By: Moco McCaulay
In most African countries, there always seems to come along that rare national star who, buoyed by a transcendental musical genius, shines ever so brightly from the obscurity of his/her village, town or city, to illuminate the world with the vibrant sounds of the country’s rich cultural heritage. Think Yousou N’Dour, from Senegal; Miriam Makeba, South Africa; Fela Kuti, Nigeria; Alpha Blondy, Ivory Coast; Angelique Kidjo, Benin; Salif Keita, Mali; Koffi Olomide, Democratic Republic of Congo; to name a few. In Liberia, there was just such a star getting ready to woo the world with his transcendental musical genius, but he was tragically cut down at the prime of his life and musical evolution, accused of being gay. His name is Tecumseh Roberts.
The story of Tecumseh’s murder at the hands of a ruthless rebel general during Liberia’s barbaric civil war in 1990 is not a new one. But, following a recent article I wrote about how Liberian musicians have “fallen under the global music radar,” I began to wonder why that was so, and that led me to look into the pre-war Liberian musical scene.
And the more research I did, the more the name Tecumseh Roberts came up. I had heard of his summary execution for being gay, but the more I found out about Tecumseh, it was impressed upon me how his tragic personal story paralleled his nation’s own tragic story: one bursting with so much promise but cut short from realizing its promise because of the suffocating misrule of a litany of leaders.
But, what especially seems to be so repugnantly tragic about Tecumseh’s story is not only that his life was sadistically extinguished before he could live up to his promise, but that even in death, his murderers would so heartlessly try to sum up his existence into one malicious narrative to justify their barbaric act.
“And there was a fellow there they called Tecumseh Roberts and a white guy. They had come earlier when we were in town and taken one truck of food out to unknown destination. We’re fighting guerrilla warfare and I know that the Red Cross in Liberia had closed long before the war entered Monrovia. So where did Red Cross come from?” asked Prince Johnson, a former rebel general accused of war crimes, in the video recording of his August 2008 testimony before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Johnson, who is now a Liberian Senator, was explaining how he had just arrived on the scene where he found his deputy, Samuel Varney (deceased), interrogating a group of people, including Tecumseh, who were wearing aprons with the Red Cross insignia on them.
But Johnson’s question was only rhetorical, part of his diabolical scheme to build up a case against Tecumseh to justify his murder.
“So they were selling the food,” Johnson proffered rather too nonchalantly.
But this was no small offense. Before going into his narration about Tecumseh’s murder, Johnson explained that after capturing Monrovia’s port where there was an abundant supply of rice, he had given strict orders that the rice be distributed free to the starving civilian population and that contravention of his order was punishable by death.
“If you sell to make money, I must tell you: ‘You die,’” he pointed out menacingly.
“So while Varney was questioning him, I had just arrived. Varney saw blood coming from the man’s butt,” Johnson continued.
“He said: ‘Your (sic) take off the clothes!’” Johnson said Varney ordered his men.
“And when they took off his clothes, the man’s anus rotten, you know, they say he was a homosexualist (sic). So Varney shot him,” Johnson said pointedly.
“It was Varney who shot Tecumseh Roberts. And I put the white man in my car and took him to the US Embassy to turn him over…It was General Varney who shot him,” the former rebel general emphasized, as if trying to wash his hands of guilt in Tecumseh’s murder; after all, notwithstanding his command and control over his men, he was just an innocent bystander.
All this occurred with the public looking on, not unlike a Medieval-style execution. Imagine the humiliation Tecumseh must have suffered as Johnson’s brute foot soldiers rudely stripped off his clothes while he pleaded profusely with them. But they would ignore his cries, subduing him long enough to “examine” him and arrive at the asinine conclusion that his anus was “rotten,” before killing him.
And all this time, which must have gone on for several minutes, the innocent Mr. Johnson was docilely standing by, as he would have us believe, watching this barbaric spectacle.
What Johnson has tried to do – and with a cold-blooded calculation to play on the homophobic sensibilities of his audience – is to not only paint Tecumseh as a callous charlatan who was selling food earmarked for free distribution to the hungry masses, but worse of all, he was also a “rotten” pervert who deserved his end.
Johnson seems to think that presenting Tecumseh as a criminally and morally abominable character would be more than sufficient to make his audience concur with his justification for Tecumseh’s murder.
But that anyone would concur with Johnson’s “justification” for Tecumseh’s murder would surely be the height of all that is criminally and morally abominable! And I dare not say they too deserve Johnson’s jungle justice, because I believe no human being deserves to suffer such a barbaric death.
That said, I find it exceedingly sad that after all Tecumseh did to promote Liberia’s culture and music, rather than being appreciated as a national treasure, he would be reduced to such a vile characterization by his murderers. Tecumseh deserves better!
Those who knew him and enjoyed his music must tell his story – the real story of the man and his contributions to Liberian music. Liberia’s Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism also needs to officially honor him for his noteworthy contributions to Liberian music and culture.