A notorious former warlord has emerged as "kingmaker" in a Liberian election that grabbed the attention of the world this week when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the President running for a second term.
Early results indicate that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will face a run-off against her main rival, the former UN diplomat Winston Tubman, but that third-placed Prince Johnson and his supporters will hold the balance of power. The Nobel laureate may be forced to recruit a man who was filmed drinking beer as his men cut the ears off the former premier Samuel Doe.
Speaking to i at his compound on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia, the 59-year-old said he held the "trump card" that both sides were seeking.
"I can't be a kingmaker and go into this negotiation weak," Mr Johnson said, laughing confidently. "I'm going in strong. If one [side] doesn't give me what I want, I will go to the other one."
Mr Johnson, who claims to have forsworn violence and "found God" during his exile in Nigeria, said he would demand a "government of inclusion" and expects to win ministerial posts in return for his backing.
His return to centre stage has brought back memories of one of West Africa's darkest chapters. Like Charles Taylor, who is awaiting the verdict in a war crimes trial, Mr Johnson led a rebel group that fought President Doe in the late 1980s. His men captured the ex-master sergeant and coup leader in 1990 and video-taped his interrogation. A terrified Mr Doe, bound to a chair, begs for his life as Mr Johnson drinks a Budweiser and is fanned by a young lady.
Unhappy with answers to his questions over what the President had done with "the Liberian people's money", he warns him: "Don't f*** with me." He loses patience and orders his men to cut the President's ear off. Mr Johnson raises the ear to the camera and then puts it in Mr Doe's mouth. The next day Mr Doe's body was displayed in public to dispel rumours he had escaped his captors.
Holding court in a "palava hut" outside his residence yesterday, surrounded by garishly painted concrete lions, Mr Johnson said he was not worried that he would be investigated for war crimes. "Nobody can provide any proof except that video tape and that doesn't show me killing Doe," he added. Mr Johnson admitted, however, that the death was his fault: "He was in our custody ... it was my responsibility."
But the warlord-turned-politician said his support at this month's election, where early results suggest he may take up to one-sixth of the vote, proved his innocence. "A war criminal cannot be this popular," he claimed. "He cannot win democratic election."