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Former Liberian warlord 'finds God,' seeks presidency

From Christian Purefoy, CNN
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Religion and reconciliation
  • Former Liberian warlord Prince Johnson says he has found God
  • In 1990 Johnson oversaw the torture and killing of Liberia's former ruler, Samuel Doe
  • Last year it was recommended Johnson be tried for crimes against humanity
  • He's seeking to run for country's presidency next year

Monrovia, Liberia (CNN) -- Prince Johnson -- once a rebel commander in Liberia's civil war, and a man accused of crimes against humanity -- says he has found God.

Twenty years ago, Johnson personally oversaw the torture and killing of Liberia's former ruler, Samuel Doe. Johnson is now a Liberian senator and a likely presidential candidate. And, he says, a changed man.

"No-one who accepts Christ remains the same," Johnson told CNN. "You are a new creature, a new person.

"That person of General Johnson in the wartime is not the Johnson now. The Johnson now is the diplomat, the senator and pastor. It's wonderful!"

Liberia is turning toward religion as it wrestles with the question of how to heal after more than a dozen years of civil war.

The U.S. Pew Foundation says Liberia is one of the most religious countries in the world. Churches, from makeshift evangelical chapels to mega churches, are more crowded than ever.

In this country of just over three million people, virtually everyone was affected by 14 years of civil war that killed an estimated 250,000 men, women and children.

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Ezekiel Smith is regional pastor of Monrovia's Winner's Chapel International, where Johnson worships.

Prince Johnson is 'born-again' and he comes to church regularly.
--Ezekiel Smith, Wnner's Chapel, Liberia
  • Liberia
  • Africa
  • Religion

"Prince Johnson is 'born-again' and he comes to church regularly and his lifestyle has dramatically changed since he became entrenched in the gospel.

"I believe if God can touch that sort of person there are many more God is touching, and I think there is hope for Liberia."

Liberia's clergy seem more willing than the country's secular establishment to forgive and move on.

The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published a report last year urging justice, and recommending that Johnson and nine others accused of crimes against humanity be held accountable.

In Johnson's case, that could mean standing trial for a host of alleged misdeeds, including the 1990 abduction of then-president Samuel Doe. Johnson was filmed drinking a beer as he watched his soldiers cut off Doe's ears.

Johnson told CNN there was "no evidence of massacres, no evidence of charges as brought forward by the TRC." When asked about the video showing Doe's torture, he replied, "Well, a lot of people did whatever they did."

But the commission no longer exists. To some that's a good thing.

Minister Jasper Ndagolo remained at his church throughout the civil war, despite repeated attempts on his life.

"Reconciliation is not about ourselves, it's firstly with God," he told CNN.

"The killing was indiscriminate, but today you see people eating together, going to church together, going to mosque together and trying to embrace each other."

He worries carrying out war trials would be too expensive and, in a country where so many were involved, too divisive.

"Who is going to pay the cost?," he said. "Is it the government of Liberia? If the government of Liberia pays the cost, what about those who have suffered? Are they going to get reparations?

"These are questions that we are asking. And the government does not have money, I believe, to pay for all these responsibilities.

"So the church is saying let's have a second thought, let's have a fallback -- and our fallback is reconciliation."

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But Augustine Toe, the head of the National Justice and Peace Commission warns without prosecutions, conflict could return.

"It was no ideological war, it was no religious war, it was no tribal war," Toe told CNN. "It was a war of gangsterism."

"I'm worried that they're getting away with it and if nothing is done it will send a signal to the younger generation that if you want a job you cannot get a job unless you shoot your way to power and then you will get state power.

"Under normal conditions Prince Johnson would never run for president or even become a senator.

"Of course he has -- we set the stage so he now wants to be president of Liberia. Because we have not set any standards for people who violated human rights, we've set no standards for the people who are responsible for the destruction of our country.

"We have not set standards for the people responsible for rapes that happened to our women and girls; we've not set standards for what we want in this nation. I think the sooner we realize this the better it's going to be for our country."

Johnson has announced his intention to run for presidential office next year. Despite a history of brutality, he says he is the man to lead Liberia to a secure future -- a born-again Christian who says faith has changed his life.

He told CNN, "It's made me a refined person and allows me to have a peaceful existence with humanity."

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