Convicted war criminal Guus Kouwenhoven on the run!

Kouwenhoven found guilty
It was an historic day, April 21, 2017. I had travelled to ‘s-Hertogenbosch, colloquially known as Den Bosch, the Netherlands, for the final stage of a trial that had lasted for too long: since 2005, when the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven was first arrested in the Netherlands. On April 17, 2017, the Appeal Court in Den Bosch was to deliver its final decision in the trial of Guus Kouwenhoven, in Liberia better known as ‘Mr Gus’, accused of violating the UN arms embargo imposed on Liberia during the civil war and illegal arms transactions benefiting former president Charles Taylor. The Dutch businessman was also accused of war crimes in Liberia and the neighbouring republic of Guinea between 2000 and 2002. For the background of the accusations and the details of his trial, see my February 8 posting, after the re-opening of his trial on February 7, 2017.

20170424-720x340April 21, 2017. In a crowded court room, filled with reporters and photographers of the national and international press, as well as interested people including myself, the three judges presented their findings and the conclusions of their deliberations. The presiding judge presented already in the first few minutes of the session the Court’s decison: the Appeal Court found Guus Kouwenhoven, 74, guilty of illegal arms trading and accessory to war crimes committed by armed forces of former Liberian president Charles Taylor and Guinea. The timber baron, once member of the prestigious Quote500 society – a listing of the 500 richest people in the Netherlands – was sentenced to 19 years in prison, a year less than the maximum penalty of 20 years. The court ordered his immediate arrest.

I was immensely relieved! On my way to Den Bosch I had reflected on the possibilities. The accused could be acquitted and hence would be a free man – as had happened in 2008 - or he could be found only partially guilty and sentenced to just a few years in prison – as had happened in 2006, when he was only found guilty of illegal arms trading and sentenced to 8 years in prison. Another option was that he was found guilty, but that the judges, considering his age and allegedly fragile health, would condemn him to pay a heavy fine (although that would of course be no pain for the wealthy businessman). The fourth and last possibility was that he would be found guilty and sentenced to 20 years behind bars, the maximum penalty requested by the Public Prosecutor on February 10, 2017.

Unknown-6I felt an immense joy and satisfaction when I heard the presiding judge saying that the court found Kouwenhoven guilty of both accusations. Personally, I have never had any doubt of his involvement and responsibility. Knowing Liberia, I know that in order to do business in this country you have to be on good terms with the ruler(s) and the fact that ‘Mr Gus’ had decided to voluntarily stay in Liberia, making (much) money, means that he had opted for collaboration with Taylor. Besides, his personal relations and business deals with the warlord-turned-president, his eagerness to engage in business with him and make much money, unequivocally show his complicity and role in Liberia’s civil war that cost over 200,000 lives and wounded and traumatized maybe as many as a million people.

Child soldier

The Appeal Court’s decision
It is interesting to focus here on three important aspects of the Appeal Court’s ruling.

First, the presiding judge emphasized that Guus Kouwenhoven knew that the arms he illegally imported and distibuted in Liberia were being used in a merciless war and by rebels who committed war crimes and human rights violations resulting in many innocent victims. He was not politically or ideologically motivated, the judge continued, but only financially. He just wanted to increase his profits from his two logging firms, the Oriental Timber Company (OTC) and the Royal Timber Corporation (RTC).
Secondly, and this is very important for future trials of war criminals, the Dutch judges accepted the testimonies of witnesses as important evidence – even though there were some minor inconsistencies in their declarations. The court judged that the time factor and the traumatic experiences of the witnesses formed acceptable reasons for the inconsistences and did not warrant to reject their testimonies. I was surprised to hear the judge say that Kouwenhoven had tried to bribe and intimidate witnesses in Liberia. This certainly isn’t something you would expect from somebody who is innocent.
Finally, the Court of Appeal’s decision sets an important (legal) precedent for corporate responsibility for war crimes. International criminal law specialist Dieneke de Vos has elaborated here on this aspect.

Applause from abroad
Human rights groups, advocacy groups and organizations working to prosecute and try war criminals were unanimous in their positive and enthousiastic reaction to the Appeal Court’s decision. By finding Kouwenhoven guilty, the Dutch judges have greatly supported their cause: the fight against impunity. Guus Kouwenhoven is only the fourth ‘big fish’ condemned for his role and responsibility for atrocities committed in the West African region, and notably in Liberia. His partner-in-crime and in business, Charles Taylor, has been sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2013. Please note that Taylor was prosecuted and condemned for his role in the civil war in Sierra Leone – NOT for his responsibility for the human rights violations and war crimes committed by his troops in Liberia. Charles Taylor’s son Chuck was tried in the US where judges sentenced him to 97 years in prison for his role in torturing political opponents of his father in Liberia. His trial had been made possibe because of his dual citizenship. The notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout aka ‘the Merchant of Death’ – who also supplied arms to Charles Taylor in Liberia – was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012, also in the US. The Tajik (from Tajikistan, a former USSR-republic) Viktor Bout stood trial on terrorism charges – NOT for his responsibility for the war crimes committed by his ‘friend’ Charles Tyalor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia, NPFL.

Be that as it may, these condemnations contrast sharply with the reality in Liberia where war criminals and human rights violators walk free. Former warlord Prince Johnson whose men tortured then President Samuel Doe to death is now a senator and even a presidential candidate for the October elections. Other warlords like Alhaji Kromah, ULIMO-K leader, and George Boley, LPC leader, and the notorious General Butt Naked – who confessed before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to have killed 20,000 people and to have committed ritual murders and acts of cannibalism – have never been accused or prosecuted. In Liberia impunity reigns. There is no rule of law. Prosecution of war criminals takes place in other countries: in the US, in the Netherlands, in Belgium, in Switzerland.

Martina Johnson was a feared female rebel leader, fighting with Charles Taylor’s NPFL. She was feared for the atrocities against Krahns and Mandingoes, including torture and murder, that had taken place under her command. After Taylor’s forced resignation, in 2003, she fled to Belgium, where she was arested in Ghent at the end of September 2014. After her arrest she was accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Two months after Martina Johnson’s arrest ULIMO-K fighter Alieu Kosiah was arrested in Switzerland. Alieu Kosiah is accused of involvement in and responsibilityof human rights abuses and war crimes committed in Voinjama, Foya, Kolahun and Zorzor from 1993 to 1995.

woeIn May 2014, Tom Woewiyu – Charles Taylor’s former right hand man, co-founder of the NPFL, warlord and, during Taylor’s presidency, president pro tempore of the Liberian Senate – was apprehended at Newark International Airport, USA. He was charged on no less than 16 accounts. He was specifically accused of lying about his participation in the NPFL and the CRC (Central Revolutionary Council, a breakaway faction of the NPFL), and about whether he had ever been involved in an atempt to overthrow the government of a country. His arrest though might have been inspired by opportunistic reasons. The US role in Liberia has always been one of geo-political interests and economic benefits. This is not the right place to dwell here on the historical role of the US in Liberia. Interested readers are referred to my 2015 publication, ‘Liberia: From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost’ (see below).

GaddafiAndEllenJohnsonSirleafThe foregoing inevitably leads to the pressing question: Why has President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, never encouraged or initiated the legal prosecution of war criminals in her country? The answer may be too complicated to present here. Critics point at her role in the creation of the NPFL: she was one of its co-founders, together with Charles Taylor, Tom Woewiyu and others. EJS has admitted her role before the TRC, but declared that she withdrew from the NPFL and cut ties with Taylor in an early stage of the civil war when realizing that her former comrade-in-arms Charles Taylor was a ‘ruthless criminal’. I have little doubt that once she will have left – in January 2018 when her successor will be installed – we will hear more details about her past and relations with Charles Taylor.

