June 13, 2020 was an unruffled Saturday in Collingdale, a borough based in Delaware County. The County is located in the state of Pennsylvania on the east coast of the United States. As it is often said in the U.S., the weather on that Saturday was good; it was mild. The temperature was more than 70-degree Celsius. For many on the east coast, it was a pleasant time for outdoor activities.
Most people were in high spirits, but for Liberians, especially the Woewiyu and Dahnsaw families, and the people of Grand Bassa, June 13 was a gloomy day. It was melancholy; it marked the homegoing of the man they considered their pillar, Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu. Outside of his family life, the late Jucontee was an iconic former rebel; and it was on that Saturday Liberia bade him a final farewell.
As a past defense spokesman of the disbanded National Patriotic Front of Liberia, he was one of Liberia’s notable and outspoken former warlords. The NPFL was a ragtag army that gained notoriety globally in the early 1990s for its ferocity in the tiny West African country of Liberia. The Front was ruthless and it was credited for initiating Liberia’s first civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 1997.
On December 24, 1989, the NPFL launched an invasion into the country. The rebellion started in Butuo, a town situated at the Liberian-Ivorian border in Nimba, northeastern Liberia. The military uprising was fixated on the violent overthrow of the late President Samuel K. Doe’s administration. Doe was a despot, and he presided over an autocracy.
The rebellion and other successive civil wars lasted for 14 years, and reportedly decimated more than 250,000 human lives and millions of dollars’ worth of properties. As a result of the widespread carnage, thousands of Liberians fled the country and became refugees in West Africa and other countries in the world, including the U.S.
The late Woewiyu, alias Jucontee Thomas Smith, expired on April 12, 2020, at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County after nearly two weeks of struggle with COVID-19. He was approximately 75-years-old. His is one of more than 100,000 in the U.S. who have fallen prey to the virus since January 2020 when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington.
His corpse was interred at Arlington Cemetery in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, following befitting funeral rites at the Collingdale First Church of the Nazarene in Collingdale. The former NPFL defense spokesman died while awaiting sentencing after a federal jury on July 3, 2018 convicted him in Philadelphia for lying to U.S. immigration officials about his role in war crimes committed by the NPFL, including acts of torture, ethnically targeted killings, and the conscription of child soldiers. He was to face 75 years’ imprisonment.
Life in the U.S.
Reportedly, the late Woewiyu migrated to the U.S. in 1969, initially settling in New York. He was a legal permanent resident while intermittently serving in the disbanded NPFL and former President Taylor’s government. He last lived in Collingdale and reportedly invested in real estate. He was a family man and was married with children and grandchildren.
U.S. Navy Lt. Monconjay Thomas Woewiyu, 34, is one of his children. In a presentencing video reportedly created by the Woewiyu family a year ago, Lt. Monconjay described 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.”
Hawa Zoe Dahnsaw is the late Woewiyu’s oldest daughter. She, like her brother Monconjay in the same video, had something positive to say about their father. She claimed, “My father was a guru at putting people together. 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.”
The deceased was born on December 15, 1945, in Grand Bassa County, Liberia, as Thomas Juncontee Smith.
He was the seventh of thirteen children. He was delivered on a bed of cut banana leaves. “I was born on banana leaves,” the late Woewiyu said in the presentencing video produced a year ago by his family. Then he declared “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 earned an Associate of Arts degree from Brooklyn College of CUNY, and later obtained a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University.
Prior to December 24, 1989, the name, Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, didn’t ring a bell in Liberian politics; it was unknown. However, things changed dramatically. Beginning December 24, 1989 to 1994, the late Jucontee was a famous man in Liberia. His name resonated with Liberians and many people worldwide. He was respected, adored, and honored by many including world leaders, especially West African leaders, given the critical role he played in the advancement of the NPFL-led rebellion against the late President Doe administration.
His name was synonymous with NPFL. Reportedly, the disbanded army was a brainchild of him, former Presidents Charles Taylor and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Samuel Dokie, and others. The late Jucontee was a towering and powerful figure in the Front. As a defense spokesman, he was a prominent figure in the execution of the NPFL-led anarchy.
He was also a confidante of former President Taylor. Before winning the 1997 presidential election in Liberia, Mr. Taylor was the leader of the NPFL. The late Woewiyu and many of Mr. Taylor’s former foot soldiers shuttled the world championing the cause of the NPFL. They justified the Front’s maiming and slaughtering of Liberians. They were Mr. Taylor’s war heroes.
Tom, as he was popularly known by many of his peers, was brash and merciless in advancing the NPFL’s war agenda at international peace conferences held on Liberia. He routinely granted news interviews to the BBC’s Focus on Africa, the Voice of America, and other international media outlets about the disbanded NPFL, its former leader Charles Taylor and the organization’s agenda and vision for a liberated and transformed Liberia.
The BBC’s former West Africa Correspondent, Elizabeth Blunt, in a testimony delivered at the late Woewiyu’s 2018 trial in the City of Philadelphia, said, “He was very articulate – not as flamboyant as Charles Taylor, but in a bit of the same style.” She furthered “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.”
During the heydays of the NPFL’s self-styled revolution, the fallen Woewiyu and his war cronies lived ‘large’ while the majority of Liberians perished in villages, towns, cities, and refugee camps. They resided in upscale homes, accumulated material wealth overnight, and had regular meals. They drove flashy cars and sent their wives and children abroad for education, medical treatment, and annual vacations while war afflicted Liberians at home went scavenging through debris and looted warehouses at the Freeport of Monrovia for grains of rice just to survive the military onslaught on the country.
