Senior Senator from vote-rich Nimba County dissects the Incumbent leadership of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and explains why and how he will win the Liberian presidency.
Years removed from his days as a rebel leader as head of the breakaway Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, Prince Yormie Johnson has successfully transformed himself from a man of war to a lawmaker as a senior senator for vote-rich Nimba County.
On the eve of this year’s presidential race, Johnson is widely seen as a wildcard to shake-up the outcome of the race in part due to his influence and stature in Nimba, his hometown.
In recent weeks however, reports of his declining health has raised questions about whether or not Johnson could still present a threat to the re-election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
In this exclusive interview, Johnson dissects the reign of the incumbent Sirleaf and explains why he believes he has a shot at completing his political transformation from a warlord the democratically-elected head of post-war Liberia.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA Exclusive Interview With Senator Prince Yomie Johnson
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: Who is Prince Johnson and why is he running for presidency of the Republic of Liberia?
SEN. JOHNSON: Well, first of all I’m Senator Prince Yomie Johnson, I hail from the northeastern part of Liberia, from a county called Nimba that has 1.3 million inhabitants and I’m a senior Senator of that great county and people and I declared to run for the nation’s highest office on January 26 last year because I see something greatly wrong with this country. For 164 years this nation has operated a unitary system of government, that highly centralized political governance under the chief executive called the president and I want to see a decentralized political system in which the people of the counties will be allowed by law to elect their own local authorities that will account and be answerable to them, rather than appointing local authority by the president, working at the will and pleasure of the president, we want to do away with this.
Other regimes were fought bitterly because of what we term as a corrupt system, unaccountability, non-transparency, lack of the rule of law that led to the dethronement of many regimes, like Tolbert. The very Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and us charged those governments for corruption, rampant corruption and what have you. Today she is the president of this country and she is not bringing new reforms, but rather she is reforming those same old rascalities, that same old corrupt system. She’s compiling them to the extent that the GAC and the Anti-Corruption Commission indicted many ministers, many ministries for rampant corruption, misuse, mismanagement of public funds and she has failed to prosecute those ministers. She has failed to bring them to book through the court of law.
We see many people getting missing, from many counties people get lost, people get kidnapped, after days, after weeks you find their bodies with parts extracted and no one knows the culprit. No one has caught the culprit; there's no prosecution because there's no culprit.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: Senator Johnson, welcome to the interview. Tell us, how do you feel about the just completed referendum?
SENATOR PRINCE Y. JOHNSON: Liberia has spoken. Contrary to the Unity Party’s desire for yes, yes, yes, Liberians came to say no, a resounding no. We defeated those who wanted everything to be yes in their own favor. So it’s great.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: What does this mean for you?
SEN. JOHNSON: What it means is victory for me and the opposition, all of us in the opposition. For me truly, I have not been in favor of the four propositions. You see in 2005 there was political accommodation given to all of us -- Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Senator Prince Johnson and others who are now occupying various positions in government, because the constitutional clause on the domicile matter talks about ten years. You have to live here ten years, and we didn’t fit. In 2005 none of us were qualified. So there was political accommodation that led to the suspension of the domicile clause for ten years for peace and stability's sake. And so we went ahead and contested for various posts. Now that we are senators and we are president we come again and say look, we have to do a referendum either for five years or ten years; if it is five years there are still some people who just came in who are not fit, who are not qualified. I think there should be no conditions. Let there be the same political accommodation that was given in 2005, let the political accommodation be given to others; the ten years the five years, to hell with it. Let us have a level playing field. Those who want to come now to contest, if they meet the election commission requirements, thank God. The Liberian people are the referees; it shouldn’t be Madam Sirleaf to put forth a referendum to say Liberians should say ten years. If it is ten years she’s not fit; if it is five years we are fit. But others will not be qualified; it is still a recipe for confusion.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: So you think there should be no residency clause?
SEN. JOHNSON: There should be no residency clause because they didn’t leave this country on a normal condition. It was war; war supported, sponsored, promoted by Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was our chief sponsor. She sponsored us to remove what we all branded as a dictatorial system and so the war we fought at which time she said we should destroy the executive mansion, is the war in which people fled for their lives and to be able to come back home, it will take time because election is just part of democracy but in itself you have to provide good governance. There is about 85 percent of our people unemployed and so in Liberia 85 percent of people unemployed, people who fled during the war that we brought here, sponsored by Madam Sirleaf, they went to foreign lands where their children are going to school, where they’ve got jobs to do, where they are given asylum by many countries so to leave their jobs, to leave their schools to come here to a country in which there is 85 percent unemployment is unlikely. So unless we create jobs for our people, unless we provide the kind of atmosphere to attract Liberians to return home, we should not put restrictions to prevent people from contesting.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: So are you going to challenge this or are you going to try to argue that there should be no residency clause?