Back to Guus Kouwenhoven. During the trial his lawyer, the famous Dutch criminal lawyer Inez Weski told the judges – to explain her client’s absence – that Kouwenhoven was in South Africa ‘for medical reasons’. Immediate after the Court’s decision on April 21 she anounced that she was (again) going to the Supreme Court to fight the Court’s decision and also to the European Court of Human Rights to prevent her client’s arrest. Chances to be successful are slim, in my opinion. Anyway, these moves do not suspend the arrest warrant.

There does not exist an extradition treaty between the Netherlands and South Africa for the crimes committed by Kouwenhoven. However, South Africa has joined the European Convention on Extradition (1957) which makes his extradition possible. This consideration supposes that he is in South Africa, which is far from sure. His lawyer refuses to reveal her client’s whereabouts. He might be in South Africa, but could also be in another African country. E.g. in Congo-Brazzaville, where he had (still has?) business interests and certainly business associates who are willing to help him hide for the Dutch justice. The latter should be congratulated. The War Crimes Department, the public prosecutor and the entire Dutch judiciary have done a tremendous job, a shining example for a country like Liberia where – it hurts to say – no justice exists.

The foregoing is partly based on the author’s book ‘Liberia: From The Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost’, published by the African Studies Centre Leiden (Leiden, 2015). The book is available online (free access):

The original post dated May 7 has been slightly modified on May 15. It concerns here the reference to the European Convention on Extradition (1957) which was joined by several non-European countries, notably South Africa.

Posted in 2017 presidential elections, African Studies Centre Leiden, Alhaji Kromah, Alieu Kosiah, Appeal Court of 's-Hertogenbosch, arms trade, Belgium, Central Revolutionary Council, Charles Taylor, Chuck Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Congo-Brazzaville, CRC, Dieneke de Vos, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, European Convention on Extradition, extradition, extradition treaty, Foya, General Butt Naked, George Boley, Global Witness, Guinea, Guinea Conakry, Guus Kouwenhoven, Human Rights, human rights violations, impunity, Impunity in Africa, Inez Weski, INPFL, Justice, Kolahun, Krahn, Liberia, Liberia" From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost, Liberian History, Lofa County, LPC, Martina Johnson, Merchant of Death, Mr Gus, Nobel Peace Prize, NPFL, OTC, Prince Y. Johnson, Public Prosecutor, Quote 500, Republic of Congo, Republic of South Africa, Ritual Killings, Royal Timber Corporation, RTC, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Special Court, Supreme Court, Switzerland, Tajikistan, terrorism, the Netherlands, Tom Woewiyu, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), ULIMO-K, UN arms embargo, United Nations (UN), USA, Viktor Bout, Voinjama, war crimes, weapons, Zorzor | Leave a comment

Reopening of Kouwenhoven trial in the Netherlands

2017_Kouwenhoven2Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised when learning the news that the Kouwenhoven trial had reopened – on February 6. Already on more than one occasion I wrote about the serious charges against Guus Kouwenhoven, a Dutch businessman. Guus Kouwenhoven – in Liberia known as ‘Mr Gus’ – is accused of illegal arms trading and of war crimes during the civil war in Liberia. See my March 10 & March 20 (2008) and April 20, 2010 postings on this blog.

For those readers who haven’t heard about the Kouwenhoven trial before and for those who have forgotten what it’s all about, here’s an overview of the Kouwenhoven case. I’ll first describe who he is and what he did in Liberia after his arrival in the late 1980s, notably his dealings with Charles Taylor. Then I’ll tell more about his arrest in the Netherlands in 2005 and subsequent court rulings. I conclude with the planning of his reopened trial.

Guus Kouwenhoven
According to a BBC profile, Guus Kouwenhoven started his career in Lebanon and the United States in the 1970s. His stay in the US ended abruptly when he was arrested in Los Angeles after trying to sell stolen pantings, including a Rembrandt. He was lucky though and was not sentenced to many years in prison but was deported. In the late 1980s he emerged in Liberia where he imported BMW cars and became manager of the luxurious Africa Hotel, constructed by the slain President Tolbert for the OAU conference hosted by Liberia in 1979.

‘Mr. Gus’ engaged in the lucrative timber trade. Liberia is, as we know, one of the few countries still largely covered with pristine primary forest, full of valuable tropical hardwood. In the Netherlands, Guus Kouwenhoven was in the Quote 500 list of the richest people in the country. From 1999 to 2003 Guus Kouwenhoven was the most important foreign timber trader in Liberia. He was chairman of the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), a Malasian company with obscure owners, and managing director of the Royal Timber Corporation (RTC). Guus Kouwenhoven and then president Charles Taylor had close relations, personal as well as financial (via OTC and RTC). Charles Taylor was to receive 50% of Kouwenhoven’s royalties ‘earned’ in OTC whereas 50% of the shares in RTC were owned by warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor. In exchange, Taylor granted large concession areas for logging purposes. Charles Taylor also gave the management of the port of Buchanan to OTC. It is important to underline that this made OTC responsible for the security in the port area and included the checking of all cars (and trucks!) coming in and going out.

The accusations
In 2000, the UN’s Expert Panel report on Sierra Leone – rightfully – claimed that Guus Kouwenhoven was part of Charles Taylor’s inner circle and was allegedly closely involved in arms smuggling (through the port of Buchanan). He was subsequently issued with a UN travel ban although, according to a UN report, like many others on the list, he more or less ignored the ban and simply used a Liberian diplomatic passport. Later, the UN ordered international banks to freeze his assets. That seemed to have little effect either. ‘Mr. Gus’ continued to travel in and out of Liberia, and to and from Europe.

2017_RUF-soldiersIn its final report of 2009, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) stated that OTC transferred US$ 7.9 million directly to Charles Taylor’s bank account, and US$ 13.4 million to unknown bank accounts, including US$ 1.9 million to unknown arm traffickers. Acording to the TRC report, OTC paid for and organized numerous weapons deliveries to Liberian militias and the RUF regime in Sierra leone, through the port of Buchanan. Moreover, the TRC report alleged that OTC’s armed security service committed gross violations of human rights and that these ‘security forces’ could hardly be distinguished from regular NPFL fighters, Charles Taylor’s militia. The report also accused Guus Kouwenhoven of an impressive series of economic crimes: violations of forestry regulations, illegal logging, tax evasion, bribery and corruption.

Kouwenhoven arrested and on trial
On March 18, 2005, then 62-year old ‘Mr Gus’ was arrested in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He was accused of illegal arms deliveries to Charles Taylor between 2000 and 2002, despite the UN arms embargo imposed on Liberia, and of involvement in human rights violations and war crimes committed by warring factions in Liberia and Guinea between July 2001 and May 2003.

His trial in the District Court of The Hague started on April 24, 2006. Six weeks later, on June 7, 2006 , the District Court sentenced him to eight years in prison – the Public Prosecutor had requested 20 years imprisonment – for supplying arms to Charles Taylor illegally, and breaching the UN arms embargo against Liberia. He was acquitted of the charge of participating in war crimes. Both the Defense and the Prosecution appealed. Kouwenhoven was released from prison pending a new trial (March 2007).

A year later, on March 12, 2008, the Court of Appeal in The Hague overturned the 2006 conviction and acquitted Guus Kouwenhoven of all charges. The judges severely criticized the Public Prosecutor, calling the witnesses too unreliable to give valid evidence. The Public Prosecutor disagreed and lodged an appeal against the verdict at the Dutch Supreme Court. One of the reasons for the appeal was the fact that two anonymous witnesses had not been allowed to testify. The Public Prosecutor argued that the decision to turn down the request to hear the two witnesses (referred to as ‘03’ and ‘04′ – real names are withheld by the court for security and privacy reasons) was not sufficiently motivated.

On April 20, 2010, the Supreme Court delivered its decision and quashed the Appeal Court’s decision. The Supreme Court found that the decision by the Hague Court of Appeal to not hear two anonymous witnesses was insufficiently motivated. The Supreme Court declared the decision of the Hague Appeal Court null and void, and sent the case back to the Appeal Court of s’-Hertogenbosch.


The reopening of the trial – February 6, 2017
The foregoing is important. The 2008 acquittal by the Hague Court of Appeal has been declared null and void by the Supreme Court. This means that the 2006 conviction of Guus Kouwenhoven is still valid. It depends on the outcome of the present trial at the Appeal Court in s’-Hertogenbosch whether Kouwenhoven will spend the coming six years in jail (his sentence, eight years imprisonment, minus his pre-trial detention).

The Public Prosecutor has been working on this case since 2010. Many witnesses have again been heard during the past six years, in Liberia, in the US, even in Hong Kong. Charles Taylor, who purges a 50 year jail sentence in a maximum security jail in the UK, when requested to testify, refused (2016). Witness 03 could no longer be traced, witness 04 could not be contacted. On the first day of the reopened trial, on February 6, Kouwenhoven’s lawyer, Inez Weski, requested that more witnesses be heard, but the court found her request unreasonable and saw no reason to delay the trial any longer. All requests Weski submitted were declined by the court.

Guus Kouwenhoven, now 74-year old, was not present at the reopening of his trial, ‘for medical reasons’. It is interesting to note that the court asked his lawyer about the defendant’s health, and whether he was ‘fit for jail’. Weski did not answer, but promised to come back at this issue during her plea, scheduled for February 24.

Next Friday, on February 10, the Public Prosecutor will present his requisitory. Will it uphold the 2006 conviction and sentence? Subsequent court sessions are planned on February 24 (‘plea’), March 10 (‘reply’) and March 17 (‘rejoinder’). On the latter date, the court will announce the date it will render its verdict.

Many years have passed since the crimes were committed. Liberia and Liberians still struggle to come at grips with the country’s ugly past of rape, murder, torture, human rights violations and … impunity. Warlords still walk free in Monrovia and other cities in Liberia, national reconciliation is a far-away goal. Meanwhile the victims of the two civil wars that ravaged the country have been betrayed. The country’s present Administration has failed to address their problems. Political leaders nowadays are as greedy as those who led the country to a civil war when anarchy prevailed and justice was denied. I am proud of my country’s judicial system. It plays an exemplary role and I am sure that the world is watching the outcome of this trial, notably people in Liberia. It is extremely difficult to investigate what happened in Liberia during the civil crisis but the Dutch judges and public prosecutors did a tremendous job. The research and investigation between 2010 and 2017 have been hampered by all sort of difficulties, not least by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, in particular in Liberia, Guina and Siera Leone, during 2014 and 2015. Needless to say, I can hardly wait till the final verdict in the Kouwenhoven case.

To be continued.






The contribution presented above has been largely based on the author’s 2015 book ‘Liberia: From The Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost’ and on the Dutch-language sources mentioned below and published by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service:

Posted in 1979, Africa Hotel, African Studies Centre Leiden, Appeal Court of 's-Hertogenbosch, Appeal Court of The Hague, arms trade, BBC, Buchanan, Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Corruption, District Court of The Hague, Ebola, forestry, Guinea, Gus Kouwenhoven, Guus Kouwenhoven, Guus van Kouwenhoven, Human Rights, human rights violations, impunity, Inez Weski, Justice, Lebanon, Liberia, Liberia" From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost, Liberian History, Los Angeles, Malaysia, Monrovia, Mr Gus, murder, NPFL, OAU, Oriental Timber Company, OTC, Public Prosecutor, Quote 500, rape, Rembrandt, Rotterdam, Royal Timber Corporation, RTC, RUF, Second civil war 1999-2003, Sierra Leone, Supreme Court, The Hague Justice Portal, torture, travel ban, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), UK, UN, UN arms embargo, United States, United States of America, USA, wa, war crimes, weapons, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment

Impunity in Africa

images-3The decision of President Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa, the despotic ruler of the Gambia, not to accept the outcome of the December 1 presidential elections – contrary to his earlier congratulations to his opponent, the winner, Adama Barrow – took everybody by surprise. His erratic behavior only increased over the 22 years that he has been in power, after staging a succesful military coup in 1994. Gambia has up till now known only two presidents (since independence in 1965): Sir Dawda Diawara, who was deposed in 1994, and Jammeh. Why did Jammeh first concede and then reversed? Was it his fear of being prosecuted for the heinous crimes committed since ruling over this mini-state? Gambia forms an enclave in Senegal on both sides of the Gambia river, its width determined by the reach of a cannon. A more striking example of the crazy borders colonialism left on Africa is hardly thinkable.

ga-mapBut I won’t speak here about colonialism and its aftermath. Besides, it’s over half a century that most colonies were decolonized. I want to focus here on the rule of law in a number of African countries and the impunity that some perpetrators of war crimes, human rights violations, and outright murderers still enjoy. Today, the Chair of ECOWAS, Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf heads a mission to Banjul to persuade President Jammeh to give up and accept a democratically elected successor. A laudable mission, let me be unequivocally clear about that. For too long African organizations have remained silent after the worst atrocities took place in member states. But it is still good to draw attention to the home-countries of these presidents who plead for democracy and an end to lawless behaviour in other countries. In President Sirleaf’s home country, Liberia, not a single warlord has been prosecuted after the civil war ended in 2003, already 13 years ago. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf takes credit for winning democratically the presidential elections of 2006, thus becoming the first democratically elected female African president. A historic achievement. Unfortunately, the victims of the civil war that she helped starting still wait for justice. Each and everyday they are confronted in the streets of Monrovia or in their villages with the murderers of their relatives and the rapists of their daughters and wives.

Another member of today’s ECOWAS mission to Banjul is President Muhammadu Buhari, since 2015 president of Nigeria. This time he was democratically elected. Buhari also was president of Africa’s most populous country from 1983 till 1985. In 1983 he had staged a military coup that overthrew a democratically elected president. Human rights abuses were rife during Buhari’s rule over Nigeria. In 1984, he issued the ‘Protection Against False Accusations Decree’ , still considered by many as the most repressive press law ever enacted in Nigeria. In 1985 Buhari was deposed in another military coup but he never accounted for the misdeeds he and his associates committed during their tenure of power.

In 2014, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso was forced to flee following a popular uprising against his 27-year rule of the country. He thus escaped a popular verdict and a trial. He is generally believed to have masterminded the assassination of his friend, President Thomas Sankara, in 1987. Two years later, the Burkinabe journalist Norbert Zongo and three comrades were assassinated. Norbert Zongo had been investigating the mysterious death of the driver of François Compaoré, Blaise’s brother. Blaise Compaoré fled to Ivory Coast in October 2014. The president of this country, Alassane Ouattara, partly of Burkinabe descent, granted him asylum and the Ivorian nationality, thus making extradition to the new democratically elected government of Burkina Faso, who want to put the former dictator on trial, virtually impossible.

I could go on, with other examples of impunity – both in the region and in other parts of Africa – but I think I have made my point clear. The establishment of the rule of law and the end to impunty still have a a long way to go in Africa. Before ending here, however, I want to mention three important trials that may indicate that a new era has already started in Africa.

In May 2016, the former ruler of Chad, Hissein Habré (1982-1990) was found guilty of human rights abuses - including rape, sexual slavery and ordering the killing of 40,000 people – and sentenced to life in prison by a Special Tribunal in Senegal, an African-Union backed court. Habré thus became the first former African Head of State who was convicted for human rights abuses in the court of another nation (Senegal).

In another trial that captured the international attention, former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted for war crimes and aiding and abetting rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone (2013). He was sentenced to 50 years in jail by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and is now spending the last years of his life – hopefully – in a maximum security prison in the UK.

