A Delaware County man, who served throughout the ‘90s as a top lieutenant to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and whose prosecution for U.S. immigration violations in 2018 drew headlines across the globe, died Sunday from complications related to the coronavirus.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, 74, of Collingdale had spent more than a week in Bryn Mawr Hospital battling the disease, family members said.
He leaves behind a complicated legacy as both a champion for democracy in his home country and one of the leading voices of the Liberian diaspora in the United States.
Yet, he was also one of the very few ever held accountable for the perversion of that vision during the West African nation’s first civil war in the early ‘90s and the numerous documented atrocities that resulted.
He rubbed elbows with U.S. State Department officials and figures like former Liberian presidents Charles Taylor and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He served, at various points, as a senator and Minister of Labor in Liberia’s government himself.
And though a federal court in Philadelphia convicted him in 2018 of lying to U.S. immigration officials about his role in war crimes committed by Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) — including acts of torture, ethnically targeted killings and the conscription of child soldiers — Woewiyu died awaiting sentencing for his crimes.
For victims of the conflict — both in the Philadelphia region’s 15,000-strong Liberian expat community and in Monrovia, the nation’s capital — Woewiyu’s conviction in the U.S. had taken on totemic stature given that no one has ever been held accountable in Liberia for the sins of a war that left more than 200,000 civilians dead and millions more displaced. News of Woewiyu’s death, however, left many of them feeling bereft. For decades, political inaction in their home country had robbed them of justice. Now, said Hassan Bility, director of the Global Justice and Research Project, the coronavirus has robbed them of closure.
“We are sorry for his family. We ‘re not happy that anyone dies, no matter what he might have done,” Bility said, in a phone interview Monday from Monrovia. “But I think justice needed to serve it’s full course. Unfortunately, [his sentencing] was never to be.” Family members did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But in a video prepared last year for the sentencing hearing that never came, they described Woewiyu as a pillar of his community, lion of the Liberian cause and a doting father and grandfather. “My father [was] like a guru at putting people together,” his eldest daughter, Hawa Zoe Dahnsaw, a 49-year-old assistant high school principal in Hudson County, N.J. “No matter all the different activities that he had regarding his participation in his country, he never forgot about us. He always had a vision for us.” His son U.S. Navy Lt. Monconjay Thomas Woewiyu, 34, credited his father as a mentor.
“It is because of him that I understand what it is to be a man,” he said. “It’s his dedication to the community that inspired me to join the Armed Forces and serve in the Navy.” Born Thomas Jucontee Smith in 1946, Woewiyu was fond of telling others that his mother delivered him on a bed of cut banana leaves in the impoverished village in Liberia’s bush, where he grew up. He was the seventh of 13 children and the only one to survive into late adulthood.
“I was born on banana leaves,” he said in the video prepared last year. “I’ve always sworn to myself that my kids would be born on a silk blanket. … I’ve always tried to do something to be worth the name of my family, my village, my country.” Woewiyu came to America in 1969 as a 24-year-old police academy graduate. And though he’d originally obtained his student visa under the pretense that he would enter pilot training in Florida, he never made it.
Instead, he spent much of the next decade doing odd jobs in New York City while earning an associate’s degree from Brooklyn College and then a bachelor’s from Rutgers at night. By the mid-‘80s, he had obtained a green card, started a family and was living an otherwise unremarkable life. But as the political situation in Liberia began to deteriorate with the assassination in 1980 of its democratically elected president William Tolbert in a military coup, Woewiyu, like many Liberian’s living abroad in the U.S., reacted in horror.
He, along with Sirleaf and others, founded the Union of Liberian Associations in America and the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia, to lobby the Reagan and Bush administrations to put pressure upon the man who violently unseated Tolbert, Samuel Doe. When those efforts found little success and Doe began ethnic purges of members of his own government, Woewiyu joined an offshoot group open to using violence to overthrow him if necessary — the NPFL.
Its military forces launched their invasion on Christmas Eve 1989, under the command of Charles Taylor, a former government functionary who had only years earlier had escaped from a Massachusetts prison where he was awaiting an extradition request from Doe’s government to face charges of embezzlement there.
Within months, Taylor had seized most of the country and Doe had been assassinated by a member of an offshoot group. The NPFL had accomplished its primary goal in unseating Doe, but as the group splintered and new ethnically-focused factions arose fighting over what would come next quickly devolved into chaos.
“Both sides were savaging civilians,” James K. Bishop, the former U.S. ambassador to Liberia, testified at Woewiyu’s trial in 2018. “Many thousands of Liberia had crowded into [Monrovia], fleeing from the violence.”
Woewiyu emerged from that fray, serving as Taylor’s spokesman and chief negotiator both in Africa and the United States. An erudite family man who by that time had lived in the U.S. for decades, he quickly gained the confidence of the State Department and some elements of the international press.
“He was very articulate — not as flamboyant as Charles Taylor, but in a bit of the same style,” said Elizabeth Blunt, the BBC’s former West Africa correspondent, who testified at his trial. “If you were trying to put someone forward that gives the impression that yours is a serious political movement, he was a good PR man.”
But U.S. prosecutors said that Woewiyu’s “acceptable public face” was merely a facade used to hide the worst excesses of Taylor’s fighting forces from the international community. While Woewiyu spoke of a quick, democratic resolution to the conflict on nightly BBC broadcasts, Taylor and his men were routinely executing civilians in the brush, looting villages and conscripting child soldiers by the dozens.
In the U.S. and the Netherlands, Woewiyu sought to set up illegal firearms deals to arm them with military-grade automatic weapons, thousands of rounds of ammunition and surface-to-air missiles. And on trips to Liberia, witnesses testified at his trial, Woewiyu’s convoys were escorted by drugged youths as young as 12, who had been kidnapped, pressed into service and trained to become killers.
“They’re not babies,” he told the BBC in a 1992 interview. “The AK-47 weighs maybe about 10 to 15 pounds. If this young fellow feels like if he doesn’t fight, he will be dead anyway, he comes forward to do what he has to do.”
Woewiyu always denied that he served any decision-making role in Taylor’s fighting force and described himself as more as a civilian defense minister. He maintained that he deplored the NPFL’s dependence upon child soldiers and never used them as escorts himself. Yet, in 2010, when members of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended lists of those who should be held responsible for wartime atrocities, they included Woewiyu among those recommended for political sanctions.
Those recommendations were largely ignored. But by that time, the life Woewiyu was leading in the United States bore little resemblance to the role he had played during the war. He remained active in Liberia’s government, serving in various elected and public roles while maintaining his primary residence in Delaware County. He remained active in the Collingdale First Church of the Nazarene and in his family. And when he was arrested at Newark International Airport in 2014, he had just returned from Liberia to launch a bid for that country’s senate. He is survived by his wife, several children, and 10 grandchildren. Culled/Jeremy Roebuck/inquirer.com
Main Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer