Liberia – US sanctions former warlord now Senator Prince Johnson

By Dounard Bondo
Posted on Tuesday, 14 December 2021 08:40

Former Liberian warlord Prince Johnson, who supports CDC presidential candidate George Weah, delivers a speech during the CDC presidential campaign rally in Monrovia
Former Liberian warlord and head of the National Union for Democratic Progress Prince Johnson, who supports George Weah, former soccer player and presidential candidate of Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), delivers a speech during the CDC presidential campaign rally at Samuel Kanyon Doe Sports Complex in Monrovia, Liberia, December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

On 9 December, the US treasury issued sanctions against Liberian Senator Prince Johnson for corruption. The senator is one of 15 people and organisations sanctioned in recognition of International Anti-Corruption Day.

Senator Prince Johnson is a former warlord and leader of the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia – one of the major warring factions during the country’s first civil war.

After the war, Senator Johnson joined politics, running for senate in 2005. He won and has retained his senate seat till today.

In its statement, the US Treasury alleged that Senator Johnson “is involved in pay-for-play funding with government ministries and organisations for personal enrichment. As part of the scheme, upon receiving funding from the Government of Liberia (GOL), the involved government ministries and organisations launder a portion of the funding for return to the involved participants.”

The Treasury statement also accuses Senator Johnson of offering the sale of votes in multiple Liberian elections in exchange for money and for receiving a government salary as an intelligence source even though he does not provide any form of intelligence reporting to the GOL. The statement says further that “Johnson is reportedly being paid in order to maintain domestic stability”.

The sanctions would include blocking of properties, property interests and entities owned directly or indirectly by Johnson in the US. In response to the sanctions, Senator Johnson said the “statement of allegations against him are vague because it does not present facts that he had been involved in corruption”. He instead requested that the US government provide evidence.

I am not sure what difference this sanction would make for Johnson’s political capital locally. He intends to run for the Senate again in 2023, and he is likely to win…

This sanction follows a May 2021 statement issued by the US embassy in Liberia condemning Senator Johnson’s election as then chair of the Liberian Senate Committee on Defence and Intelligence, and refusing to work with him in his capacity as chairman due to his gross human right abuses committed during Liberia’s civil war.

Following the statement by the US embassy, Johnson resigned from his position as chair of the senate committee on defence weeks later.

Fighting corruption in Liberia

In Liberia, there have been numerous reports of corruption linked to government or government officials. Public confidence in the government and its anti-corruption agencies is also low. According to the ‘2021 State of Corruption Report’ from the Centre for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), nine in 10 people think corruption is high in Liberia and two thirds of people think the government is not committed to fighting corruption.

President Weah has stated that his government is committed to fighting corruption at the highest level, but most of the individuals mentioned in anti-graft reports have evaded prosecution.

Liberia’s current state is due in part to its non-implementation of its anti-corruption laws. However, the chairperson of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) has defended his commission record saying they do not have prosecutorial powers to take cases to court, but have to report to the ministry of justice that takes the case on behalf of the government.

Going by precedent, despite the sanctions and accusations of corruption, Senator Johnson would most likely not face any prosecution and repercussions locally. In 2020, the US Treasury sanctioned another Liberian senator, Varney Sherman, on allegations of corruption. However, Sherman was never prosecuted and maintained his position as chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims and Petitions.

Political power and influence

Johnson wields significant political power as the senator of Nimba county, one of Liberia’s most populous counties. Dubbed the kingmaker, his endorsement of a candidate in the second round of three elections gave them enough significant votes to ascend to the presidency.

Senator Johnson is a key political ally of President George Weah and has endorsed him ahead of the presidential elections. Reciprocating, Weah’s ruling party – the Coalition for Democratic Change – does not field candidates against Senator Johnson or his candidates in Nimba.

The Liberian senatorial and presidential elections are scheduled for 2023, but Johnson might not face prosecution or political consequences locally due to the political power he wields.

Dr Ibrahim Nyei, a Liberian researcher and political analyst, echoes similar sentiments. “I am not sure what difference this sanction would make for Johnson’s political capital locally. He intends to run for the Senate again in 2023, and he is likely to win, even though he will face a tough challenge,” he says.

I am also not saying that they won’t be corrupt, but that they [will] be mindful and not brazen about it.

Even so, he notes that the sanctions have some effect locally. “The importance of the sanction, however, is that it sends a message to other corrupt politicians in Liberia. First it was Varney Sherman, now Johnson; the rest of them will now be cautious of what they do. I am also not saying that they won’t be corrupt, but that they [will] be mindful and not brazen about it.”

The fight against corruption has seen some boost in recent times. In his speech on 10 December, President Weah showed support towards the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission efforts to have the legislature amend its act and grant it direct prosecutorial powers. The commission has also pushed for a special court for corruption issues. Many hope that these efforts will help curb corruption in Liberia.

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