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Sorcery at High Levels : In Liberia, Politics Is Spellbound

July 22, 1989|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

MONROVIA, Liberia — Many people here were struck by two things when Defense Minister Gray D. Allison was arrested and charged in June with having made a human sacrifice to further his career.

They thought Allison was paying the price of plotting a coup against President Samuel K. Doe. And they thought he was almost certainly guilty.

The latter assumption had only a little to do with the public's deep loathing for Maj. Gen. Allison. It was more a reflection of one of the more bizarre features of politics in Africa: Liberian politicians are widely assumed by the public to seek their fortunes through witchcraft.

Tale of 'Heart Man'

The charge that Allison had ordered the death of a local police officer so that the man's blood and organs could be used by a sorcerer--a "heart man"--to increase Allison's power has dominated talk for months in this dank, mildewy capital.

Allison has been dismissed from the Cabinet, and on July 14 he went on trial before a court-martial. He denies the charge, which could result in his execution if he is convicted.

The case's mixture of politics and superstition is not novel.

"If you look at the history of Liberia," an American anthropologist who has studied traditional cultures here said recently, "you'll find that ritual practices are characteristic not only of the traditional animist culture but of the political elite."

The more exalted the politician, the stronger the rumors about human sacrifice. During the nine-year presidency of William Tolbert, who was killed after a coup headed by Doe in 1980, it was commonly rumored that human organs were stashed throughout the presidential mansion--this while Tolbert was head of the World Baptist Convention.

Rumor Widely Believed

"It's less important whether the rumors were true than that everyone believed they were true," the American said, asking to remain anonymous because he still travels to Liberia. "That tells you a lot about the strength of these beliefs."

When Tolbert, evidently intent on discouraging the so-called heart men, ordered nine people hanged after they were convicted of a human sacrifice in 1976, "many people believed it was just his way of getting legally sanctioned sacrificial victims for himself," the researcher said.

Now this notion is generally discounted.

It would be unfair to suggest that political witchcraft is so widespread that the nation's leaders have left a trail of dismembered corpses. But it is no exaggeration to say that even those who do not believe in ritual practice believe that their leaders believe in it.

"It's ingrained in the upper levels of our society," said Michael K. Francis, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Monrovia, Liberia's capital.

There is a feeling here that politically motivated sacrifices have been increasing and that, with a presidential election scheduled for 1991, they are likely to increase further. Scarcely a week passes that local newspapers do not emblazon across their front pages an account of some new outrage.

This routine aspect of ritual killings seems to have inured the public to what must be some of the most lurid newspaper prose in the world. The Liberian press rarely shrinks from the most graphic description of physical injuries or hesitates to use the goriest of pictures.

Increasingly, pastors have made ritual murder the subject of their Sunday sermons. "Liberia is sinking into paganism," a leading Monrovia minister said after Allison was charged.

Yet many despair of eradicating superstition from Liberia. "The churches have educated people, we have preached against it, and yet we still have it," Archbishop Francis said.

Guarding Against Coup

All this colors political discourse in this country, even among the Westernized. Doe's ouster of Allison from the Defense Ministry could be seen as a preemptive strike against an impending coup, but an educated and successful Monrovia businessman had this to say about it:

"He must have been afraid the general's magic would work."

Experts in traditional culture are hard-pressed to explain why these beliefs have persisted in this region despite a cultural onslaught by Christianity and Islam. And such beliefs are found not only in Liberia; the influence of several mystical groups, such as the secretive Poro Society, extends over the border into Sierra Leone.

Nor do Liberia's politicians have a monopoly on mysticism; the late president of neighboring Guinea, Sekou Toure, often claimed that he was impervious to his enemies' bullets.

But Liberia has long had particular difficulty melding the traditional cultures of its indigenous people with the Western customs introduced by the former slaves who settled the country early in the 19th Century.

It was not until 1973 that the national legislature outlawed all forms of trial by ordeal, such as forcing a suspected sorcerer to prove his innocence by drinking poison.

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