A Delaware County man who once served as a top lieutenant to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, and whose 2018 trial for U.S. immigration violations drew headlines across the globe, died Sunday from complications of the coronavirus.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, 74, of Collingdale, had spent nearly two weeks in Bryn Mawr Hospital suffering from the disease.
He leaves behind a complicated legacy as one of the leading voices of the Liberian diaspora in the United States and a champion for democracy in his home country, but also as one of the very few people held accountable for the perversion of that vision that led to documented atrocities during the West African nation’s first civil war.
Over his career, Woewiyu rubbed elbows with State Department officials and figures like former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and at times held significant positions in the Liberian government.
And though a federal jury 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 Philadelphia’s sizable Liberian expat community and in Monrovia, the nation’s capital, his conviction took on totemic stature, given their country’s failure to hold anyone responsible for the sins of a war that left more than 200,000 civilians dead.
But news of his death Sunday left many of them feeling bereft. Political inaction had robbed them of justice for decades, said Hassan Bility, director of the Global Justice and Research Project. Now, the coronavirus has robbed them of closure.
“We are sorry for his family,” Bility said Monday from Monrovia. “But I think justice needed to serve its full course. Unfortunately, [his sentencing] was never to be.”
In an email notifying some of the witnesses who testified against him of his death, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson S.T. Thayer said that Woewiyu was just “as responsible for wiping out an entire generation of Liberia’s youth” as any pandemic.
“The deadly virus he personally spread,” Thayer wrote, “was one of ethnic and tribal hatred that cost the lives of thousands and thousands of Liberians.”
Family members did not respond to requests for comment. But in a video prepared last year for his sentencing, 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,” said his eldest daughter, Hawa Zoe Dahnsaw. “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.”
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. “His dedication to the community inspired me to join the armed forces.”
Born in 1946 as Thomas Jucontee Smith, the seventh of 13 children, Woewiyu was delivered on a bed of cut banana leaves in Liberia’s bush.
“I was born on banana leaves,” he said in the video prepared last year. “But 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.”
He came to America in 1969 and spent much of the next decade working odd jobs in New York City while earning an associates degree from Brooklyn College of CUNY, and then a bachelor’s from Rutgers University at night.
But the execution of Liberia’s president, William V.S. Tolbert, during a military coup in 1980 spurred Woewiyu, like many Liberians living in the U.S., into political action.
Along with Sirleaf and others, he lobbied the Reagan and Bush administrations to help oust the man who had seized control of the government by force, Samuel Doe. And when Doe began ethnic purges within Liberia, Woewiyu joined the NPFL, a group that advocated violence to overthrow him if necessary.
NPFL forces launched an invasion on Christmas Eve 1989 under Taylor’s command that seized 90% of the country within months. Doe was assassinated soon after. But new factions arose in the aftermath, fueling a brutal ethnic conflict that would consume the nation for seven years.
Woewiyu emerged from that fray as Taylor’s spokesperson and chief negotiator in Africa and the U.S. An erudite family man, he quickly gained the confidence of the State Department and the international press.
“He was very articulate — not as flamboyant as Charles Taylor, but in a bit of the same style,” said Elizabeth Blunt, a former BBC 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.”
U.S. prosecutors described Woewiyu’s “acceptable public face” as a facade meant to hide Taylor’s worst excesses from the world. While Woewiyu spoke of a quick, democratic resolution to the conflict on nightly BBC broadcasts, the NPFL was routinely executing civilians, looting villages, and conscripting child soldiers by the dozens.
Woewiyu pursued illegal arms deals in the U.S. and the Netherlands to equip Taylor’s army. And on trips to Liberia, witnesses testified at his trial, his convoys were escorted by drugged-out youths who had been kidnapped, pressed into service, and trained as killers.
In later life, Woewiyu denied playing a significant role in Taylor’s fighting force, describing himself more as a diplomat. He maintained that he deplored the NPFL’s dependence on child soldiers and never used them as escorts.
Still, in 2010, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that he face political sanctions for his actions during the war.
By the time he was indicted in the U.S. in 2014, his life bore little resemblance to the stature he once maintained. He had become a grandfather many times over and was deeply involved in his church and politics in his home country.
When FBI agents arrested him at Newark Liberty International Airport, he had just returned from Liberia to launch a bid for that country’s Senate.
Mark Wilson, who represented Woewiyu at his trial, described his death Sunday as a tragedy for his family.
“He became more than a client in a lot of ways,” Wilson said. “I considered it a great honor to have met him.”