Gboko Stewart, firstname.lastname@example.org
Paynesville-For Abe Johnson (name changed to protect his identity), it was a dream two months ago in January—a friend request from a fake Facebook account, Ashford Horton, with the profile picture of a Senator was all too real.
“I had seen the friend request, but I was not sure if I should accept it,” he says. Giving the fake Facebook account a thorough scrutiny, he concluded that it must be real.
That conclusion led to him becoming one of the many victims in what journalRAGE has uncovered to be a scheme of online subterfuge using the picture of government officials to target gay men.
“I felt very important,” said Johnson.” “I was finally getting connected and talking to some big people in Liberia.”
The feeling of grandeur hastily led Johnson, 26, to accept the friend request that, he said, had been lagging forever on a long list of people wanting to befriend him on the social media website.
“We started talking immediately–he introduced himself to me as a senator. He asked me for my number, and said he was living on SD Cooper Road in Paynesville.”
The conversation continued for several days and sounded promising. “He said he will give me a job. He asked me to visit him.”
With the 2023 general and presidential elections months ahead in October, he said he figured the person behind the fake Facebook account must have been on a mission to recruit voters for the frowned-upon scheme of voters trucking.
After several days of believing it was indeed a member of the Liberian Senate he had been communicating with, Johnson acquiesced to visiting the purported senator at his Paynesville residence.
“When I called him, he said he was at the Supermarket in Congo Town, and that he was going to return my calls when he got home.”
An hour later, Johnson received another call.
“He called me telling me that he was home, and I should immediately come to his SD Cooper Road junction where I would be met by his assistant.”
He raced there immediately without the slightest inkling he was about to make what he considers the biggest mistake of his life.
“When I got to SD Cooper Road, I called his number. He said his assistant was coming. He told me to describe what I was wearing so the guy could find me easily. When I looked across the street, I saw somebody waving at me, I knew that it was the person he sent to pick me up.”
As the duo proceeded to the alleged Senator’s residence, it slowly cascaded into a downturn of events for the youthful gay man.
“While walking, the assistant asked me for my phone to call his boss man–I gave it without thinking. I noticed he wasn’t calling so I requested he gives my phone back to me. We were near an unfinished house. He said no he’s not going to give my phone back to me, saying I’m a fag [faggot].”
As Johnson and the senator’s assistant argued over the seizure of his phone, he was rushed on by a group of men who immediately began to attack him.
“They surrounded me and started slapping, kicking, and hitting me. They said I was into faggy business. There were more than seven men–they took my money away and left me standing. It wasn’t even dark when it happened. They said nobody can do anything to them.”
Petrified by the series of events that had occurred less than thirty minutes upon his arrival to meet the man who had made a solemn promise on the phone to alter his economic fortunes, he trekked to a friend that lived nearby.
“I was standing there like one big robot—I never had trans [transportation] to pay my way back home. I had to go to one of my friends who lived nearby to be able to help me pay my way back.”
The gay community in Liberia has seen an uptick in violence that has gone unabated in recent years. The 2022 US State Department report highlighted that LGBT people continue to suffer from assaults, harassment, and hate speech by community members.
In May 2021, members of a community watch team allegedly beat three men on suspicion they were gays in the Gobachop community of Paynesville. According to two of the survivors, the community watch members threatened the three men and assaulted them, rendering one of the men unconscious.
In June 2021, Nuchie Michael, a teenager and a student at the St. Matthew United Methodist School in New Kru Town was expelled for cross-dressing.
In November 2019, partygoers were stoned and beaten over suspicions they were attending a gay wedding.
Online catfishing targeting gay men continues to rise in Liberia. In 2020, journalRAGE’s investigation uncovered that 27 men were allegedly brutalized by Cheeseman Cole, an ex-soldier of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Two men, Dominic Renner, and Winston Toe have not been seen since showing up at Cole’s residence. Cole was charged and forwarded to court.
He posted bail.
Nearly three years later, Cole has not been prosecuted by the Ministry of Justice.
