Former Liberian warlord Prince Yormie Johnson has been exiled in Nigeria for 11 years after losing out in a power struggle with President Charles Taylor in 1992.
But as Taylor prepares to hand over control of war-torn Liberia to international peacekeepers and join Johnson in exile in Nigeria, Johnson is talking of going home to seek power through the ballot box rather than the barrel of a gun. And he clearly has his eyes set on eventually becoming president.
“In my Nimba county, everybody there is behind me and I must go in as senator,” Johnson told IRIN in an interview. “I must start from that point and then let the Liberian people who are the judge to decide who they want.”
The man who tortured former president Samuel Doe to death in 1990 and recorded the gruesome two-hour ordeal on video tape, said he was now a born-again christian, intent on taking a more peaceful path to power.
“I am a born-again Christian and I have been here these past years preaching the word of God,” Johnson said. “I am a transformed man and what is most paramount to me now is how my divided people in Liberia can reconcile. I’m not interested in the past, my past is gone.”
Johnson said he sympathised with the two rebel movements fighting to oust Taylor from power, but they should stick to soldiering and not take political office. "Guns that liberate should not rule," he stressed, recommending instead that rebel soldiers become the backbone of a new government army.
A former lieutenant in the Liberian army, Johnson joined Taylor in his guerilla war to remove Doe in 1989. But he split away a few months later to form his own faction, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL).
Johnson's ragged band of fighters held the port of Monrovia when the first West African intervention force landed in Liberia in August 1990 to try and restore order in a country, which then, as today, was split between three warring parties.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is about to send in peacekeepers for the third time in 13 years to try and restore order in Liberia and pave the way for genuine democracy to take root in the country founded 156 years ago by freed American slaves.
Two batallions of Nigerian troops are on stand by to be rushed in as the vanguard of a multi-national peacekeeping force that will eventually number 5,000 men.
Johnson, who personally welcomed the first Nigerian-led peacekeeping force into Liberia, said he unreservedly supported the latest ECOWAS plan for military intervention.
“The priority in Liberia now is security,” he said. “I am appealing to ECOWAS to send in a stabilising force to secure the place and provide a conducive security atmosphere for everybody.”
However, Johnson said the interim government that emerges from peace talks under way in Ghana must have a very short tenure and give way quickly to an elected government.
He also urged the two rebel movements currently battling against Taylor, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL)to leave the political leadership of the country to civilians.
“The LURD rebels and MODEL, or whatever they call themselves, should understand that the guns that liberate should not rule,” Johnson said. “Nobody should be allowed to shoot their way into power by the barrel of the gun, because one may know how to manage the Kalashnikov but may not have the knowledge to administer the affairs of the state.”
LURD is currently fighting Taylor's forces for control of Monrovia in a battle which has killed hundreds of civilians and left up to 300,000 people - nearly a third of the city's population homeless. MODEL has captured most of southeastern Liberia.
In 1990 Johnson played a key role in the first battle for Monrovia when his troops captured Doe at the headquarters of the ECOMOG peacekeeping force and killed him. For posterity, Johnson documented on video his interrogation and torture of the wounded Doe. This showed both his ears being cut off before he was killed.
Johnson surrendered to ECOMOG in 1992 and was given asylum in Nigeria, where he lives as the guest of the government in a spacious but dilapidated villa in the commercial capital Lagos, surrounded by his 12 children. The former warlord has now become an evangelist for the little known Christ Deliverance Church.
Former Liberian warlords have developed a habit of going into exile in Nigeria . Prince Johnson and another unrelated faction leader, Roosevelt Johnson, were both offered asylum there in the early 1990s and now Taylor has declared that he is about to quit fighting and take up the invitation.
Johnson said he had little sympathy for Taylor, who has been cornered by rebels, shunned by the international community and indicted as a criminal in neighbouring Sierra Leone for backing rebels that country's decade-long civil war in return for smuggled diamonds.
Johnson said he split with Taylor, who was eventually elected president in 1997, because he realised that the man wanted power for himself rather than genuine democracy.
“What we need most in Liberia is to get Taylor off our back,” Johnson said. “But I must tell you frankly, nobody is above the law. “He has been indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes and whatever they want to do with him is not my problem; all I want is to see that peace prevails in Liberia.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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