Lunch with General Butt Naked

31 January 2008 at 21:38 | 1068 views

By Lansana Gberie

I had badly wanted to meet with Joshua Milton Blahyi, formerly General Butt Naked, after reading his sensational testimony to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). I had arrived in Liberia a week after the TRC began its hearings, and was staying at the Royal Hotel in Simcoe, a once pretty residential area of Monrovia. Blahyi had volunteered to the Commissioners and the Liberian public (the hearings were public) the startling information that he had killed 20,000 people during Liberia’s war. He was now an evangelist, a very ostentatious one; and his confession, he made clear, was meant as a sign of contrition.

About a week later I got an email note from my friend Stephen Ellis asking whether I could buy him a copy of Blahyi’s book, Trading Priesthood for Priesthood: A Testimonial Account of a Liberian Brutal War General and Traditional Priest that dramatically met Christ and is now a Christian Ambassador. I hadn’t known about the book, so I dialled one of the numbers Stephen gave me as contact for the book. Blahyi himself answered the phone. He said that the books were not available in Liberia because President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had told him not to bring the books into the country for sale - they were published in Nigeria, and were on sale mainly in Ghana and the US. He said he was angry about the President’s decision; I was baffled about it myself, until I started reading a torn copy of the slight volume. Here Blahyi is describing something that he and his gang (about 36 naked but armed teenagers) routinely did during the war:

My soldiers and I moved to the frontlines on the new bridge and started the ritual by opening the little girl’s back and plugging out her heart. I shared the little girl’s heart with my soldiers. After we ate, I requested my boys to go to the river and bring some water for me to wash my hands...

I told him I would very much like to meet with him all the same. He promised to call me. That day I had met with Abdoule Dokule, a famous Liberian journalist who edits the online journal Perspective; the paper had become prominent during the Charles Taylor era for its incisive attacks on that regime. Dukule and I met for lunch at Mamba Point Hotel. He told me he had a copy of Blahyi’s book, and he was meeting him after our meeting. He said he’ll pass on my wish to get a copy of the book to Blahyi. The next day, just before lunch time, Blahyi called. He was in a garage not far from our offices, so would I pick him up? I said I would. A few minutes later I drove to the garage. As Blahye emerged to enter the car, a group of men, total strangers it seemed, came smiling to him. They praised his candour and outspokenness, and Blahye embraced one of them, his face beaming with satisfaction: he had become something of a celebrity. We drove to Beirut Restaurant, run by a matronly Lebanese woman, in downtown Monrovia. The setting was almost surreal: the elegant, well-maintained restaurant; the drab, degraded surrounding; the easy, relaxed ambiance in a desperately harsh city that has sucked in so much blood so recently.

Blahyi is physically striking. He is very well-built, his muscles indicating an ascetic body-building obsession. He is good looking without being handsome. But in spite of myself I couldn’t see him in this purely physical way: I couldn’t help seeing in the mischievous, vapid face a bottled up viciousness: I feared the accretion would wear out quickly under close scrutiny: I was slightly scared. Blahyi, however, appeared un-awed but somewhat fidgety, as though anticipating disapproval or scepticism. He told me he is 37, and he looked it. When I ordered mango juice he quickly said that’s what he wanted as well. He said he doesn’t take alcohol. This looked to me like an affectation, a cute desire for approval, an attempt to strike a serious pose.

I thought I had encountered this kind of pose before - in Sierra Leone, in 2003, when, in a corner of a small downtown bar I had wanted to buy beer for Augustine Gbao (soon to be indicted and arrested by the UN-created Special Court for Sierra Leone). Smiling in a disarming, cordial way, Gbao had turned down the offer, saying he doesn’t drink, and accepting soft drink instead. So this detail seemed routine (a British military observer had written of how a red-eyed, drunk and blustering Gbao, while still a commander in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) army, had raided a UN post in northern Sierra Leone and held soldiers at gun point, precipitating one of the biggest disasters in UN’s peacekeeping history.)

But Blahyi went further. He insisted on having only French fries, though I ordered liver. He wouldn’t have meat, he said, adding, with a coy touch of mystery, “It reminds me so much of the past.” It was only later that I realised he was alluding to his days as a militia leader, a routine indulger in ritual cannibalism. But he quickly realised that I was not interested in that: I feigned not to be a connoisseur of those kinds of horrors.

I asked him about his 20,000 victims. Why 20,000 and not, say, 19,999? Why the certitude around that exact, round figure? Blayhi is now a Christian evangelist (his conversion happened in Nigeria), no doubt reasonably well-schooled in biblical mythologies: the Old Testament is full of stories of rounded figure in tens of thousands killed, in battles which in all probability might have involved only a few thousand at most; of men who lived for thousands of years. But Blahye said that he didn’t want to understate his atrocities, that his count included all those he killed when he was a “tribal priest” of the Khran ethnic group: he said he became a priest in 1982 (at age 11), and that ritual killings were an integral, weekly necessity... He has written all about that in his book, he said.

I wanted him to talk about his militia group, the Butt Naked Brigade. He had been a member of ULIMO-J (Roosevelt Johnson’s Khran-dominated faction in the early stages of the Liberian war). He was 23 when he joined, he said. Then later, when intense fighting erupted in Monrovia again, in 1996, he formed the Butt Naked Brigade. He put together mainly preteens and a few teenagers, all amounting to 36. He armed them with guns and, before any battle, he would “hypnotise” the kids with magical incantations he had developed while a priest. They fought completely naked, and none was hurt or killed throughout their many battles during the war. He himself would be armed only with a machete. He seemed energised while explaining this part, almost a boast rather than a gesture of contriteness. But I cannot be sure...

He talked at length about the killings, including the ritual killings of babies, and his more martial exploit, his cutting down of rival fighters and others with his machete. (What image this formed in the mind: the naked fighters, armed and looking deranged, running around cutting down people, a blood-fest.) “In some encounters,” he said,” I would kill 17 people at a time. And there would be sometimes three or four such encounters a day. On some days, I would kill up to 50.” He was trying to explain the 20,000 figure. “But you don’t appear convinced?” he asked. I tried to compute the time he spent as a militia fighter, about seven months altogether (as I saw it), and I said the figure didn’t seem to add up. He listened intently, his eyes seeming to plead, and that fidgeting, and his face suddenly appeared to indicate that I was a quibbling foreigner and a fool to question such a straightforward confession. Clearly no one had questioned this figure before. Surely the point is that he killed so many with his own hands, and now he has found God, and is now doing good...

He mentioned that he has collected 50 ex-child fighters, some of them formerly of the Butt Naked Brigade, and that he is desperately trying to feed them and keep them off the streets, away from trouble. He is trying to get support for them from his Church’s HQ in Tennessee in the US. At the moment he needed money to buy a bag of rice for them... He returned to this point several times after, making furtive glances at me as we ate. I pretended not to see...

But one couldn’t help admiring this entrepreneurial spirit, this ability to conflate and then change roles. Prodigious adaptability? The ultimate redemption? It may be all of this, and the Liberian scene has had this tendency to churn out such characters, such narratives. Prince Johnson, for example, was once known as the man who allowed himself to be videoed torturing President Doe to death. But then he went on to become a Christian evangelist (again in Nigeria), wrote a book describing (among others) how “President Doe...died in my custody after profuse bleeding from bullets [sic] wounds sustained in combat...and the pounding of his head against the wall in an effort to commit suicide,” and was shortly after elected Senator in the country’s Legislature.

The love of liberty, surely, explains a lot....