A few weeks ago the trial of the leader of the 2012 military coup in Mali that deposed a democratically elected government started in Sikasso, a southern city in Mali. Former coup leader general Amadou Sanogo and 17 co-defendents are accused of murdering 21 ‘Red Berets’ , suspected of staging a counter-coup. The ‘Red Berets’ trial is an encouraging step forward towards more justice in Mali. However, still a lot more needs to be done. The 2012 coup by Sanogo and his comrades (‘Green Berets’) triggered many more atrocities committed by Tuareg secessionists, other warring factions including the Malian Army, jihadists, terrorists, smugglers and other ordinary criminals. Foreign troops, notably the French, operate with a ‘license to kill’ in the country and kill suspected terrorists without any procedure or trial.

Now, back to the Gambia and president Jammeh. I sincerely hope that democracy and justice will win in the Gambia and that Jammeh will have to give up power, that he will accept a peaceful transition to a democratically elected successor, and that he will soon face an independent court in Africa to account for the 22 years he ruled with an iron fist over this tiny country of about 2 million people. May his trial be symbolic for the end to impunity in Africa and scare all who have escaped justice so far.

Posted in Adama Barrow, African Politics, Alassane Ouattara, Amadou Sanogo, Banjul, Blaise Compaore, Burkina Faso, Chad, Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Comprehensive Peace Agreement CPA 2003, Coups in Africa, ECOWAS, elections, Elections in Africa, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, François Compaoré, Gambia river, Green Berets, Hissein Habré, Human Rights, Impunity in Africa, Ivory Coast, Jammeh, Justice, Liberia, Mali, Monrovia, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria, Norbert Zongo, press freedom, Red Berets, Red Berets trial, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Special Court, Sikasso, Sir Dawda Diawara, The Gambia, Thomas Sankara, Tuareg, Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh Babili Mansa | Leave a comment

‘Choosing The Hero – My improbable journey and the rise of Africa’s first woman president’ by K. Riva Levinson

choosing-the-hero_finalThere’s no doubt about it. Karen Riva Levinson’s ‘Choosing The Hero’ is an interesting book. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in Liberia’s contemporary history. It will also be very useful for students in international politics. Since I started reading about Liberia, in the seventies of last century, preparing a teaching job at the University of Liberia, I have read many books on this West African country. Levinson’s book definitely is a valuable additional work to an already considerable stack of literature on Africa’s oldest republic.
Freed slaves and freeborn blacks and coloured people from the United States of America created Liberia in 1847. They and their descendants called themselves ‘Americo-Liberians’. The collision and subsequent conflicts between Americo-Liberians and the indigenous population of the region still haunt Liberia today despite the historic election victory of a woman who has both, tribal roots and an Americo-Liberian background: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Levinson’s book is not a book exclusively devoted to Liberia or to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It is not for those who just start reading about Liberia and Liberian politics. It is especially useful for those who are familiar with Liberia’s past and present problems and who are interested in the backstage wheeling and dealing of actors in international politics, not only in the United States – also in Liberia.

Riva Levinson is an American strategist on international policy issues who worked for various American lobbying firms such as BMS&K (Black, Manafort (!), Stone & Kelly), companies that apparently are willing to do any work for the highest bidder. The author picked an appropriate title for her book. On the one hand it is a personal narrative, the evolution of her professional career that started with at times mercenary-ish work in politically unstable countries across the globe, often ruled by merciless dictators and/or emerging from a civil war: Iraq, Nicaragua, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, Angola, Nigeria, and – of course – Liberia, to name but a few. On the other hand she gives us a valuable insight into the political career of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, and who made history as Africa’s first democratically elected woman president.

440px-k_street_nw_at_19th_streetTo avoid any misunderstanding, the author never engaged in illegal activities (other than bribing officials at airports and in emergency situations – to get as quick as possible out of a country in crisis). Europeans and notably we, the Dutch, we are ruled by different laws in this respect. What is legal in the United States (lobbying activities) – as long as you abide by the rules of the game and the prescribed procedures – at times is very questionable or outright forbidden in some European countries such as the Netherlands. Be that as it may, it makes Levinson’s book maybe even more interesting.

I will not dwell on the author’s work and adventures in aforementioned countries – except for Liberia – but one thing is sure: it provides for worthwhile, fascinating, and sometimes breathtaking reading – notably the chapter on her travelling in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The book is very well written and reads easily. Liberians will say: “Riva Levinson, she’s a strong woman!” and I fully agree. The book starts with her brief, unsuccessful stay in Siad Barre’s Somalia (late 1960s), one of the countries where US diplomacy and foreign policy failed, like in present-day Iraq whose population still bears the brunt of another US failure.

In 1996, the author went for her company BMS&K to oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, a tiny republic in central Africa, ruled by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who in 1979 had seized power in a military coup and had the deposed president – his uncle – executed after a kangaroo court. Since then, Obiang Nguema rules Equatorial Guinea with an iron fist. He is Africa’s longest ‘serving’ president, closely followed by Angola’s Dos Santos. Levinson’s mission to Equatorial Guinea brought her into contact with UNDP’s Africa Director, then Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Was it the latter’s honesty and hardly hidden disapproval of the rigged presidential elections in Equatorial Guinea that opened her eyes for more meaningful and less controversial work? Only the author can tell, but she gives an indication when sharing her reflections during President Sirleaf’s inauguration in 2006 which she attended as a special guest: “On occasion (…) I have been assigned duties where the morality of a situation is far from certain, the ambition of certain players less than noble. (…) Mine has been a career of adventure and drudgery, of public speeches and backroom politicking, a world of redeemers and killers, true believers and corrupt cynics, hope and despair and in instances such as (this) inauguration, of celebration and euphoria.” (p.152). Increasingly she asks herself while on mission the question: “Why am I here?”

Her frankness is commendable; the book provides us with a good insight in the evolution of the author’s mind and emotions. When choosing for Sirleaf in the summer of 1996 (“I want to work for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ”, p.51), she realizes that she is at a personal crossroads (”It’s time to stop and examine what I am doing and why”, p.51). She starts a process that ultimately leads to her resigning from her job, at BKSH & Associates, another lobbying firm, in December 2006. “I need to maintain a certain integrity in my assignments.” she writes about her decision to quit (p. 160). She then creates her own company, KRL International. From now on she is her own boss and decides which contract to take. With her important network of key actors and other important people (on Capitol Hill in Washington DC and in Langley/McLean, Virginia, too many to mention here) and her knowledge of ‘how Washington works’ I am sure we will hear more about her in the near future – in her profession as a successful lobbyist, or in an active (public) political role, or as an academic/writer.

While reading her book she reminded me of Herman Cohen. The former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs is well known for his secret diplomatic deals with African leaders in trouble, in countries including Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan and Somalia. Read his book ‘Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent’ (New York, 2000). After leaving diplomatic service, Cohen was paid for lobbying activities and consultancy services by (among others) Presidents Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, José Dos Santos of Angola, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Laurent Kabila of Congo Kinshasa and …. Liberia’s Charles Taylor. I sincerely hope, however, that Riva Levinson will be more selective than Herman Cohen in choosing her (future) clients.