The Director of the Human Rights division with the Ministry, Kutaka D. Togba, when contacted via email, stated he was liaising with the Minister’s office for a response, but did not get in touch when follow-up was made.
Liberia is a signatory to many international treaties and conventions, including the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that the country signed in 1948.
But the penal code violates the country’s signature to these conventions and protocols as Liberian law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults, Togba told FrontPage Africa in 2019.
Articles 14.74, 14.79, and 50.7 [of the Penal Code of 1976] consider voluntary sodomy as a first-degree misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to one-year imprisonment.
Minister of Justice, Frank Musa Dean, during the launch of the UN’s SOGIE report on Liberia in November 2020 said the constitution guarantees protection for the rights of all.
But critics have often maintained that little has been done by the government in the creation of laws to protect people from the queer community.
“For too long the LGBTQIA+ community in Liberia has been under serious attacks and there is very little being done by the Government of Liberia to put an end to it,” stated Maxwell Monboe, coordinator of the human rights coalition, Liberia Initiative for the Promotion of Rights, Identity, Diversity and Equality (LIPRIDE) in an email to journalRAGE.
“We call on the UN through the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), the Independent National Commission on Human Rights the Ministry of Justice Human Rights Division, and all other relevant stakeholders to stand up against all forms of violence against the LGBTQIA+ community.”
Cole’s antics in 2020 have gained traction amongst other criminal gangs like the ones that victimized Grease Brown and Abe Johnson. The gang, journalRAGE has discovered, operates from within Paynesville, more specifically SD Cooper Road.
FrontPage Africa recently reported that the ex-soldier has joined forces with the gang to target the Curator-in-Chief of journalRAGE for possible elimination.
The Facebook account bearing the moniker Ashford Horton uses the picture of Senator Jonathan Kaipay of Grand Bassa County as its profile pic. It is not clear whether Senator Kaipay is aware of his picture being used to target gay men on Facebook. The Senator, however, did not respond to Whatsapp messages sent to him by journalRAGE.
The leader of the gang, Keenon Jackson, is an unsavory character that has a sordid history of targeting gay men, according to a social worker with the human rights organization, LEGAL INC who asked for anonymity.
“Just between January and February, they have robbed and beaten about six persons, including one of my colleagues,” he said. “They have been operating for a long time from SD Cooper Road.”
The social worker said they have been gathering victims to build a case against the gang, but feared that the Ministry of Justice would pussyfoot on the matter when the gang leaders are caught. “We saw what happened with Cheeseman Cole’s case–he was never prosecuted.”
Grease Brown, (name changed to protect his identity) 22, says October 23, 2022, will continue to live in infamy in his memory.
The former bartender, following days of chatting with the fake Facebook account of Ashford Horton that carries the picture of a member of the Liberian Senate, borrowed US$10 from his workmate and raced to Paynesville on a commercial motorcycle to see the mystery man wanting to apply the Midas touch on his life.
“The friend request had been there for a long time – I thought it was a fake page. But when I went through and saw it, I saw that it was looking real. Next thing I know, I received a message from him asking me about my location, and for us to go on a date.”
Days of endless chatting back to back led the young man to believe that the person behind the fake account was real.
Like Abe Johnson, Grease Brown was asked to make his way to S.D. Cooper Road junction in Paynesville to be met by the security of the alleged Senator. “He said when I reached there, I should let him know so his security could come for me and take me to his house.”
Both Grease and Abe Johnson were called from an Orange GSM number 0778345366. journalRAGE’s investigation discovered the number is registered to Samuel I Yarmie.
When Grease arrived, he said there was no sign of the security in sight, prompting him to call the ‘Senator.’
Said Grease: “He said his security was wearing a white T-shirt. When I looked across the street, I saw him and showed a sign to him. He came across the street to me. I saw a chair and sat down. He asked me to use my phone to call his boss because he never had a phone. I gave him my iPhone X-max to call his boss. He acted like he was calling. I noticed he stopped calling so I asked him to hand me over my phone.”