SEN. JOHNSON: Well, there should be no residency clause as I always said, it’s a recipe for confusion, What was given to Madam Sirleaf that made her qualified when they postponed the ten-year domicile clause it should still be given to other people too. Let the ten years be suspended, let the five years all be suspended and let us go on a level playing field and contest. Our peace is still fragile. A lot of people who came in have spent a lot of money. They have spent hundreds of thousands of US dollars for their campaign, for the establishment of political parties; then you come and say they are not qualified. What are you opting for? Confusion! We don’t want confusion here, we are tired with war. We had fourteen years of bloodbath. For me I’m just tired and I don’t want to see Liberian children running away, so let them leave the ten-year, let them leave the five-year let us go on a plain leveled field and let the Supreme Court make that decision in the interest of peace, stability; that’s what I think they should do.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: Will you be among the people who bring the case to the Supreme Court?
SEN. JOHNSON: I will be one of those. I will certainly be one of those, because it is useless bringing something that will disturb our peace. We’ve been talking to our colleagues in the opposition and you can see the resounding no that we all came out with. The opposition voted no except for one party, the Liberty Party who voted yes, but we voted no in the majority and so no one could get the two-thirds to pass. So it’s at a standstill where the Supreme Court will have to interpret. You can’t tell me that Ellen is not qualified who has ruled this country six years, then you’re telling me that we’ve been operating illegally. So you just have to leave the ten and five. I will join those who will go to the Supreme Court.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: Do you think the country could fall back into civil war?
SEN. JOHNSON: The peace is fragile. Our security is at risk, because we’ve only got less than a 2,000-man army and the securities are not deployed at the borders; we’ve got large border points and we don’t have security in the country. And when you have a country emerging from war, where you have 85 percent unemployment, that country risks going back into conflict. In the midst of the high rate of unemployment you’ve got massive corruption and mismanagement of the nation’s natural resources and state coffers. So you risk going back to conflict and that’s why we need to unanimously vote these corrupt people out of power. We want the Americans to know that the money they have put in, the World Bank, European Union to know that the money they have put into this country is more than any other government besides Doe. It’s more than any other government. Sierra Leone was given less money, but Sierra Leone is more developed and more secure. We got more money than what Sierra Leone got but look at our country, look at our roads. Substandard roads, corrupt people. She has failed to prosecute her friends, her sisters, her colleagues and we want this system to be changed. She came in, the Accra Peace Accord talks about restructuring the army, and it specifically mentions how the army should be restructured, but instead the whole army was disbanded and it is a risk when those people you disbanded who are used to machine guns and light rifles during the war cannot find jobs to do.
For example you have Nimba that was the target of the Doe regime in those days, the war is over now and 80 to 85 percent of the combatants are from Nimba and you have Mittal Steel and BHP Biliton operating in Nimba, but you do not even have the sons and daughters of Nimba on the board. They are not employing our people; they imported people to employ them. They took them from Monrovia and other places and so we want to see real peace and to have real peace, we’ve got to have genuine people at the head of leadership in this country, straightforward people. Madam Sirleaf told us she wanted one term and she comes back and says ‘I need two terms and that all those things I’m supposed to do like implementing the GAC report, implementing the anti-corruption report, that I’m not doing now, it does not mean that those reports are dead, they are there but I will implement them when I come second term.’
Nobody’s going to give her a second term because she’s not living up to her word. Nobody will trust her; leaders should be trusted. When a leader says one term, it should be one term, when a leader vows ‘I’m going to fight corruption, corruption is going to be my first enemy’ and she spoke that on the day of the inauguration to only find that she has the corruption jacket on herself. She has clothed herself with the corruption jacket to the extent that nobody is brought to book. This is Liberia, it doesn’t belong to one particular group, it doesn’t belong to one particular person. No one person should feel that she or he is so indispensable that without him or her, this country cannot move forward. We are here to move Liberia forward, she met Liberia and she will leave Liberia and we all will die one day when God calls us to glory. So she has to go. If she doesn’t go, she is now seeing the writing on the wall; there is a national democratic conspiracy to vote her out. People are lying to her; she’s not going to get votes in this country. In Nimba no vote, in Lofa no vote, Montserrado, we’re going to divide the kola; Grand Cape Mount I’m sorry for her. People want change, they want political reforms, they want the justice system to be overhauled; the justice system is polluted. You’ve got too many prisoners, pretrial convicts are still lingering in jail without trial, they are suffering behind bars. We want these things to be changed.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: You were saying that there are men who are used to carrying weapons and now don’t have jobs. What would you do for former AFL soldiers and ex-fighters?
SEN. JOHNSON: What we will do is first of all to revisit the Accra Peace Accord; what did the Accra Peace Accord say? The politicians, the warring factions, the international contact group on Liberia. West African leaders converged on Ghana and they discussed the way forward for Liberia and the way forward for Liberia was to restructure and they laid down specifically how to restructure the army. It didn’t say disbandment. The army was disbanded and then you’ve got 330,000 former combatants, no jobs, the army of 40,000, no jobs and you bring people from America, from other countries, import them to occupy jobs. She’s not being fair and she’s looking for trouble and we will not give that trouble. We will promote peace, we will defend peace, we will support democracy and all the pillars of democracy.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: Let’s talk about what happened between your men and the SSS on Bushrod Island the other day?
SEN. JOHNSON: Well, we wrote the National Election Commission, we wrote the police, we wrote the UN; the Ministry of Justice was informed that we were launching our party on that particular Saturday, that we were given the endorsement of approval to go there, and the election guidelines says when one party is holding a convention anywhere, no other party should go there. We saw no reason why Madam Sirleaf went to Logan Town or across the bridge because we were there and when she went there, she didn’t see the crowd she wanted to see, they deserted her completely. We pulled tens of thousands of human beings, it was unbelievable, very incredible, I could not believe my eyes. Contrarily people say Senator Johnson can only pull crowd in Nimba but I pull crowds everywhere; my spirit is magnetic, my spirit is charismatic because I believe in God and he gave me that spirit. So, wherever I go, it’s like a magnet and I’m straightforward, a disciplinarian, a former general of the Armed Forces of Liberia. When I say I will do this I do it; when I say I will fight corruption, I will deal with corrupt people by law when I’m elected. I will make sure that people don’t go around collecting people’s children, killing them for ritualistic purposes and then nobody is brought to book.
We will deal with many issues by law. She hit my car, because her security car SSS came from behind us blowing the siren by 6:30 in the evening and we parked off the road. We had about a hundred and fifty cars or more in our convoy jubilating because the launching program was very successful and we parked off the road and the SSS car came and crossed in front of my car and hit the other Jeep that was occupied by my vice standard bearer. And then the security people got down from their cars, they took their rifles and pointed at us. Why, are we at war? Ellen sponsored every war in this country. We fought because we thought that there was dictatorship.
So I sent the warning to her as a reminder that respect begets respect, dishonor begets dishonor, violence begets violence but for the sake of Liberia let us promote peace. Let her talk to her security people, it is our taxes that pay them, it is not Ellen’s money that is paying them; they have the right to protect the president but they have the right also to protect and secure our lives and not to use their power to disturb peaceful citizens. And she always is in the habit of calling former generals to join her, former special forces to join her. The next time I hear her calling Special Forces, former generals, I will call the entire former army on my side and even the present army to join the democratic wagon for change.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: Were you once friends with Ellen?
SEN. JOHNSON: Oh, she’s my good friend, but you know in Africa when you become a contender in such a race like this they brand you as enemies. I remember there was a day when she sent someone to me, one Mr. Harry Yuan, and said she wanted to see me and I honored her call. I went to her house with the man whom she sent to me and I sat closer to the president, the man sat the other way and she asked me, ‘Mr. Senator, why have you come to see me?’ and I said 'No, ma’am, you sent for me, Mr. Yuan said to me that you asked him to bring me along,' and then Mr. Yuan said to her, 'Yes, you told me to bring the senator and she said, ‘I don’t want to see the senator, I don’t want to see the senator, he’s an opposition, he’s my opposition, I cannot discuss Liberia’s matters with opposition.' She said that to my face. When I listened keenly and she got through talking, I said to her, 'Madam President, I always call you ma’am but you know, I came from exile like you, I saw many political parties in 2005, and I chose your party, because my uncle Jackson Doe and you worked together and went to prison together and suffered together and I believe in you and you told me to join the party. I joined the party and you took me to my home state Nimba for the primary and you manipulated the primary and the primary dumped me last minute and I went independent and I won the highest vote in the Republic of Liberia in the election history of Liberia. Have you ever called me to say please come back home to the party? Have you ever invited me to return to the UP? You didn’t. But I have been very cooperative because you are the paddler of the state aircraft and we’ve got to work with you assiduously, tirelessly, faithfully, transparently, obediently, so that Liberia can move forward and that’s what I’m doing. But as we stand right now I'm a challenger but she looks at me as an enemy, she doesn’t call me anymore. When I got sick she didn’t call me to find out how I’m coming on; this is Africa, when you have a powerful contender who overshadows the spirit of the president, they want to eliminate you. And we are asking Madam President; never ever try to eliminate me because when Doe eliminated Quiwonpka the rebuttal, you saw it. The reciprocation was nasty.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Are you saying that you would repeat what happened with Doe if she were to suppress you?
SEN. JOHNSON: Oh no no, suppression is not what I’m saying, I’m saying when Doe eliminated Quiwonpka the reprisal was nasty; so as we’re moving on the democratic path, if you know you’ve got popularity like me let’s face each other on the political football field, but if you try to assassinate me, you’ll have a nasty reciprocation.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA:Assassinate, you mean really assassinate, really kill you?
SEN. JOHNSON: It is possible. It’s in Africa so it is possible; you can’t rule that out. They disarmed us before the election in 2005, they demobilized us, they reintegrated us; we’re all Liberians, how come they discovered arms in Nimba, fresh arms. Those arms were brought in; the intelligence report told us it was her son Fombah who wanted to stage a phantom design on the President’s convoy to incriminate me. We raised the issue up with the Minister of Justice, we raised the issue up with the NSA, we called the national security advisor, I think he went on the radio and had a press conference because all the security everywhere they want peace for Liberia so any funny thing they let us know. And then the next day when the government went to the national security meeting and came from that meeting they said they discovered arms. Then recently again, a few days ago, they said the president was supposed to go to Nimba but there was a long ambush. How did they know that was a long ambush or short ambush, they saw them in the bush? They saw people in the bush? Then they said they know who all are behind the ambush but the president told them not to bother them. Ah, somebody wants to destabilize this country and you know them and the president says, 'Don’t catch them'? All this is a ploy to incriminate some of us who they consider very powerful, because with me in the race she cannot get votes from Nimba. No way! And Nimba is a stronghold she wants, but she can’t get it!
FRONTPAGE AFRICA:What would you do about the Liberians who went to fight in Ivory Coast?
SEN. JOHNSON: Well, we heard the reports when I was the chairman on the senate committee on national security and defense, we got the reports and we called the minister of justice, we called the minister of national security's advisor, the police director, and they acknowledged that it is true but they were not a threat to Liberia and we differed with what they said to us. But however the case, the president of Liberia went on the radio and said that those who went to Ivory Coast as mercenaries, they will be dealt with or prosecuted when they return home. That was not a good statement because they will choose not to disarm because they might be prosecuted. They might choose to go in the bush. I will open doors. If I were the one, I would grant amnesty, because it was poverty that drove them there. It was the lack of employment that drove them there. It is our political inability to cater to the needs of the combatants who are used to guns fighting 14 years, so this is why they went to look for greener pastures. So I would grant them amnesty and say 'You all come back home.'
Any true leader of a country will not seek violence. Any true leader will seek peace, promote peace and defend peace. I'm a man with so many hundreds of thousands of followers. If you shoot my convoy, what are you trying to insinuate? If you shoot my convoy then you are opening violence. We don't want that. We tell our partisans, 'Be mature. Be responsible. Don't get too personal.'
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: If you were elected president, would you implement any of the recommendations made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report?
SEN. JOHNSON: The TRC report would be looked into. It cannot be swept under the carpet forever. In its entirety it cannot be disqualified. I think there are some portions of the TRC report that have constitutional and legal issues. We will have to put the lawyers on it.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: You described President Johnson Sirleaf as "the chief sponsor of the war" and you were a warlord. Why you both weren’t sent to The Hague for war crimes?
SEN. JOHNSON: In our country, we did not sue Charles Taylor. We didn't take up any matter against him. Charles Taylor's matter has to do with his alleged involvement in Sierra Leone. The international community got him and that's it. I cannot say that she should go to The Hague. What we did here was we all got together to fight dictatorial power. That's the truth. You can't have a system killing human beings left and right. Body this way, head this way; it was terrible those days. Ellen was one of those who could not live to see that happen. So I congratulate her for her fight against a dictatorial system, a corrupt system without transparency or accountability. It was her political role and support given us that we were able to dethrone dictatorship.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: Given your past as a warlord, do you think it might be difficult to obtain international allies?
SEN. JOHNSON: People thought because of [the president's] work at the World Bank and with the international community that she was the best candidate. That's why we elected her. What have we come to see? Corruption! Is that what the international community wants? Unaccountability? - Lack of the rule of law? No prosecution of criminals who loot our coffers? No, I think the international community wants to see a decentralized political administration, they want to see accountability, and they want to see the natural resources of the country being properly managed. We won't have trouble [making allies], we're not criminals. We've never been indicted by the international war crimes court. We fought war like any country fought war. It is only good governance that will endear the international community. So let us not investigate people by their past because man is subject to regeneration.
FRONTPAGE AFRICA: What would be your first order of business as president?
SEN. JOHNSON: I will build a cathedral for 600 persons in honor of God when I'm elected.
Report by Wade C. L. Williams -
; Mae Azango -