The first time Riva Levinson sets foot on Liberia’s soil is in 2005, in July 2005 to be more precisely. Everyone familiar with Liberia knows that in July the rainy season is in full swing and that humidity is close to 100 per cent. The second civil war (1999-2003) was just over. Gyude Bryant had taken care of the interim-management of the country (2003-2006) after Taylor’s forced exile. Later that year, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would defeat George Weah, her main opponent in the 2005 presidential elections. Many in Liberia and abroad were enthusiastic about Ellen’s victory, including Riva and me. Liberia had to re-start from scratch. We were all aware that it wouldn’t be an easy task and that it would take many years to rebuild everything that had been destroyed during fourteen years of civil war.

ellen-meets-obama-againRiva Levinson does not hide her admiration and affinity for ‘Ellen’. At times it seems as if ‘Ellen’ has replaced her grandmother (‘Oma’) with whom she had a close relationship until her death. Riva is prepared to fight for Ellen, her faith in her is unconditional. Her work for president Sirleaf is very successful and she is an effective lobbyist for Africa’s oldest republic, looking after its interests and arranging meetings for Liberia’s president with key-actors in the US. However, the book does not pretend to be an exhaustive biography of ‘the Iron Lady’, the nickname for Liberia’s first female president. Those interested in more should read Sirleaf’s autobiography, entitled ‘This Child Will be Great “ (2009). Besides, it is my opinion that much of Liberia’s contemporary history is still in the writing. I am convinced that there are many Liberians who have been – and still are – closely involved in their country’s recent history who would be perfectly placed to write this story and should do so. Riva Levinson provides us with some names – Abdoulye Dukulé, Amara Konneh, Antoinette Sayeh, Winston Tubman, Conmany Wesseh – but I also think of eminent scholars and prominent politicians such as Elwood Dunn, Henry Fahnbulleh, James Fromoyan, Amos Sawyer, Byron Tarr, Togba-Nah Tipoteh, Kofi Woods, who – regrettably – are absent from the book.

Finally, I am a critical admirer of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Under her able guidance Liberians have worked on the reconstruction of their country, a difficult task. I strongly believe in the future of a better Liberia and the perseverance and endurance of the Liberian people – despite the rampant corruption, the nepotism, and the lack of national reconciliation that have become characteristics of President Sirleaf’s Administration. Illustrative is the following:

Prominent seated at President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s inauguration in January 2006 were, I quote “Speaker of the House, Edwin Snowe, accused of stealing millions of dollars from a Liberian oil company, Senator Adolphus Dolo, known during the war as “General Peanut Butter” after his favorite food and accused of eating his victim’s body parts; Senator Prince Johnson, the former rebel leader who hacked off President Samuel Doe’s ears before killing him in 1990; and finally, to the surprise of many outsiders, Senator Jewel Howard Taylor, the former First Lady to ex-president Charles Taylor. “ Unquote. (p. 151). Politics and politicians are not always easy to understand. Was there a strategy behind the choices that President Sirleaf made, some of which were severely criticized such as the impunity of former warlords? Who knows?

I admire Riva Levinson for writing an honest, compelling book, and congratulate her with this important contribution to an already long list of books and articles that provide us with more insight into Liberia and one of its main political actors, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected woman president, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and numerous more awards, distinctions and honorary academic degrees. What President Sirleaf’s legacy will be, only future can tell. Her successor, who is to be elected next year, faces a difficult task. I am pretty sure that K. Riva Levinson will be following events in Liberia closely.

Posted in 1847, 2005 presidential elections, 2017 presidential elections, Abdoulye Dukule, Adolphus Dolo, Africa's longest serving president, Amara Konneh, Americo-Liberians, Amos Sawyer, Angola, Antoinette Sayeh, BKSH & Associates, Blaise Compaore, BMS&K, Byron Tarr, Capitol Hill, Charles Gyude Bryant, Charles Taylor, Choosing the Hero, Civil War(s) Liberia, Congo Kinshasa, Conmany Wesseh, Corruption, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Dos Santos, DRC, Edwin Snowe, elections, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Elwood Dunn, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Gaddafi, General Peanut Butter, George Weah, Henry Fahnbulleh, Herman Cohen, Iraq, Iron Lady, James Fromoyan, Jewel Howard Taylor, José dos Santos, Justice, K.Riva Levinson, KRL International LLC, Langley Virginia, Laurent Kabila, Liberia, Libya, lobbying fiirms, lobbying firm, Manafort, Monrovia, Mozambique, National reconciliation, nepotism, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Nobel Peace Prize, oil, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Prince Y. Johnson, Reconciliation, Riva Levinson, Rwanda, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Second civil war 1999-2003, Siad Barre, Somalia, Sudan, Teodoro Nguema, This Child Will Be Great, Tipoteh, UNDP, United States, United States of America, University of Liberia, USA, Washington DC, Winston Tubman | Leave a comment

Some thoughts on Liberia’s 169th independence anniversary

Liberia: “Happy July 26!”
Some Liberians – both abroad and at home – say there is little to celebrate. Others, both inside and outside the country, say Liberia has made true progress under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2006 – present). Who’s right?

LiberiaNationalSealAndMottoLiberian flag  On July 26, 1847 Liberia declared itself an independent and sovereign State, after 25 years of colonial rule by an American private organization – the American Colonization Society – backed by the US Government.
In August of the same year, the leaders of Africa’s new republic unfolded their country’s national flag for the first time, an event still celebrated as Flag Day (August 24). The following month, Governor J.J. Roberts was elected president – on September 27, 1847 – and he was sworn in in as Liberia’s first president in January, 1848. The journey of Africa’s first republic started.

Since then much has happened, too much to tell the whole story here. On the positive side, to start with, is the proud conclusion that Liberia has remained independent throughout the years, despite the ‘scramble for Africa’ (1885 – 1920), the 1930 ‘Forced Labour Scandal’ and two devastating civil wars (1989-1997; 1999-2003).
ements__1874__www_liberiapastandpresent_org_Eager colonial European powers seized parts of the territory claimed by the Monrovia Government. The English took the Galinhas territory in the west, now part of Sierra Leone, and the French seized the territory east of Harper, Maryland, now part of Ivory Coast.

The ‘Forced Labour Scandal‘ and the damning League of Nations Report (named after its chair, ‘Christy Report’) led to the resignation of president King (1920-1930) and almost made an end to Liberia’s existence as an independent nation. More recently, the two civil wars that ravaged the country brought Liberia to the brink of disappearance. Many observers qualified Africa’s oldest republic as a failed state, but Liberia rose again to its feet, and made a new start under Africa’s first democratically elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Between 1847 and 2016, Liberia registered three assassinated presidents: E.J. Roye, William R. Tolbert and Samuel K. Doe. Moreover, four president resigned from office: Anthony Gardiner, William Coleman, Charles King, and Charles Taylor. Two of Liberia’s president’s made world history.

The first president who made world history was Charles Taylor. In 2012 he was sentenced to 50 years in prison – minus time already spent in custody (since 2006) – by the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL). It was the first time since the trials of prominent Nazis in Nuremberg at the end of the Second World War that a head of state had been convicted. The conviction by the SCSL also made Charles Taylor the first African head of state to be found guilty of serious crimes by an international tribunal.

The second Liberian president who made world history is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Not only is she Africa’s first democratically elected female president, she also made history as a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

liberia-from-the-love-of-liberty-small-1I could go on-and-on, switching to Liberia’s economy, but I have little to add after publishing a book on Liberia’s contemporary history, covering political, economic and social affairs (2015). The book’s title may speak for itself, ‘Liberia: From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost’ (published by the African Studies Centre).

‘The Love of Liberty’, from Liberia’s national motto ‘The Love of Liberty Brought Us Here’ (see above), stands for the hopeful start by black Americans – freed slaves and free-born black and colored people – who left the WASP-dominated United States in the 19th century where segregation and discrimination were part of daily life.

They, black colonists, ‘pioneers’, and their descendants – who called themselves ‘Americo-Liberians’ – ruled Liberia until 1980. Samuel Doe – Liberia’s first indigenous president – ended 133 years of rule by the Americo-Liberian minority of less than 50,000 people. That’s the ‘Paradise Lost’ part of my book’s title.

Samuel Doe’s coup started a new chapter in the country’s history. With hindsight it was a period of dictatorship, human rights violations and far-reaching economic decline – and the prologue to 14 years of civil war. What once had started hopefully as the first African republic to be modelled on Western lines became a tragedy. The ideal of freedom of the American colonists – mulattoes, free-born blacks and former slaves – had been blown apart. The paradise on Earth that they dreamed of as they crossed the Atlantic proved an illusion. In 2016, some half a million Liberians even live outside their country because they have no confidence or future in their African homeland.

