Warlord to Kingmaker: An audience with Prince Johnson

Once he ordered torture. Now, he tells Daniel Howden, he controls the future of Liberia

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 show third-placed Prince Johnson and his supporters 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 President Samuel Doe.

Speaking to The Independent at his compound on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia, the 59-year-old said he held the "trump card". "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 expected 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 coup leader in 1990 and video-taped his interrogation and torture. A terrified Mr Doe, bound to a chair, begs for his life as Mr Johnson drinks a Budweiser. Unhappy with answers to his questions over what the President had done with "the Liberian people's money" he warns him: "Don't fuck with me."

He loses his 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.

Holding court in a "palava hut" outside his residence yesterday, 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. Doe, who participated in the assassination of the previous President William Tolbert in 1980, died of his injuries after the torture session. Mr Johnson admitted the death was his fault: "He was in our custody ... it was my responsibility."

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. Citing the Libyan conflict, Mr Johnson said war was sometimes justified and he had been a "liberator" defending his ethnic group, the Nimba, against the Doe regime. He defended his own past – he was trained as a guerrilla fighter in Libya under the patronage of Gaddafi – saying it had been necessary to "embrace any support".

The ex-rebel leader has made much of his indigenous roots during the campaign, in contrast to the élite Americo-Liberians who trace their ancestry to the freed US slaves who established the country. Mr Johnson said it was time for an indigenous man to win the presidency: "We have had 22 Americo-Liberian presidents and look at the country."

Internationally feted President Sirleaf faces an uphill struggle at home as Liberians complain of a lack of roads, schools, jobs and hospitals after her six years in office. He said he would use his influence to reverse the flow of resources back towards Liberia's under-developed interior.

Mr Johnson, who is functionally illiterate, said he had approached many of the educated elite to join his presidential ticket but they refused. "They think they are superior."

Its history has been blighted by a division between the settler elite, known as 'Congo' and the indigenous population, known as 'country'. Set up 110 years before Ghana's independence Liberia is often called America's orphaned African grandchild. Mr Johnson said he would work with either of his rivals to bring change, concluding that "Liberia is too old to look like this."

The life and crimes of a tyrant

1952: Prince Yormie Johnson is born in Tapeta, Nimba County, Liberia.

1975: Joins army and becomes lieutenant of Liberian National Guard.

1989: When civil war begins, he joins Charles Taylor in a violent uprising against the regime.

1990: Presides over gruesome execution of former president Samuel Doe, and also breaks away from Taylor.

1997: Charles Taylor is elected President of Liberia. Mr Johnson flees to Nigeria.

1999: The country is plunged into civil war again.

2003: The second civil war ends. A total of 250,000 people have been killed in 14 years of violent conflict.

2004: Mr Johnson returns to Liberia to run for the Senate.

2005: A landslide victory sees him elected as the Senator for Nimba County.

2010: Prince Yormie Johnson announces his intention to run for the presidency against the incumbent, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

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