FORMER LIBERIAN PRESIDENT Samuel Doe was removed from office in much the same way he removed his predecessor. In 1980, Doe’s men carried out a coup against President William Tolbert, a member of the Americo-Liberian ruling class, reportedly disemboweling him in his bed. In 1990, less than one year into a 14-year civil conflict that laid waste to Liberia’s population, economy, infrastructure and institutions, rebels captured Doe and tortured him to death. That operation was overseen by Prince Johnson, a former ally of Charles Taylor who had split off to form his own faction. In footage that can still be purchased on the streets of downtown Monrovia, Johnson is seen drinking Budweiser as young fighters slice off the president’s ear.
This year, a much-changed Prince Johnson—Senator Prince Johnson, in fact—ran for president in an election held on 11 October. Preliminary results show him running in third behind incumbent President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Winston Tubman, a former ambassador who is the candidate for the leading opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). If Johnson-Sirleaf failed to secure more than 50 percent of votes cast in the first round—figures released on October 15 showed her with 45 percent—a runoff was due to be held in early November.
“There are so many things that Senator Johnson wants to bring about,” Johnson told me a few weeks before the vote at his Monrovia compound, in a large palaver hut crawling with aides, bodyguards and journalists. He wore a beige plaid suit jacket and a bright red fez-style hat, having long ago abandoned his wartime fatigues, and as we spoke he fielded a steady stream of calls on his cell phone; a multi-day campaign swing outside the capital was scheduled to begin later that day. He said he wanted to free Liberia from foreign powers looking “to re-colonise us.” He wanted to decentralise the government, lessening the authority of what he termed “an imperialist presidency.” He wanted to combat “rampant” corruption. And he compared his trajectory from soldier to statesman to that of Charles de Gaulle. “It’s not phenomenal,” he insisted. “It’s not a new thing.”