Yormie Johnson, then one of Liberia’s most notorious warlords. (“Prince” is his first name, not an honorific.) At the time, Johnson was the leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, one of three factions fighting for control of the capital. Another faction was led by Doe and his beleaguered government; and the third by Charles Taylor, who eventually went on to become president.

Johnson was infamous for other acts of violence, including summary executions of his own men and ordering the killing of a group of Hare Krishnas who had appealed to him to moderate his behavior. When Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report on the war’s horrors, his was the first name on a list of 116 “Most Notorious Perpetrators,” accused of “[k]illing, extortion, massacre, destruction of property, force recruitment, assault, abduction, torture & forced labor, rape.”

Liberia is supposed to have left those tragic days behind. It has been eight years since peace came to the country, and Taylor is facing trial for war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone. Since 2006, Liberia has been led by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a charismatic former World Bank official who won office promising deep reform of Liberia’s corrupt political system.

But now Johnson is back. In 2005, he was elected as a senator for his home county of Nimba in the north. And, when Liberians go to the polls on October 11, Johnson will be one of the candidates seeking to end Sirleaf’s tenure. I wanted to know what this meant for Liberia’s fragile democracy, and so this summer I went on the campaign trail with Prince Yormie Johnson.

just under four million people between Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia was founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a republic for freed American slaves. The causes of its bloody, two-part civil war are complex. But the heart of the conflict was the rift between the Americo-Liberians—the descendants of freed American slaves—and the indigenous population.

For decades, the black settlers dominated the country through what was effectively a one-party government that bore many similarities to white European colonial regimes elsewhere in Africa. Then, in 1980, Doe, a member of the Krahn ethnic group, became the first native head of state via a military coup. Doe’s government was just as corrupt as the ones before it. During the cold war, however, the United States regarded Liberia as a key regional ally and propped up Doe’s administration with aid. In late 1989, Taylor, who is Americo-Liberian, entered Liberia from Côte d’Ivoire. He had allegedly undergone military training in Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya and planned to end Doe’s disastrous regime. This time, Washington did not come to Doe’s assistance.

The Liberian conflict saw widespread use of child soldiers and other war crimes, but even amid such extreme violence, Johnson acquired a reputation for brutality. A native Liberian from the Gio tribe, Johnson trained as a soldier and fought with Taylor’s rebels in 1989. However, he and Taylor clashed, parting ways after Taylor objected to his execution of twelve men for theft and desertion.

The British writer and doctor Anthony Daniels met Johnson in Monrovia during the early stages of the war and told me he believes Johnson is a psychopath. War, he told me, is “a treat for psychopaths, because they have a superficial reason for doing what they do; it liberates them.” He described his encounter with Johnson in his book Monrovia Mon Amour: “The weekend before I visited him, I was told he had killed seven people; I met someone whose brother had been killed by him on a night when he shot sixteen others; and I heard about his biggest bag, as it were, thirty-two in a night. He was an insomniac, and prowled the darkness with his AK-47.”

After killing Doe, Johnson briefly claimed the leadership of the state. But he became increasingly marginalized and eventually left for Nigeria. There, Johnson claims that, under the supervision of a self-appointed prophet and evangelical preacher named T.B. Joshua, he stopped drinking, deepened his commitment to Christianity, and reconciled with Doe’s family.

PRINCE JOHNSON lives in a large, red villa in the Duport neighborhood of Monrovia. Inside its high walls are sculptures of lions and an enclosure of goats. Johnson receives visitors in the “palava hut,” an open-sided pagoda with quotations from T.B. Joshua on the wall, such as this one: “THE BATTLE IS NOT MINE BUT THE LORD’S. THE SAME GOD IS THE ONE WORKING IN ME, THROUGH ME AND FOR ME."

On August 27, Johnson set off from his house to launch his campaign, wearing Teva trekking sandals under jeans; later, he donned a technicolor blazer of greens and blues and yellows. Johnson rode in a convoy of SUVs flashing their hazard lights, accompanied by a crowd of motorcycle riders. The convoy headed through Bushrod Island, a part of the city that Johnson once controlled. Young men shouted approval and walked alongside; some climbed onto the vehicles. Not everyone was necessarily a supporter, though. At a rally I attended later, I met a young man who said Johnson had killed his father; an African journalist remarked that some Liberians were curious about Johnson in the way that one might want to see what Adolf Hitler looked like in the flesh.