The Administration of president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (2006-present) brought peace and more political stability, partly thanks to a UN peacekeeping force, UNMIL. But the country remains underdeveloped as ever. A prominent Liberian, one of the country’s veteran politicians and an internationally renowned economist, Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh, declared in 2015 that, in terms of income per day, ‘the Liberian people are the second poorest in Africa’.

Next year Liberians will elect a new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s successor. Who will govern Liberia and its 4.2 million people? Whoever may win the 2017 presidential elections, he or she faces many challenges.

The difficulties that Liberia has to overcome to take control of its own development and destiny are both numerous and daunting. National unification – making one nation out of 16 different tribes – , national reconciliation – healing the wounds of the civil wars – and economic development – based on Liberia’s enormous natural wealth – are among the top priorities. ‘Don’t rock the boat’ seems to be more important than ever.

Happy Independence Day Liberia!!!!

Posted in 2016, 2017 presidential elections, African Studies Centre Leiden, American Colonization Society, Americo-Liberians, Anthony Gardiner, April 12 1980, Charles Taylor, Christy Report, Civil War(s) Liberia, Economic development, EJ Roye, Elections in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Flag Day, Forced Labour Scandal, Galinhas, Harper, Human Rights, Independence Day, Ivory Coast, JJ Roberts, Liberia, Liberia Colony, Liberia" From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost, Liberian Diaspora, Liberian Economy, Liberian History, Maryland in Africa, Monrovia, National flag, National Motto, National reconciliation, National Seal, National Symbols, National unification, natural resources, Nobel Peace Prize, Nuremberg, peace, President Charles King, President Charles King resignation, racism, Reconciliation, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Scramble for Africa, Second World War, Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Special Court, Slavery Scandal, Tipoteh, UNMIL, WASP, William Coleman, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment

‘Liberia: From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost’ – Now available in Monrovia!

The next 18 months will be crucial for Liberia. What do we know about Liberia?  

UNMIL withdrawalUNMIL, the UN-peacekeeping force will virtually pull out by June 30, only two more months to go … Liberians inside and outside the country don’t trust the Liberian Police Force and the Liberian Armed Forces because of their lack of discipline and high level of corruption. They fear that Liberia may again descend into chaos. They have bad memories of the anarchy that reigned during fourteen years of civil war.

President Sirleaf will soon finish her second term, after ruling the country for 12 years. In January 2018 her successor will be sworn in. Who will occupy the Executive Mansion in 2018? Already more than 20 presidential hopefuls have declared themselves the best choice to rule over the destiny of Africa’s oldest republic. Between now and October 2017, when presidential elections will be held, there will be verbal fighting between presidential candidates and their followers. It will be increasingly difficult to distinguish facts from fiction, to separate blunt and subtle lies from the truth.

A recently published book on Liberia’s contemporary history – ‘Liberia” From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost’ – may be helpful to better understand where Liberia stands now, on the eve of the crucial 2017 presidential elections.

liberia-from-the-love-of-liberty-small-1How is Liberia’s economy doing? During the Administration of President Sirleaf dozens of foreign investors came into the country, attracted by its rich natural resources and the favorable conditions offered by the Liberian government. But will their investments in agriculture (rubber, oil palm), mining (iron ore, gold, diamonds), and the logging sector be sustainable? World market prices for Liberia’s commodities are on a downward trend. Disputes over land and ‘land grab’ accusations are scaring foreign investors, some of whom have already left. The main challenge, however, is to create enough jobs for the urban and rural unemployed, an estimated 80 per cent of the national work force.

Another ticking time bomb is the unresolved question of national reconciliation. The two civil wars (1989-1997; 1999-2003) have left an estimated 200,000 people dead and many more wounded, physically and mentally. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was shelved by President Sirleaf for reasons only known to herself. Its recommendations were never discussed in parliament. Former warlords and militia members walk and drive around freely in Monrovia and elsewhere in the country, e.g. George Boley, Alhaji Kromah, Prince Johnson. Some have even been elected to parliament, including Prince Johnson, who had Liberia’s President Samuel Doe tortured to death and the assassination filmed (1990).

Furthermore, ‘Education is a mess’, President Sirleaf frankly said in 2013. The Ebola epidemic not only killed nearly 5,000 people but also ruined the public health sector. The country’s infrastructure is poor and daily electricity is only for the rich and powerful. Corruption is all pervasive. Abuse of power and nepotism common. The rule of law is weak. A properly functioning system of ‘checks and balances’ is absent. The future looks grim.

Dr. Fred P.M. van der Kraaij

Dr. Fred P.M. van der Kraaij

‘Liberia: From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost’ is written from a personal point of view. The Dutch author knows the country, he lectured at the University of Liberia where his students included future ministers, one even later emerged as a feared warlord. In this book the author looks back on Liberia, 40 years after setting foot on Liberian soil. How could a country that was considered to be one of the most stable in Africa descend into such chaos and anarchy? What went wrong? And how is it to move forward? The author tries to answer these questions, based on his own observations. He focuses particular attention on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her role in Liberia’s new start after the forced resignation of warlord-president Charles Taylor.

The book contains 9 maps including three maps showing Foreign Investments in agriculture & forestry, mining, oil & gaz, 15 Boxes, over 70 illustrations and has an Index. Particularly handy is a list of Key information on 50 selected persons, from Daniel Anderson to Allen Yancy.

Since last week the book is for sale in Monrovia, Liberia.
The book can be bought (US$ 12.50) at:

ERA supermarket, Sinkor, Tubman Boulevard, between 16th and 17th Street
Stop & Shop supermarket, Sinkor, Tubman Boulevard, near 17th Street
Exclusive supermarket, Downtown, Center Street (between Carey / Benson Street)
UN Drive supermarket, Sinkor, Tubman Blvd / 20th Street / Warner Avenue
Royal Hotel, Sinkor, 15th Street / Tubman Blvd

The book was published by the African Studies Center (ASC), Leiden, the Netherlands.
It is the ASC’s explicit policy to make its publications available for a large audience, therefor the book is also available online (free, open access), click here 



Posted in 2017 presidential elections, African Studies Centre Leiden, Alhaji Kromah, Charles Taylor, Civil War(s) Liberia, Corruption, diamonds, Ebola, education, elections, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, ERA supermarket, Exclusive supermarket, Executive Mansion, FDI, forestry, George Boley, gold, health, infrastructure, iron ore, Justice, Liberia, Liberia" From the Love of Liberty to Paradise Lost, Liberian Economy, Liberian History, Monrovia, natural resources, oil, oil palm plantation, peace, Prince Y. Johnson, Reconciliation, Royal Hotel, Samuel Kanyon Doe, Stop & Shop supermarket, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), UN Drive supermarket, University of Liberia, UNMIL, Vice President Allen Yancy, William V.S. Tubman | Leave a comment

The mystery of the Kru or Grebo rings – an important discovery

KruRingAKruRingUnknownRecently, the American expert and collector of nitien – Kru or Grebo rings – Mark Clayton contacted me after having read my 2014 postings on these ritual objects. His comments warranted an update and correction of my postings dated April 7 and April 25. More specifically, the information provided concerned his discovery of a nitien on the ground of a medicine man’s hut as shown on a photo published online by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of Harvard University. A cropped version of the original photo had been published in ‘Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland‘, the report of the Peabody Museum Expedition to Liberia in 1929-1930 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1947). 

