On Friday, 18 June 2021, a Swiss court sentenced 46-year-old Alieu Kosiah, a West African rebel leader, to 20 years in prison for rape, murder and cannibalism, committed during Liberia’s civil war. The case before a three-judge panel at the federal criminal court in Bellinzona was Switzerland’s first war crimes trial held in a civilian court.
Kosiah, AKA “bluff boy”, was a commander in the rebel faction United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) that fought former President Charles Taylor’s army in the 1990s. He faced 25 charges, including one in which he was accused of eating slices of a school-teacher’s heart. He was found guilty of all but four of the charges. The court listed the charges as
“recruitment and use of a child soldier, forced transportation, looting, cruel treatment of civilians, attempted murder, murder (directly or by order), desecration of a corpse and rape.”
Criminal complaints were filed by Liberian victims, represented by civil rights group Civitas Maxima. The indictment says Kosiah killed or participated in the killing of 18 civilians, forced a displaced woman to be his “wife”, raping her repeatedly, and recruited a 12-year-old boy as his personal bodyguard. In one incident described in the indictment, Kosiah joined fighters in eating slices of a dead man’s heart off a metal plate. Acts of cannibalism were not uncommon in the conflict.
Kosiah was arrested in 2014 under a Swiss law that allows prosecution for serious crimes committed anywhere, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. He had denied all the charges and told the court he was a minor when first recruited into the conflict.
Dubbed “the Monster” by survivors of the war, Kosiah is infamously remembered for the Black Monday attack on June 28, 1993 when rebels rounded up and massacred villagers in Foya, Lofa County.
Other Liberian war criminals
Liberia has ignored pressure to prosecute crimes from its continuous wars between 1989-2003, in which about 250,000 people died and thousands of child soldiers were conscripted and taught to kill and commit atrocities. Charles Taylor is himself currently serving a 50-year prison sentence for aiding and abetting rebels who committed atrocities in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but not for his actions in Liberia. His son, Chuckie, was sentenced for torture in Liberia by a U.S. court in 2009.
Ex-warlord Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabateh has been jailed for 30 years in the US for lying about his past as a leader of a force that carried out multiple murders and acts of cannibalism.
In July 2018, France detained naturalised Dutch citizen Kunti K, a suspected former militant ULIMO commander and placed him under formal investigation for crimes against humanity including torture and cannibalism. Another Liberian commander, Gibril Massaquoi, known as “Angel Gabriel” is on trial in Finland accused of eating his victims, burning kids alive and raping women. A verdict is expected around September this year.
An ULIMO commander named Joshua Milton Blahyi known as “General Butt Naked” gave evidence to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008:
“Any time we captured a town, I had to make a human sacrifice. They bring to me a living child that I slaughter and take the heart off to eat it… A lady offered me her child for my sacrifice. After cutting up the child I divided the heart among my boys and myself. The blood of the child was still on my hand when Jesus appeared to me and asked me to stop being a slave.”
Blahyi’s crimes included child sacrifice, cannibalism, the exploitation of child soldiers and trading blood diamonds for guns and cocaine, which he provided to boy soldiers as young as nine. He was never charged, and is now an evangelical pastor. He published an autobiography about his conversion.
The cannibal as animal
During his trial, Alieu Kosiah broke down and shouted:
“I’ve been locked up for six years, I have emotions, I’m not an animal.”
Well actually, he is an animal. We all are: humans are a species of Great Ape, as are our closest relatives the chimpanzees, who also wage war and indulge in occasional cannibalism. The point here, though, is that Kosiah saw himself stereotyped as a black man, an African, in a court full of white Europeans passing judgement on him. To the European, only a century or so ago, all Africans were considered savages and cannibals, little more than beasts, a libel which is hard to expunge, and a demonisation that was just as useful to European imperialist expansion as the use of gunboats. As recently as 1959, New York Times reporter Homer Bigart (an almost perfect name) wrote to his foreign news editor about his contempt for the new class of African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah,
“I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about.”
The savagery and cannibalism of the multitudes of wars that have swept Africa in the last decades have led to appalling atrocities. But let us not forget the role of the colonialist rulers who divided the continent up, regardless of the local tribal areas, and sucked the riches out of the land, leaving the newly independent countries destitute and riven with implacable hatreds.
As Malcolm X wrote in 1965 about the colonisers of Africa:
They projected Africa always in a negative light: jungles, savages, cannibals, nothing civilized.
The legacy of this demonisation (see Milton Allimadi’s new book “Manufacturing Hate: How Africa Was Demonized in Western Media.”) is seen in the support given to psychopathic dictators who seize control for their own enrichment, but also for that of their overseas sponsors.
Is it so surprising that this mythology of the ‘savage’ cannibal should be internalised and acted out in the heat of the internecine wars of our time?
As Professor Monroe says at the end of Cannibal Holocaust,