At a high school in New Kru Town, a crowd filled the bleachers and massed on the ground. “I want you to know that I am the only former army general in the Republic of Liberia that is running for the nation’s highest office,” Johnson announced. He outlined his goals: moving political power from Monrovia out to the provinces and preventing the exploitation of native Liberians by the Americo-Liberians. He attacked Sirleaf, whose campaign slogan—“Monkey still working, let baboon wait small”—signals that she needs a second term to complete her agenda. “We want to make sure that the monkey that is stealing the bananas, the monkey that is stealing state resources, be retired,” Johnson said, adding that Sirleaf, who is in her seventies, is “living by grace right now.” There was, however, one political figure who Johnson singled out for praise, a man he described approvingly as the “only indigene” to hold Liberia’s presidency: Samuel Doe.

Sirleaf has made undeniable progress during her five years in office, notably the negotiation of debt relief and improvements to freedom of speech and human rights. The first democratically elected female head of state in Africa, she is a star of the international community, regularly featured on lists of top female leaders. In 2009, she made Jon Stewart an African chief during an interview on “The Daily Show.”

However, within Liberia, Sirleaf is not so popular. She is perceived to have done too little to crack down on abuses of power and corruption: In August, the International Crisis Group found that “the pace of reform has been slow and the dividends of peace, uneven” in Liberia, adding, “[r]esentment is growing that the government is ‘not listening to ordinary people.’” Sirleaf has also been slow to implement the report of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended prosecutions for those most responsible for atrocities, including Johnson. In addition, the report advised that both Johnson and Sirleaf, among others, should be banned from Liberian politics for 30 years (in Sirleaf’s case, this was because she had initially supported Taylor’s rebellion). However, Sirleaf ignored these recommendations. The result is that there has been little accountability at all for the war.

Opposition politicians argue that Sirleaf’s failure to follow the TRC’s guidance opened the door for Johnson’s candidacy. “Violating the recommendations allowed Prince Johnson to contest,” says Acarous Gray, national secretary-general of the leading opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). “It opened a whole Pandora’s box.”

Sirleaf is still considered the favorite, but neither she nor the CDC’s candidate, Winston Tubman, is expected to win a majority in October’s vote. In that case, there will be a run-off, in which Johnson has sufficient support to emerge as a potential kingmaker. In 2005, he got the most votes of any senatorial candidate in Liberia; on the campaign trail in rural areas, I often saw him throwing wads of money out his car window, which locals would scramble to pick up. So far, he has given little indication of which party he might back or what he would want in return. By running for office, he told me, “I proved a point that I’m popular, that I didn’t do wrong.”

I went alone to Caldwell, Johnson’s wartime seat of power on the outskirts of Monrovia. The compound that was once used as his headquarters was still stained with burn marks from an explosion. Among those old enough to remember Johnson, opinions tended to split along gender lines. One woman told of a time when Johnson imprisoned looters in a shipping container and threw in a grenade after them. Saffie Feika, a 43-year-old small-trader, related a story I had heard before of an occasion when Johnson killed a man only to ask for him a few days later, as though he had forgotten the act. “If the people he killed, if he can put life in them, then we will vote for him,” she said.

The men generally gave a different analysis. “I was here when Prince Johnson was here,” said 48-year-old Abraham Shannoh. Johnson, he said, had provided local people with food and medicine, and prevented his soldiers from harassing them. “We took him to be a good man at the time.” “He was good and also a straightforward human being,” said Addu Jackson, who worked at a makeshift bar not far from the compound. “He helped a lot of civilians.” “Did he kill very many people?” I asked. “Yeah,” Jackson replied. “But you still think he’s a good man?” “Yeah,” Jackson answered.

Johnson did terrible things and is well-known to have done them. But, for at least some Liberians, that does not disqualify him from politics. Infamously, when Taylor ran for president in 1997, his supporters chanted the slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him.” “Many Liberians want their president to be a strong person,” Stephen Ellis, a professor at the African Studies Centre in Leiden in the Netherlands and author of a history of Liberia’s civil war, wrote in an e-mail. “If this means he’s done some ruthless things, including shedding blood, then so be it.”

I met with Johnson at his home, after he returned from campaigning. We sat on the balcony, and, while men occasionally came outside to talk to him, for much of the time we were alone. His manner was friendly, as if answering a journalist’s questions about his past violence was a tedious but not unduly taxing exercise. He had killed only soldiers, he said, and only to maintain discipline. “There is no evidence of me killing the civilians,” he added.

I asked him why he had spoken so warmly of Doe at the rally in New Kru Town and elsewhere on the campaign trail, when 21 years earlier he had put him to death. Johnson did not appear to see this as a contradiction. Doe had been a good leader at first, he said, but later he had gone astray. “We kill in combat; when you fight war, you kill,” he said simply. He added, “We shouldn’t be dwelling—killing, killing, killing. Killing shouldn’t be the basis here.”

Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. His work is collected here.