This week’s Q & A features activist Lovetta Gbeh Tugbeh, Interim Director, Coalition for Justice in Liberia (CJL), a grassroots advocacy organization dedicated to prosecuting identifiable warlords of Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Ms. Tugbeh was kind enough to grant The Liberian Dialogue (www.theliberiandialogue.org) this interview.
Q. Who’s Lovetta Gbeh Tugbeh? Can you tell our readers more about her?
A. First and foremost, I want to take this time to thank The Liberian Dialogue for giving me the opportunity to be interviewed for its readers. The reading audience should not focus on the “name” Lovetta Tugbeh, but should direct their focus on the “ISSUES” I am discussing, because the “name” is irrelevant. However, the ISSUES are important. For too long in our society, we have focused on “names, personalities,” while disregarding the “ISSUES,” which had caused the 14-year civil crisis that claimed more than 250,000 innocent Liberian lives, including foreign nationals such as the five American nuns who were brutally murdered, ECOWAS peacekeepers, who were slaughtered, and many more who were giving a helping hand to our country.
But to answer your question, Lovetta Tugbeh is just an ordinary Liberian woman, spokesperson of a well-meaning, concerned and patroitic human rights organization comprised of dedicated Liberians and people of conscience from around the world, who came together to address our grievance nonviolently through advocacy by highlighting the issues of Justice for Liberian war victims, who are deprived and marginalized in our society. As a Liberian of conscience, I value human life and have respect for human dignity. This is what drives my passion for justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity that was perpetrated against innocent Liberians and others, especially vulnerable women and children, which has gone unpunished.
Also, reading the tragic history of our nation, Liberia, after many years of dictatorships and illiteracy, the voices of the masses in our society have been suppressed for which many do not know their inalienable rights and Constitutional rights to speak on issues affecting them. I can feel their pain, although many do not expresss it publicly, but I hoipe those directly affected by the war will be empowered to find their voices to demand accountability for the abuses, torture and senseless killings of their mothers, fathers, daughters, and sisters by a selfish few in our society, who are roaming around freely today in Liberia.
Of all I have stated, I really want the readers to focus more on the victims of the war, and the issues of justice for war crimes, but don’t focus on me.
Q. How did you get started in activism?
A. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” I started my nonviolent activism about a year ago to stand in solidarity with war victims who are deprived of justice, and marginalized in our society. Anyone could have been a victim of this war. I was 11 years old in Liberia when the war erupted, but by the Grace of the Almighty, I sought refuge in the United States. I can only imagine what happened to other 11 year-old girls that never made it out of Liberia. Seeing the horrific images of war brought sorrow to my inner soul, a burning desire to do something. Do what is right by reaching out to those affected, and aiding them with the necessary human resources to address their grievances.
It is wrong to kill innocent people to promote selfish ambitions. It is my fervent prayer that what transpired during Liberia’s civil war will never be repeated in our history, and others around the world should see reasons to get started with activism to give visibility to the issues of justice for war crimes in Liberia. We have to hold aaccountable those responsible for crimes against humanity.
Q. Tell our readers about your organization, Coalition for Justice in Liberia.
A. The Coalition for Justice in Liberia is a U.S.-Liberia-based advocacy human rights organization that was organized in July 2012, by a group of patriotic Liberians and non-Liberians interested and concerned about justice for the victims of Liberia’s 14-year civil war, who are deprived of justice for war crimes. As a nonprofit, nongovernmental, and nonpolitical organization, CJL espouses nonviolence as the best road to bringing about justice, peace and reconciliation in Liberia.
The sole and only mission of CJL is to advocate for justice for the victims of Liberia’s 14-year civil war as it relates to war crimes. To fulfill its mission, the Coalition shall advocate for the implementation of the recommendations of the TRC Report, which addresses the entrenched culture of impunity associated with the commission of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other egregious crimes committed in the violation international human rights and humanitarian law during the war in Liberia.
Q. Is your organization collaborating with other activist Liberian organizations?
A. Yes. The Coalition or Justice in Liberia (CJL) collaborates with other advocacy organizations that support the cause for justice for war victims. CJL recruits credible human rights organizations (Liberians and non-Liberians) locally and nationally, with a good track record with the IRS, and with an enviable commitment to promoting justice for Liberian war victims at home and abroad. If you are not part of an organization, then you can sigh up as a sympathizer to support CJL’s work.
Q. Do you have roots or organization on the ground that represents your interest? If not, do you intend to expand Coalition of Justice in Liberia?
A. No. At this present time, the organization is not yet registered in Liberia, but we do intend to expand our organization to
Liberia, and in other parts of the world.
Q. Other than your advocacy to prosecute warlords of the Liberian civil war, do you ever intend to expand your organization’s reach in other areas of political/grass roots activism?
A. There exists a complexity of issues in Liberia that one must choose an area to focus on to effect positive change. My area is focused on justice for war crimes to end the entrenched culture of impunity, and to empower war crime victims, to champion their own cause for justice. Until the issue of justice is addressed, I cannot give a definite answer, but would like to encourage others with conscience to find an area of injustice to genuinely start activism. “Genuinely” is emphasized so that one area of activism is for the greater good of the population without the aim for promoting personal selfish ambitions.
Q. Do you think by not expanding your political activism into other areas limits your organization’s impact to effect change in other areas of Liberian politics?