Grease’s request for his phone took him on a trip down memory lane.
Cont’d Grease: “His security asked me whether I remember him. I told him no. He asked again whether I remember when my phone was snatched when I was attacked for my phone in Sinkor. Right away I started to panic because I knew they had been tailing me. He said, ‘small boy like you, you put your hand in faggy business; they born you man and you want to be a woman?’ He slapped my face. I wanted to get up but he told me not to move. When I looked, I saw a group of other boys surrounding me with cutlasses, knives, and other weapons. One of them hit me with the knife on my hand – it started to bleed. They asked me for my phone password. I didn’t want to give it, but they said if I didn’t they would kill me. I give them the password which is my date of birth. Then they asked me for my mobile money password. All of them started hitting and slapping me.”
He said the men made some startling revelations that shook him to his core. “They said nobody can do anything to them. They are sponsored by one Senator. They said the Senator hates faggy people because his son was raped [sodomized] at a party. Then they said they were killing faggy people on the highway. They beat me again and took my money.”
Grease was set free with a warning to go and sin no more. But his attackers were not done with him yet.
“They had access to my Facebook so they screenshot conversations between me and other people and sent it to my sister in America and told her I am gay,” he said. “My sister stopped supporting me. My sister said she can’t have a faggot brother. I couldn’t pay my rent. I moved into the shop I was working at because my boss felt sympathetic to me – I had to sell my things. Later on, I left the job because it wasn’t paying. Right now I am stopping with friends.”
Facebook continues to be a conduit for gangs targeting the queer community in Liberia. Though the company stated that it has made an investment in safety and security, and has developed the LGBTQ+ safety hub, it appears to have not come in handy for Abe Johnson and Grease Brown.
When contacted via email for a comment on the visibility of the Safety-hub on the social media app, the company did not reply.
Albert Mokeme, 36, was mourning the death of his mother in his home country of Nigeria when he saw a message and friend request from Ashford Horton, the fake Facebook profile with the picture of Senator Jonathan Kaipay.
According to Mokeme (name changed to protect his identity), it appears he had been stalked online for a considerable period. “When I accepted the friend request, I saw he had been sending repeated messages. I went through the profile and realized the person is mature.
“He said he’s a lawmaker. He was always calling and texting to check up on me. I was in Nigeria to bury my mom. He brought up the conversation of having a relationship with me but I snubbed it. He kept asking when I would be back in Liberia. He asked about my employment situation in Liberia, and he wants to help me get a job. So I told him after I am done with burying my mother and the other traditional rites, I will contact him.”
Upon arrival in the country, the Nigerian national said he alerted the ‘Senator’ he had returned. “He told me to come to his residence around SD Cooper Road junction. I should bring my CV along. When I got there, I called him, and he said his nephew was coming to come and get me.”
There, he met a fate akin to Grease Brown and Abe Johnson. “They took my iPhone 13 ProMax, they took my passport and my resident permit–everything that was in my wallet. They said I was a stupid Nigerian man who came to Liberia to do faggot business—they will kill me and nothing will come out of it.”
Protection for the LGBT community against these attacks continues to remain at an all-time low. The spokesperson of the Liberia National Police, H. Moses Carter, when contacted for a statement on the readiness of the force to crack down on gangs using cyberspace to target the gay community, did not reply.
Solidarity Sisters, a human rights organization under the LIPRIDE coalition working on the issue of safety and security for the LGBT community, in an email to journalRAGE said they have carried out awareness and training at Police zones and depots to ensure survivors have access to justice.
Whether that is enough to bolster the courage of Abe Johnson, Grease Brown, and Albert Mokeme to report the matter to the Police remains to be seen.
In August 2022, a journalRAGE staff was arrested twice for being gay when he reported robbery and threats against his life.
“I didn’t report to the Police–I fear they would have implicated me and my lifestyle would have been investigated–I’m a foreigner in this country. But I want justice if it’s possible,” Mokeme said.
This article was funded in part through a grant from the US State Department. The funder has no say in its content.