Liberia: Who Better to Ignite Reconciliation than AFL?


It was exactly twelve months ago today, August 3, 2022, when the Daily Observer published an article from the annual commemorative service to remember the victims and survivors of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre. The article quoted the survivors, who declared: “We are tired telling our stories” — a stark deviation from the norm of an event where the most harrowing accounts were shared in a search for healing, answers, peace of mind and a way forward toward a life of dignity. 

Such a bold step by the survivors was initially based on their realization that telling their stories was benefiting everyone else but themselves. And then there was the fact that those who really needed to hear those stories — the perpetrators and enablers — were nowhere to be found. “So why keep telling,” they reasoned. 

That was last year, July 29, 2022, the 32nd anniversary of the massacre. 

This year at the 33rd anniversary service, the survivors took another bold step, demanding that the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) — whose soldiers were seen in uniform by survivors that fateful day — take responsibility for the murders of over 600 civilians who had sought refuge in the sanctuary and other facilities of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on 14th Street, Sinkor, Monrovia. 

Detailed accounts of what took place at the church on July 29, 1990 are well documented in the Truth and Reconciliation Report. Sadly, there has been no recourse toward justice, reconciliation or any form of accountability measures under Liberian jurisdiction, in favor of the victims, survivors and their families. 

Perhaps the only ‘successful’ act of justice for the survivors of the Lutheran Church Massacre (so far) is an August 16, 2022 decision by a federal court in the US State of Pennsylvania, which issued a historic damages award totaling US$84 million to four victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre. The case was brought to the court by four anonymous survivors of the massacre (who now reside in the United States) against Moses Thomas, a colonel in the AFL at the time of the massacre.  

The court’s ruling on damages follows a September 2021 decision holding Col. Moses Thomas responsible for the war crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing, and torture that took place during the Massacre. 

“This judgment by a US court is an important milestone in our clients’ quest for accountability, but it is important to remember that it is not enough. Liberia has an obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre,” said Catherine Amirfar, partner at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, the law firm representing the survivors. “Despite recommendations from Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission over a decade ago calling for an investigation, Liberia has taken no steps to hold a single perpetrator of the Massacre accountable.”

By the time the federal court awarded the hefty US$84 million to the four survivors, Thomas, formerly a resident of Pennsylvania, had already returned to Liberia, where he would be liable to pay a penny of the award that was issued against him by the federal court. 

Concerned about Thomas’s cowardly escape from justice, the Daily Observer reached out to reputable human rights lawyers with knowledge about the case. Those who responded to our inquiries told us that they were under oath to not speak publicly about the case. 

We then sent an email to the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia, Major/General Prince Charles Johnson, III, with a set of questions to know his thoughts about how the massacre affects the new image of today’s Armed Forces of Liberia. These were our questions: 

  1. Are you aware of any investigation launched by the AFL, the Ministry of Defense or the Government of Liberia into the involvement of AFL personnel in the Lutheran Church massacre? 
  2. If not, does the AFL as an institution see a need to, in any way, address its involvement, through its ranking personnel in the massacre? 
  3. How does the recent US Court ruling against Moses Thomas, a former senior commander and as the mastermind behind the Lutheran Church Massacre, impact the new image of the AFL?

To date, we have not received an answer from the AFL Chief of Staff. 

No doubt, these may be tough questions, whose answers will not hold water without appropriate action. 

It was a hopeful surprise, however, when called to give remarks at a book launching ceremony in early June this year, Major/General Johnson told the audience: “I have on my office desk the TRC Report, opened to the section where it talks about the role of the Armed Forces of Liberia during the civil war. When any of my soldiers enter my office, I make them sit and read that section to [learn about all what the AFL did]. 

We do not know when General Johnson started this practice of requiring the soldiers under his command to acquaint themselves with the wartime history of the AFL. Yet, it is not clear whether General Johnson has made the reading of this particular passage of the TRC Report a requirement for all soldiers of the AFL — not just those who have been fortunate to have an audience with him in his office. 

There is clearly a need for General Johnson and the AFL, led by its Commander-in-Chief, George Manneh Weah, President of  Liberia, to do more. No matter how pristine the post-war image of the AFL might appear, there is still a significant group of Liberians that carry the scars of betrayal and bloodshed by the very army — which goes by the same name — that was established by law to protect the citizens of Liberia from armed incursions. 

In a previous editorial, we quoted the Portuguese philosopher, Benedictus de Spinoza, who said: “Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” 

If the AFL truly means to be ‘a force for good’, it must demonstrate that good, starting with the forgotten survivors and families of the victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre. 

The 18th of August 2023 Marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Accra Peace Accord, which commenced the cessation of hostilities in Liberia and the country’s long, arduous journey toward peace. Everyone is waiting for someone else to start the reconciliation. Who better to start than the AFL?