Woewiyu severed ties with the NPFL in the later part of 1994. He and two other former executives of the NPFL broke away from Mr. Taylor and established the Revolutionary Council. The NPFL-CRC allegedly recruited former fighters of the disbanded NPFL to attack Mr. Taylor. However, the late Jucontee and Mr. Taylor in 1997 resolved their political differences after Mr. Taylor was elected president. Then Taylor appointed him as minister of labor, where he served from 1997 to 1999.
The late Woewiyu was an accomplished politician. Over the years, he rubbed elbows with U.S. State Department officials and prominent figures, including former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He was a former senior senator of Grand Bassa and president pro tempore of the Liberian Senate. Before his arrest by special agents of the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations at Newark’s Liberty International Airport in the U.S. on May 12, 2014, he was gearing up for a return to the Liberian Senate.
He was one of Grand Bassa County’s senatorial hopefuls in the October 2014 midterm election. In March of that year, he declared “I want to be a senator to perfect and complete the decentralization of Grand Bassa County by ensuring that all political sub-divisions of the county are covered by law and justice.” However, his dream never came to fruition. He was picked up by U.S. federal agents and incarcerated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on immigration and felony charges. At the time of his arrest and incarceration, the late Woewiyu was 68.
The fallen ex-NPFL spokesman’s legal wrangle with U.S. authorities lasted for more than four years, beginning 2014. On May 12, 2014, he was arrested, charged and held on 16 counts: two counts of fraudulently attempting to obtain U.S. citizenship, four counts of fraud in immigration documents, three counts of false statements in relation to naturalization, and seven counts of perjury.
According to the indictment, the former NPFL’s war czar was accused of lying about his past with former President Charles G. Taylor, especially his role in NPFL. On May 16, 2014, he appeared in court for a detention hearing and arraignment. Then he was ordered canned without bond while he awaited trial. U.S. prosecutors then contended that Woewiyu, the Liberian politician and one-time ally of the disgraced former President Charles Taylor, didn’t deserve bail because he was a ‘flight risk’. “Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu has every reason to flee this country,” the prosecutors insisted.
After years of legal tussle, on July 3, 2018, a grand jury convicted Jucontee at the Philadelphia-based federal court for lying to U.S. immigration officials about his role in war crimes committed by the former NPFL including acts of torture, ethnically targeted killings, and the conscription of child soldiers. He was to face 75 years of imprisonment.
He was found guilty on 11 of the 16 counts: 2 counts of fraudulently attempting to obtain citizenship; 2 counts of fraud in immigration documents; 2 counts of false statements in relation to naturalization; and 5 counts of perjury. His sentencing was first scheduled for October 15, 2018, but he was not sentenced.
He remained out of prison while awaiting sentencing. His sentence hearing was postponed several times between 2018 and 2019. After the last postponement in April 2019, a new date for the hearing was not set but was expected in 2020.
U.S. Citizenship Application
In 2006, Woewiyu applied for U.S. citizenship. According to federal authorities, the former NPFL guru, in his application and subsequent interviews conducted with immigration officers under oath, tried to distance himself from the notorious NPFL that he helped create. Reportedly, he denied his involvement with the NPFL. In the application, the late Woewiyu allegedly disowned the Association of Constitutional Democracy in Liberia, a group which he and other Liberians, who resided in the U.S. during the 1980s and 90s reportedly formed for the violent overthrow of the late President Doe’s administration.
Reportedly the late Woewiyu formed the ACDL. He and other prominent Liberians, including the former NPFL leader and President Charles G. Taylor financed the NPFL and the Liberian civil uprising. Because of the reported inconsistencies noted in the citizenship application about his role in the NPFL, the Liberian civil war, and his reported failure to disclose the 1970’s New York State conviction for falsification of business records, U.S. immigration authorities denied his application in 2009.
He was declared ineligible for U.S. citizenship because he was not a person of “good moral character.” However, the late Woewiyu’s lawyer, Ray Basso, disputed the claim. According to media reports. he argued that the late NPFL spokesman didn’t participate in any atrocities.
Woewiyu was one of the very few people held accountable for the widespread carnage that Liberians experienced from 1989 to 2003. In March 2012, former Liberian rebel leader George Boley was deported from the U.S. over his role played in the Liberian civil conflict. Then a U.S. judge stated that the ex-Liberian Peace Council leader’s involvement in extrajudicial killings and the recruitment of children were grounds for his removal.
Prior to his deportation, Boley was in U.S. custody for two years. At the height of the Liberian civil wars, there were seven warring factions, including the LPC. In 1995, Boley joined other warlords, including Charles Taylor, to lead an interim council for about a year. After presidential elections in 1997, the conflict resumed. His deportation was followed by the conviction of the disgraced former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, for crimes against humanity. Taylor is now serving a 50-year prison term in the U.K.
Mr. Taylor was the leader of the former NPFL. In May 2012, judges at the International Court in The Hague convicted him for aiding and abetting rebels of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone in the commission of human rights violations. He was accused of giving monetary and material support to the RUF in the destabilization of Sierra Leone, a neighboring country of Liberia.