A. No, I don’t think so. We in the Coalition for Justice in Liberia operate on the premise that justice is fundamental to many of our other intractable problems such as pervasive coruption, inadequate health services, poverty, increasing income inequality, savage and declining education for the youths, regional disparities in economic development, and more. The list is endless. The lack of justice in our socio-economic and political fabric is what has gotten our country to this point in the first place. We believe that it is important to build a strong foundation for justice so that the country can grow and blossom in other areas of national development. I tell you, we will continue to be spinning our wheels and traveling in a vicious cycle if we fail to address the fundamental question of justice.
Q. You are quite known for your aggressive and passionate push to prosecute those that killed, raped and maimed Liberians during the civil war. Do you think justice will ever prevail?
A. I always imagine myself as that 11-year old little girl who was blessed to leave my homeland amidst that terrible war. The deep pain and sorrow I feel daily on behalf of those innocent war victims killed, raped, maimed, and who are still traumatized as a result of the senseless 14- year civil war, can only be aggressively expressed through my activism. Imagine those who were responsible for committing these eggregious crimes against the Liberian people and neighboring countries, continued to terrorize our people today without any accountability.
Some will argue that justice has prevailed because Mr. Charles Taylor is in jail. But the question becomes, is he in jail for killing Liberian citizens? If the answer is no, then it is with conviction that justice will prevail for the people of Liberia.
We owe this much to our children and the generation yet unborn to work towards making sure that injustice and the entrenched culture of impunity is totally eliminated from our society. Other countries have done so and are now on a path to sustained peace and development. We need not go too far to see examples in countries like our next door neighbor, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda, that are experiencing phenomenal growth and development. I needn’t mention also that this great country of America, whose freedoms we enjoy and so admired was built on the foundation of justice, and couldn’t be where it is if that was not the case. I am convinced that even if it takes a hundred years, justice will prevail for the victims of the Liberian civil war.
Q. As we speak there are countless men, women and children who are carrying the psychological scars of the Liberian civil war, and amputees who are also suffering. Does Coalition for Justice in Liberia (CJL) have any plan or programs to help these Liberians, other than a call to prosecute warlords who physically and fatally violated those Liberians?
A. Yes. The Coalition shall establish programs to help stabilize disintegrated families, rape victims, empower former child soldiers and ex-combatants through training and skills development, forming partnership with credible organizations that are already carrying out those tasks. Also, we intend to establish a war memorial to honor the memories of those who innocently lost their lives during the war. This will not happen without your support in achieving our goals.
Q. It is widely believed by some that Liberia is on the path to peace and tranquility. Do you think your push for prosecution of the warlords could open old wounds and throw Liberia’s fragile peace into turmoil?
A. What is the definition of “PEACE and TRANQUILITY” when Liberia is rated as the third poorest nation in the world by Forbes magazine, and citizens are living on less than $1 in 2013. Liberians should stop using words that do not apply to our situation. This is a contradiction, and a lay person will know that this is a distorted message.
Again to answer your questions, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of Justice.” Liberians are grateful for the fragile peace due to the presence of the United Nations peacekeepers. But war victims are fearful for their lives when the peacekeepers evacuate permanently. But peace and tranquility is farfetched when the root causes of war have not been addressed. We do not want cosmetic surgery in addressing the issues, but we want to ensure future deterrence of war and violence on our soil. In any democratic society, the rule of law must be upheld by building a strong judicial system where all allegedly accused will answer to the law. In article 20 of the Liberian Constitution, it states clearly that “Justice should be done without sale, denial or delay.” It is a shame that we are not living by our own constitution.
Also, by not holding these warlords accountable, some are hiding behind political titles to use their influence to delay justice. For lasting peace to prevail in Liberia, all people of conscience own a duty to ensure that these notorious war criminals are held accounable for crimes against humanity.
Q. What do you think of Pres. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? How do you think history will judge her?
This is an interesting question for which I must pause for few minutes to respond. I think some women around the world in politics, especially some Liberian women are grateful that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership symbolized the breaking down of the glass ceiling in a male-dominated society like Liberia. I believe this was an opportunity for Africa’s first democratically elected female President to effect positive change in our country to benefit the masses. Sadly, war victims are living in deplorable living environments, extreme poverty exists, and there is no redress for crimes against the Liberian people, inflicted by perpetrators of the war whom she appointed in her administration, and those elected to the Liberian Legislature. Something is seriously wrong with this picture, because President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was once an advocate for human rights.
Had president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf advocated for a strong judicial system as did Liberia’s next door neighbor in Sierra Leone, to hold war crimes perpetrators accountable, the dignity of Liberian women who were systematically raped, tortured, maimed by these perpetrators would have been restored. Today, the conditions of ordinary Liberian women and young girls have worsened with increased sexual violence, domestic violence, and are living in extreme poverty on her watch.
Not only is Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf president, but she is a mother, an African mother, first and foremost. This means she must be compassionate about the deplorable conditions of Liberian children whose parents were killed by these perpetrators, to ensure her leadership can create effective policies to provide opportunities for them to have a better future.
The President still have time to do the right thing to join the voices demanding justice for war crimes in Liberia, where all perpetrators of war crimes can be given the opportunity to exonerate themselves. I understand that this could be a difficult task, especially if she is implicated by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as one of the perpetrators of the civil war. Giving mere apology to the Liberian people for aiding and abetting war is not enough. It is only then, she will be judged rightfully in the Liberian history books.
Thanks for your time.
Thanks for interviewing me also.
Coalition for Justice in Liberia (CJL)
25-A Crescent Dr Suite 211
Pleasant Hill, CA 94523