Establishment of War Crimes Court Sparks Mixed Reactions in Buutuo, Nimba County

By: Laymah Kollie

BUUTUO, Nimba County – The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) estimates that between 1989 and 2003, 150,000 to 250,000 women, children, and men lost their lives in Liberia as a result of the civil crisis. All parties to the conflict were responsible for the grave crimes and human rights atrocities, including rape, torture, sexual slavery, unlawful executions and mobilization of child soldiers.
Decades have passed, and those responsible for heinous acts of war have yet to face justice. A glimmer of hope emerged when the Liberian Legislature officially approved a Joint Resolution in April, advocating for the creation of a War and Economic Crimes Court. President Joseph Boakai took a crucial step towards this cause by signing Executive Order #131 on May 2, 2024, to establish the War and Economic Crimes Court office in Liberia.

The appointment of Cllr. Jonathan Massaquoi as the Executive Director for the Office of War and Economic Crimes Court on June 20 signifies a significant milestone in the court’s formation.

However, as the creation of the Court gains momentum in Liberia, it is stirring a range of reactions among citizens who were mostly impacted by the 14-year civil crisis.

Residents in Nimba, particularly in Buutuo, a once booming city known for commercial activities, where people from the capital, Monrovia, and other West African countries, including Ivory Coast and Ghana, visited to access basic social services until it experienced massive destruction of lives and properties as a result of the civil war, have divergent opinions on the necessity of a legal framework to hold accountable those responsible for the atrocities committed during the civil unrest.

“People are not feeling fine to rebuild the country because people who killed other people during the war are in government enjoying,” said 74-year-old Annie Kwaleh, Women Leader of Buu-yao district. “Let us look inside it, let justice be done to all men,” Ma. Annie continued.

54-year-old Prince Kpolah is the Town Chief of Buutuo. He also thinks the establishment of the court is a necessity because according to him, the town is being marginalized due to the fact that it was used an entry point for the rebels. “Buutuo being historical is not because we brought the war; this war caught us unalert but we are being marginalized because of it,” he said. “Go to nearby villages, they are developed, but look at us,” Chief Kpolah lamented.

Like old lady Annie and Town Chief Kpolah, Elder Peter Gweh thinks establishing the court is a good idea “I feel it is little bit belated but I welcome it,” Elder Gwen said. “I don’t think it is targeted at Nimbaians because Nimbaians were not the only people who fought or got victimized by the war,” Elder Gweh said.

Peter Kerper, the Development Superintendent of Buutuo, sees the court as a relief for war victims. “The war crimes court is not bad, we welcome the court,” he said. “In fact in Sierra Leone, right after the war, the war crime court came and people were served justice but our own has stay long and people have forgotten, but it’s not still late,” he asserted.

On the contrary, some citizens contend that the establishment of a war crimes tribunal within the nation may reignite the wounds of the conflict and potentially precipitate another upheaval. These constituents are calling for an alternative approach to tackling the issue by advocating for developmental projects. They propose that the focus should be on providing job opportunities and other vocational programs for war victims, to foster growth within their lives and communities.
“The thing already happen, let’s forget about it before it bring(s) different problem,” 85-year-old Mamie Willie who spoke through an interpreter said.

36-year-old Johnny Gborwoe was only a year old when the war broke out in Buutuo. He is the only surviving member of his family as he lost his mother, father and only brother in the crisis. But he prefers the human capacity development of war victims over a war crimes court. “I don’t have peace; they killed my family and burned our house,” he said. But what happened was war. Let them give war victims jobs to improve their living condition,” he continued.

Amanda Sangbe, 43, is one of many people who believe that establishing a war crimes court decades after the war subsided is a waste of time. She says “Right now when it come(s), not one person will go because those who fought were many,” she said. “When they go to jail, their people will not feel fine,” Sangbe noted.

On the other hand, Alfred Nuenen, an elder of the town, says their views in discussions relative to the creation of war crimes court does not matter, because according to him, their kinsman, Nimba County Senator Prince Y. Johnson did not consult them before affixing his signature to the Joint Resolution calling for the establishment of the court.
“We, the elders were not consulted; the people just went ahead to sign the resolutions, so there is nothing we can do about it now,” he said. “If they were to ask me, I would have preferred reconciliation,” Nuenen commented.

According to the Global Law and Policy Database RefWorld, in late December 1989, a small group of Rebel insurgents attacked the Liberian border town of Buutuo, killing an unspecified number of soldiers and immigration officers. The government of Liberia responded to the attack with a show of force, sending two battalions to Nimba County, where Buutuo is located. The army used brutal counterinsurgency tactics in its efforts to crush the rebellion, indiscriminately killing unarmed civilians, raping women, burning villages and looting. Most of the victims of the army abuses were of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups, who traditionally inhabit Nimba County.

The rebel insurgents initially targeted soldiers and government officials, but later killed several members of the Krahn ethnic group, in retaliation to the actions of army General Samuel Doe, the Head of State who was Krahn by tribe. They also killed at least seven people from the Mandingo ethnic group for allegedly informing the government about their activities.

Over 160,000 people fled the violence into neighbouring Guinea and Cote d’lvoire, where they have ethnic and family ties. Another 135,000 according to the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization (UNDRO), were displaced within Nimba or fled to other parts of Liberia.

At the climax of the crisis in 2003, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was negotiated and agreed upon in August 2003 at the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Ghana and subsequently enacted into Law by the Liberian National Transitional Legislative Assembly in 2005.

Objectives of the TRC was to investigate the crisis that occurred in Liberia from 1989-2003, to uncover the truth by unveiling war lords and others linked to the atrocities in Liberia while providing recommendations to the need for future prosecutions and amnesty. Priority amongst the the TRC’s recommendations was for Liberia to establish a separate court other than the Temple of Justice to prosecute war lords and individuals that committed atrocities during the 14 year unrest in Liberia.

After over 20 years, the country is finally taking a stand to establish a War and Economic Crimes Court to not only prosecute war lords but served victims justice. The court, when established, will also prosecute economic criminals and people who have corrupted and embezzled public funds.

Meanwhile, the Liberia National Bar Association, through its Secretary General, Cllr. Bono Varmah, says it supports the establishment of the war and economic crimes court, but says there is a concern that needs to be addressed before the court can be established in Liberia.
“What I know and I have researched so far as a practising lawyer, is the fact that our law does not provide leverage to non-Liberians to practice law, and what I see that is being taken place to establish this court will be something like the hybrid system; the hybrid system is where you will have some domestic flavour and international flavours,” Cllr. Varmah said. “So, if they’re bringing international judges here, it means we have to do some amendments to our law to give them the leverage under the law to practice law here,” He continued.

As the country grapples with its tumultuous history, the establishment of a tribunal to address war and economic offenses continues to be a contentious topic, sparking divergent opinions.

This story was produced under the Female Journalists Association of Liberia (FeJAL) Women in Newsroom Leadership program. Funding was provided by USAID through Internews, as part of Year III of its Media Activity Program. The funder did not influence the contents of this story.

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