Mark Clayton spent many hours online scrutinizing the Peabody’s photo archive for evidence of a ring, and fortunately their online version of the original image – which was uncropped at the bottom – shows a much larger area of foreground than appears in the (cropped) version published in ‘Tribes of the Liberian Hinterland‘. Thus Mark was able to discern a blurry knobbed-ring laying on the ground (see photo).  Another nitien expert, Scott Shepperd, had previously seen only the cropped version, that’s why he did not notice the ring on the ground, because not enough of it was visible to distinguish what it was (source:  email correspondence between Mark Clayton and Scott Shepperd).

I don’t want readers to be misinformed or ill informed on the subject of these mysterious rings and therefore decided to correct my original postings by adding this and other new information. Another good reason for correcting my earlier postings is my wish to give Mark Clayton the credit he deserves for his important discovery.

To conclude, I want to compliment the two nitien experts Mark Clayton and Scott Shepperd for their contribution to our knowledge of these objects. No one knows exactly the origin and history of these rings. More research will be needed to disclose the lost history of these ritual objects – which only have been found in Liberia.

Posted in George Schwab, Grebo, Grebo rings, Harvard University, Kru, Kru money, Kru rings, Liberia, Liberian Hinterland, Liberian History, Mark Clayton, nitien, Peabody Museum, Scott Shepperd | Leave a comment

‘Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief’ by Anita K. Dennis

51dI5b8xZJL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Anita Katherine Dennis has written an amazing book. It’s a real pageturner. It’s an autobiography, a biography, a love story, a religious testimony, and it’s about Liberia. It’s the uncredible story of a young, white, American sophomore student who grew up on a Ohio farm and who fell in love with her anthropology professor, a hereditary Mende chief from Liberia, 16 years her senior, and still married when they first met in 1964. Their relationship and later marriage faced multiple challenges: differences in age, race, culture, marital status and a forbidden professor/student liaison. For Anita this resulted in parental disapproval, even to the extent of being almost disowned by her father. Luckily this did not happen. After many years of no contacts her parents reconciled with her because of the grandchildren. The marriage between Anita and Ben Dennis – more about his anglophone name later – lasted for more than 40 years. He passed away in December 2009 after a protracted illness, prompting his widow to write down the story of her life. I am glad she did.

‘Beyond Myself’ is a must-read. The book is more than the story of Anita Dennis’ life. It is also a story about Liberia. The author has a degree in sociology with a minor in anthropology and always had the ambition to be a journalist. This does not surprise. The book is well written and reads easily. The author shows that she has always had a sharp eye for cultural and political differences, both during her stay with the Mende and Gbande peoples in Lofa County and when it comes to social relations in Liberia, notably the domination of the Americo-Liberian elite over the tribal majority of the country. She visited Liberia in the 1970s and spent one year as a lay missionary, together with her husband, in the early 1980s. ‘Liberia was an illusion of democracy’, she noticed in 1972 (p. 54).

Her husband Benjamin (‘Ben’) Dennis had a tribal background – his tribal names were Ngombu Tejjeh Gongoli Guyanh – but he was very familiar with the repressive Americo-Liberian elite, she found out. He was from the Dennis family, who had ‘adopted’ Ben’s father as a teenager in Monrovia. The same ‘ward’ system explains the tribal roots and Americo-Liberian background of Liberia’s president since 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Ben’s uncle C.C. Dennis was a prominent Americo-Liberian who published the Liberian Age, the mouthpiece of – then – the country’s only political party, the True Whig Party (TWP). Son C.C. was the flamboyant Minister of Foreign Affairs under President William Tolbert. After the April 1980 military coup he was publicly executed at a Monrovia beach, together with a dozen other ‘big shots’ – TWP leaders and cabinet ministers.

Professor Ben Dennis – with two doctorate degrees – was an excellent academic. He also showed interest in Liberian politics after the demise of President Tubman in 1971. Even to the extent of raising the attention of President Tolbert (1971-1980) who expressed interest in having him as his Vice President (p.146). It is also interesting to note the conversation between him and a young Liberian, a Kru man, visiting him at Ohio University when the latter said: ‘We have to change the government. (…) If we don’t change the government, nothing will change in Liberia.” The Kru leader was Dr. Togba Nah Tipoteh, still a household name in Liberia (p.145/146). I was not surprised to read that Dr. Ben Dennis even had aspirations to one day become president of Liberia (p.192).

Above all Dr. Dennis was a man of God. The faith he and Anita shared was central to their relationship. Anita’s journey with Ben was a journey with God, who protected, guided, and sustained her during her controversial relationship and later her interracial, cross-cultural marriage. When Anita and Ben met, racism was rife in the United States – interracial marriages were against the law in 17 US States in the 1960s (!) – and racism still is a big problem in the USA as demonstrated by recent deadly incidents involving Afro-Americans. It is clear from the author’s narrative that her husband was an exceptional man and a strong personality but he always remained modest. He was at ease in his father’s Mende village but also with the powerful Americo-Liberian families ruling his country, the Dennis, Cooper, Brooks, Henries, DeShield and Tolbert families. Son of a Liberian diplomat, he grew up in Germany, and spent his vacations in Liberia. When in the United States he was not quite accepted by Afro-Americans – being a foreigner, an African – but he also was not accepted by racist, white Americans.

500px-Liberia_-_Lofa.svgThe author, Anita Katherine Dennis, shares the aforementioned qualifications: modest, a strong personality, and a sharp mind. Though her life was full of extremes, she kept her balance, even though at times it was very difficult as she frankly admits in her book. In particular I like very much chapters 19 through 24 devoted to her life as a mother and chief’s wife in Lofa County in 1983/1984. She was fully accepted by her husband’s tribe and was given a tribal name, Baindu. Her daily experiences in Vahun, Ben’s father’s village, were very recognizable to me having lived in Liberia. The humid tropical climate, the downpours during the rainy season, the mould on leather shoes, belts and bags, the mosquitos and the inevitable malaria, the sores on legs and feet, the Guinea worm infections, the sunburn, no running water, the troubles with kerosene refrigerators, the insects, the termites, the driver ants, the ever present coackroaches in cupboards and in the bathroom, and so on. On the other hand, she enjoys the warm relations with the people, their culture, ‘an anthropologist’s dream’ as she describes it (p.166), despite the at times annoying lack of privacy.

Anita Dennis has written a book that merits to be read widely. Her style is a frank one, not only on the painful subject of her parents’ rejection of her liaison with Ben. Her parents were absent when they married and her father returned the picture of their first grandson Anita had sent. More amusing is the anecdote of her husband’s initial reluctance to make love in the morning (“If I do so, I’ll be going against my Mende training.”). The author is also very frank about her husband’s deteriorating health and final days. He passed away on December 17, 2009. Anita’s journey with Ben had come to an end.

I am afraid that this review still leaves much to be said about this outstanding book. However, I do hope that this shortcoming of mine will act as an extra incentive to read it. The author ends her book with the sentence: ‘If I had to do it again, I’d still sign up for Anthropology 101’.

I look forward to her next book.

Other books by Anita K. Dennis and/or Ben G. Dennis:

‘Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia’ (Algora Publishing, 2008)
‘The Gbandes. A people of the Liberian Hinterlands’ (Chicago, 1972)


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Posted in 1980 execution South Beach Monrovia, Afro-Americans, Americo-Liberians, Anita Dennis, Baindu, Ben Dennis, Beyond Myself, Brooks family, C.C. Dennis MFA, C.C.Dennis Sr, Cooper family, Dennis family, DeShield family, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Gbande, Henries family, Liberia, Liberian Age, Liberian Hinterland, Liberian History, Lofa County, Mende, Monrovia, Ohio State, Ohio University, racism, Tipoteh, Tolbert family, True Whig Party TWP, Vahun, William R. Tolbert Jr., William V.S. Tubman | Leave a comment

Liberia’s national symbols (cont’d)

On May 31, I raised the question ‘Liberia’s national symbols – what happened to the national debate?’. Now, a month later, I must confess that I am inclined to answer this question with the tentative conclusion: ‘Liberians are not interested’.

