Perhaps never in the history of Liberia since its founding in 1822 have church bells in the city of Monrovia tolled as they did on April 10, 1918 when a German submarine bombarded Monrovia. Several lives were reported to have been lost as a consequence of the shelling.
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, in 1914, Germany was Liberia’s largest trading partner. The Germans even ran a cable station situated at the time at the Coconut Plantations, South Beach. The Germans maintained a small military garrison to protect the station and, until Liberia joined the Allies and declared war against Germany on August 4, 1917 relations between the two nations were at best cordial.
But the declaration of war against Germany and the seizure of all German assets in 1918, opened Liberia to retaliation. The Germans, at the time engaged in active submarine warfare, instituted a naval blockade and dispatched a submarine to Monrovia with a list of demands. But being poor and lacking a standing army, navy or air force, there was virtually nothing the Liberian government could do in the face of the ultimatum from the commander of the German submarine to surrender the French cable station as well as all British, French and American nationals in Liberia.
The Liberian government naturally refused to accede to the Germans demand and, as a consequence thereof, the bombardment of Monrovia commenced. For the record, Liberia contributed a small number of troops who served in France although they did not see combat. Further, Liberia stands out as perhaps the only country in West Africa whose capital was bombarded by the Germans. All the while during the hours of bombardment, the Church bells continued to toll in response to President Daniel E. Howard’s call to the nation to supplicate for divine intervention.
And divine intervention did come hours later with the appearance of an armed allied merchant ship that engaged the submarine in battle throughout the night. By morning according to historical accounts, the threat had receded as both vessels were reported to have left Liberian territorial waters, although it was not clear if both vessels had suffered damage and sunk as a result of their armed engagement. It is also recorded in history that a proposed loan to replace profits lost as a consequence of Liberia’s involvement in the war on the side of the allies was proposed by President Woodrow Wilson but was blocked by the US Senate.
But why is all this recount of history relevant, should the question be asked. The answer is because our President , George Manneh Weah, was on hand in Paris to observe, along with other world leaders, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day that culminated in the signing of the treaty of Versailles at Versailles, France on November 11, 1918. An estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilians lost their lives as a direct result of the war.
But more so, the celebrations were meant to commemorate the sacrifice of those who fell as US President Woodrow Wilson declared, “to make the world safe for democracy”.
The celebrations were also intended to remind the world of the perils of returning to the past. And as French President Emmanuel Macron stirringly put it, “old demons are resurfacing” meaning in effect that people should never forget the past lest they be condemned to repeat it as George Santayana famously declared.
For us in Liberia, having suffered and are still suffering the effects of a brutal and prolonged civil war, the ghosts of the war that consumed over 250,000 lives have still not been laid to rest. Despite the commission of mass atrocities, there had been no accountability for those bearing the greatest responsibility of the war. War criminals have instead been feted and touted as celebrities, living off the blood and tears of the land and riding roughshod over their victims as brokers and wielders of power.
Perhaps President George Weah may not be aware of the fact that his presence in France rubbing shoulders with other world leaders gathered to celebrate what was in effect a death blow to the impunity associated with Imperial German adventurism, imposes on him a special obligation to ensure accountability for those accused of committing war and economic crimes in his own country.
The protest demonstration in Monrovia yesterday calling for the establishment of a war crimes court for Liberia should serve to remind President Weah that Liberia, as a member of the international community does have obligations to which attention is due. Amongst such obligations is that imposed by the need to address issues of gross human rights violations, violations of international humanitarian law, egregious domestic crimes and violations of international human rights law.
And so when President Weah travels to France to join other world leaders in celebration of Armistice Day, he should reflect on our own “Armistice” which culminated in the signing of the Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord on August 18, 2003. By the time the guns were finally silenced 14 years after the first shots were fired, over 250,000 people had been killed with thousands maimed, disfigured, injured or disabled.
Their cries for justice continue to ring out loudly and this newspaper finds it troubling and very discomfiting that their cries have not yet found the receptive ears of President Weah. As this newspaper noted in its November 9th editorial, international goodwill towards President Weah’s government could be undermined by his refusal to act on the recommendations of the TRC, calling for the setting up of an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia.
And time is certainly not on his side as the Bells have already begun to toll. Increasing calls are being made and voices are being raised for accountability to which President Weah can no longer remain impervious. As the English poet John Donne reminds us in his piece, “For whom the bell tolls”, we are all Liberians and are part and parcel of God’s divine plan; so the bell does toll for the sake of all who have ears to hear it.
Says John Donne in his classic piece, “Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.