Recent Arrest May Encourage Judicial Reforms in Africa
Recent Arrest May Encourage Judicial Reforms in Africa

JURIST Guest Columnist Roland Adjovi, Assistant Professor at Arcadia University, discusses some of the possible implications of the recent arrest and accusations levied toward Martina Johnson …

Martina Johnson joined the National Patriotic Front of Liberation (NPFL) of Charles G. Taylor in 1990. She was actively involved in the major military operation known as Operation Octopus, an attack on the capital Monrovia conducted in October 1992 as part of NPFL’s fight against the government and the regional peacekeeping forces, ECOMOG. She is alleged to have been a commander implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes. She is specifically alleged to have killed the relative of one of the three victims at the origin of the case against her in Belgium and to have injured one of those victims. These are only a sample of the atrocities that were committed at the checkpoint called Dry Rice Market, which she was manning with her fighters in the outskirts of Monrovia. It is alleged that those atrocities were committed against the civilian population, often on ethnic grounds. In addition, she is alleged to have taken part in the killing of the American Catholic nuns in Gardnersville on October 23, 1992. After the first civil war, she remained in Liberia and was appointed to lead the Security Department at the International Airport in Monrovia when Charles G. Taylor came to power in 1997. The defeat of Taylor led to her exile in 2002 until she was caught in Belgium a month ago.

African States often complained about the use (or abuse) of the universal jurisdiction principle for prosecution of Africans elsewhere than on the continent, especially in Europe where Hissène Habré (former dictator of Chad) but also Paul Kagamé (current President of Rwanda) were indicted or indirectly accused in criminal proceedings. That argument has recently been reinforced with the challenges of the ICC, especially in the two situations where African presidents are accused, Darfur and Kenya. The African Union then deployed an extensive political strategy leading to an amendment of the Rules of Procedure of the Court [PDF] in November 2013, but also a failed resolution before the UN Security Council. However, the strategy has been more successful on the continent with the recent adoption of a protocol granting criminal jurisdiction to the African Court of Justice and Human and Peoples’ Rights including a provision (Article 46A bis) on the immunity of heads of state or government and other state officials. However, the discourse of African States often, if not always, does not address the failure of their legal system to provide remedies to the victims of the crimes. In this case, Liberia has done nothing to provide any avenue for the victims of the atrocities committed during the war, despite the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its recommendation for prosecution. Taylor’s regime (1997-2003) was violating human rights and torturing dissident voices, but Taylor has been behind bars since 2006. In addition, the current regime has also failed to address the need of the victims to know the truth and, more importantly, to see at least some of the perpetrators sanctioned. That is the backdrop which makes cases like the one against Martina Johnson necessary but only outside of the continent.

In addition, the African States discourse often but deliberately ignores the fact that it is their own nationals who are taking the cases before the non-African courts. In this case, it was victims from Liberia led by a local organization, Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), under the leadership of Hassan Bility, a Liberian journalist abused during Taylor’s regime, who helped the victims to make their way to the Belgian judiciary (Martina Johnson having been living there with her husband, a Liberian with Belgian nationality). These victims were fortunate to find in GJRP and their Geneva-based partner organization Civitas Maxima the necessary support, both legal and financial, to navigate through the legal conundrum for effective litigation in a foreign legal system. And the strategy of the African States ought to accept that logic and address it: unless African States fix their legal system to allow genuine and effective remedies for the victims, some of them will continue seeking justice from whoever will offer them the opportunity, and that is just how the legal order functions. Even when there will be an African criminal court with jurisdiction over those crimes, if that court fails to serve the needs of a victim, that victim will still use other legal avenues including those abroad. Until the legal systems on the continent provide for better opportunities which the victims can trust, the number of cases outside will continue to grow. And there are numerous countries outside Africa offering such an opportunity.

Victims of the first Liberian civil war have been looking forward to their day in court. Some have made it. And we can only praise the opportunity. Martina Johnson was indicted and arrested on September 17 and a judge confirmed her detention on September 19. She challenged the detention and was granted an alternative form of detention (house arrest with electronic monitoring) for health reasons. The proceedings will continue and in due course, a date will be set for the trial.

As an African, I can only hope that the lawmakers and those in power on the continent understand that and make the necessary shift. It is in their own interest of survival while serving the needs of their population, who they should care about.

Roland Adjovi is an Assistant Professor at Arcadia University and currently a Member of the United Nations Working on Arbitrary Detention. He also serves on the Board of Civitas Maxima.

Suggested citation: Roland Adjovi, Recent Arrest May Encourage Judicial Reforms in Africa, JURIST – Academic, Oct. 18, 2014,

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