NationalSealLiberiaIf true, the immediate next question would be ‘Why are Liberians not interested in a debate on the intentions and meanings of the national symbols?’ Is it because a debate on the country’s national symbols is considered to be not relevant? Or is it because people expect that a decision to change symbols like national seal, motto, flag, geographical names would be too costly whereas the country faces other priorities? Or is it because of the fear that any discussion might trigger tension in a country whose population is far from united and still has not overcome the scars of two civil wars?

History, on the other hand, shows a different picture. It was during the Administration of President William Tolbert (1971-1980) that for the first time in the country’s history decisions were taken to make changes in the area of national symbols. Many generations of Liberians had learned in school about Matilda Newport, and December 1 – ‘Matilda Newport Day’ – was almost sacred. The political activists of the tumultuous 1970s not only wanted political changes and an end to the one-party regime, they also wanted a debate on national symbols. In December 1974, the well-known Dr. Togba-Nah Tipoteh wondered ‘why we say we are interested in unity when we continue to celebrate Matilda Newport Day, a national holiday which glorifies the defeat of one group of citizens by another group of our citizens.’ StampMatildaNewportAnd even though still in 1975, in celebration of International Women’s Year, the government issued a stamp honoring Matilda Newport, President Tolbert decided to abolish the celebration of December 1 as ‘Matilda Newport Day’. (Source: Svend Holsoe, ‘Matilda Newport: The Power of a Liberian-Invented Tradition’, in: Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. XXXII, Number 2, 2007, pp. 28-42).

Several Independence Day orators have seized the occasion of ‘July 26’ to express their feelings about the usefulness and appropriateness of the country’s national symbols. Many of these symbols go back to the early days of the Colony of Liberia (1821-1847) and the creation of the independent republic of Liberia by the ‘pioneers’ – as they liked calling themselves – or ‘Americans’ according to the local people.

One of the Independence Day orators questioning the validity of the existing national symbols was Dr. Abeodu Bowen Jones, some 40 years ago, during the Administration of President Tolbert.  Dr. Jones pointed out the divisive ideas that characterize the national symbols, even the anthem. A commision was created to review and remove the objectionable parts, and the commission even submitted a report. However, nothing was done do implement its recommendations. In 2008, another Independence Day orator, Dr. Sakui W. G. Malakpa, renewed the debate with his oration entitled ‘Coping with the inevitability of change: our challenges, chances and choices.’ Although I do not intend to present here an exhaustive overview of Independence Day orators and politicians who have raised the subject of National Symbols in public, I do want to mention here Dr. Elwood Dunn’s  oration of July 26, 2012, ‘Renewing our National Promise’.  In my previous posts dated  August 31, 2012 and  May 31, 2015. I have already elaborated on Dr. Dunn’s thoughts and statements, so interested readers are kindly referred to these pages. However, I make an exception for the following statement, I quote:

‘Balancing the imbalance’

Dr. Dunn: ‘I told the government that I have been writing and making speeches against ElwoodDunn2our national decorations and symbols on the basis that they do not reflect our oneness as Liberians.’ He further said: ‘My rejection comes from the perspective that, over our existence as a nation, there have been imbalances. There have been social imbalance, cultural imbalance, economic imbalance and many more. I want us to promote the balance of the imbalance, so that whatever region of the country you come from you can see yourself reflected in our symbols and decorations.’ (italics added by the author, FVDK)

Also in 2014 a symposium was held that received much attention, ‘Reviewing Liberia’s National Symbols to Renew National Identity’ (Paynesville, Liberia).

We may thus conclude that whereas nowadays in 2015 the debate on the national symbols may seem dead, we can expect it to be revived in the near or distant future.  Earlier and current internet discussions also indicate that the topic still raises many reactions, both favorable and disapproving.

LiberianFlag3In the meantime the nation’s seal, motto and flag remain unchanged. Also, public holidays such as Pioneer’s Day (January 7), J.J. Roberts Day (March 15), Decoration Day (the third Wednesday of March) and Flag Day (August 14) will continue to be celebrated. Names of streets, towns, and counties will stay as they are: named after white colonial agents (Ashmun, Randall, Mechlin streets in Monrovia – the capital named after US President Monroe) and after the first, white Governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia (Thomas Buchanan) or referring to the place of origin in the US of the first colonists: New Georgia, Virginia, both colonial towns in the vicinity of Monrovia, nowadays part of greater Monrovia, and Maryland County. The latter reflects the former colony ‘Maryland in Africa’ and the small African state of the same name (1854-1857) before it joined the Republic of Liberia, created ten years earlier through the merger of the ‘Colony of Liberia’, ‘Bassa Cove’ and ‘Mississippi in Africa’. See the 1839 map below showing colonial names.

3 Liberia Kolonie met Am kolonisatiemaatschappijen, 1839, Mitchell, Foto FvdK

Posted in Abeodu Bowen Jones, Americo-Liberians, Ashmun, Bassa Cove, Buchanan, Decoration Day, Elwood Dunn, Flag Day, Independence Day, Independence Day Orator, James Monroe, JJ Roberts Day, Liberia, Liberia Colony, Liberian History, Liberian Studies Journal, Maryland in Africa, Matilda Newport, Matilda Newport Day, Mechlin, Mississippi in Africa, Monrovia, National Anthem, National flag, National Motto, National Seal, National Symbols, New Georgia, Pioneer's Day, Randall, Sakui W.G. Malakpa, Svend Holsoe, Tipoteh, Virginia, William R. Tolbert Jr. | Leave a comment

Liberia’s national symbols – What happened to the national debate?

Dr. Elwood Dunn was the 2012 National Independence Day Orator and challenged the government and people of Liberia to rethink and debate the appropriateness of the national symbols, notably the nation’s seal, motto and flag.
As we all know, the national motto, the seal and the flag refer to a divided people: those who created the Republic and their descendants versus the majority of the population, belonging to one of the sixteen tribes that already lived in the region known to the outside world as ‘Pepper Coast’ – before the arrival of the first immigrants in 1821.

LiberiaNationalSealAndMottoEarly 2012 another well-known Liberian scholar and politician, Dr. Togba Nah-Tipoteh, in his function as National Vision 2030 Steering Committee Chairman, kicked off a national debate on Liberia’s new development agenda for the next 18 years.  Among the issues raised by participants were suggestions to change the national motto ‘The Love Of Liberty Brought Us Here’ to ‘The Love Of Liberty Unites Us’ and to replace the national seal.

A few years earlier – in 2009 – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its final report had identified the political, social and economic exclusion of the majority of the Liberian population by the Americo-Liberian creators of the republic and their descendants as one of the root causes of the civil conflict (1989 – 2003).

What happened since to the national debate on the national symbols?

2 President Joseph Jenkins Roberts, 1854 Foto FvdK

March 15 of this year was the 206th birth anniversary of Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Long ago, by an Act of the Legislature, March 15 of every year was declared a National Holiday, and 2015 became no exception. Thus, on March 12 President Sirleaf issued a Proclamation declaring March 15 as a National Holiday ‘as a mark of respect and reverence to his memory and for his untiring efforts in organizing the first Government of the Republic’.

I wrote before on this theme. See my August 31, 2012 posting ‘Vision 2013 and the National Symbols’.

I will soon come back and write more on this important but neglected topic. Meanwhile I have the pleasure to invite readers to express their thoughts and to share any suggestions they may have.

You may mail any comments to: fpm ad liberiapastandpresent dot org and/or send a tweet to @liberiapp


Posted in Americo-Liberians, Civil War(s) Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Elwood Dunn, Governance Commission, Independence Day Orator, JJ Roberts, Liberian History, National flag, National Motto, National Seal, National Symbols, Pepper Coast, Tipoteh, Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), Vision 2030 | Leave a comment