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Charles Taylor: Africa’s monster

2006 April 1
by Paul Vallely

A novelist who dreamt up a character like Charles Taylor would be accused of resorting to the most exaggerated of stereotypes. Charles Ghankay McCarthy Boye Dakphanna Taylor, the small man with many names, was last year described as the third most wanted war crimes suspect in the world – after Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic, whose recent death has left a cell vacant for Taylor in The Hague.

Taylor, whom one African commentator yesterday described as having “a set of inward teeth like a boa constrictor”, is the man human rights groups accuse of being responsible for wars and instability right across West Africa for more than a decade. Because of him tens of thousands of people died in an orgy of murder, rape and systematic mutilation in which machetes and axes were used to hack the feet or hands from adults, children and even babies. The slogan of those he sponsored was “We’ll kill you if you cry”.

But it is not just in the scale of his monstrosity that Charles Taylor is a larger-than-life figure. He is the man who in the 1970s, just two years out of an economics degree in the United States, managed to embezzle $900,000 (£518,000) after landing a plum job running Liberia’s General Services Agency. When he was arrested in America in the 1980s, he escaped from the jail by sawing through a bar and climbing down a knotted sheet. Later as a warlord controlling most of Liberia (apart from the capital) in the early 1990s, he turned up in full military combat gear for a West African regional conference in Burkina Faso.

Then he ran for the post of president of Liberia under the infamous electioneering banner “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”. (Which the voters did, thinking that Taylor in the presidential palace would be less trouble than at the head of a rebel army in the bush.) As president he once publicly caned his daughter in her school after she was suspended for indiscipline.

He made an unholy alliance with the US televangelist Pat Robertson using the preacher’s Operation Blessing planes – which were supposed to be sending relief supplies to the victims of the genocide in Rwanda – to haul diamond-mining equipment. And when he was accused by the United Nations of being a gun-runner and a diamond smuggler he addressed a mass prayer meeting (having got himself designated a Baptist lay preacher) clothed from head to foot in white – and prostrated himself on the ground to pray for forgiveness, while simultaneously denying the charges.

But if, to European eyes, there was something of the grotesque African comic about Taylor, he was no less deadly for it. His arrest, after years in protective exile in Nigeria, should bring to justice one of the worst perpetrator of crimes against humanity in a continent where the competition for that grim title has over the years been all too fierce.

Charles Taylor had a privileged upbringing as the descendant of freed American slaves for whom Liberia was created. At the age of 24 he was sent to Massachusetts to study economics. His degrees secured him a job in the regime of President Samuel Doe, controlling a chunk of Liberia’s budget. But the two men fell out and Taylor returned to the US. It was in 1984 that he was arrested under a Liberian extradition warrant and made his daring jail break.

He fled from the United States to Libya where, under Colonel Gaddafi, he underwent guerrilla training. There he met other African malcontents, including Foday Sankoh who was later to launch the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, the group which perpetrated most of the atrocities which led to Taylor’s war crimes indictment by the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2003. It alleged that Taylor supplied arms to the Sierra Leone rebels in exchange for diamonds. But that was to happen later. First, in 1989, Taylor launched an armed uprising against Doe’s repressive government from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire.

Within a year Doe had been ousted by Taylor and his lieutenants who included one Colonel Butt Naked (who now claims to be a born-again Christian) and Prince Yormie Johnson, who at the last moment split from Taylor and captured Monrovia for himself – torturing Doe to death – and depriving Taylor of outright victory.

The rebels then began a seven-year civil war among themselves, with seven ethnic factions fighting for control of Liberia’s resources iron, diamonds, timber and rubber. At least 200,000 people were killed and more than a million forced from their homes in one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa’s bloody history. But by 1997 Taylor was sufficiently confident of victory to organise a lavish wedding to his third wife, Jewel, another economist. A few months later Taylor won a large majority in Liberia’s first general election for years.

But over the next six years, for all his public showmanship, Taylor did little to improve the lives of ordinary Liberians. Unemployment and illiteracy remained above 75 per cent. Little investment was made in the country’s schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure. Most Liberians remained without piped water and electricity. Instead Taylor focused on diamonds, and not just those to be mined in Liberia but also those from neighbouring Sierra Leone. He fomented unrest and brutal excesses in the region in return for what became known as “blood diamonds”. In response, discontented Liberians took up arms against him under the rebel banner Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

The change came in 2003. Under pressure from other African nations, supported by the international community, the West African regional community ECOWAS inaugurated peace talks between Taylor’s government, civil society groups and the rebels. Not long afterwards the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone issued an indictment against President Taylor for “bearing the greatest responsibility” for the atrocities in that country. He was also alleged to have masterminded an assassination attempt against the presidents of Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.

Ceasefires were repeatedly made and broken in the peace process. Then, while Taylor was out of Liberia to attend the peace talks in Ghana, his vice-president, the infelicitously named Moses Blah, seized power at the instigation, some say, of Washington. Upon his return, Taylor dismissed Blah, only to reinstate him a few days later. Meanwhile, the rebels besieged the capital and several bloody battles against a background of public calls from the US President George Bush for Taylor to stand down.

Eventually Taylor agreed, in return for an offer of safe exile in Nigeria. He handed power to Moses Blah in the presence of the presidents of Ghana, South Africa and Mozambique – and with 2,300 US Marines in three warships just off the coast. Taylor flew to Nigeria where the government provided houses for him and his entourage in the seaside town of Calabar. Taylor was placed on Interpol’s Most Wanted list, but he seemed safe so long as he remained quietly in Calabar.

But something changed. Whether the new Liberian government of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, a former director of the United Nations Development Programme and vice-president of Citicorp, who was elected president in November last year, got word that Taylor was plotting again is unclear. Some suspect that Mrs Sirleaf just decided that Liberia would never be stable so long as Taylor was around. For even now many Liberians still support him. Many commentators suspected that if Taylor had stood in the November elections he might well have won.

Or it may well have been pressure from Washington. In 2003, the US Congress offered a $2m reward for Taylor’s capture. In 2004, the Bush administration presented a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council seeking a freeze of Taylor’s assets, as well as those of his family. Then Interpol issued a “red notice”, giving countries the international right to arrest him.

Whichever, within weeks of taking office in January, Mrs Sirleaf submitted an official request to Nigeria for Taylor’s extradition. Last week Nigeria agreed to release Taylor to stand trial in Sierra Leone. Days later Taylor disappeared from his seaside villa and was caught as he tried to cross the border into Cameroon with two large boxes stuffed with cash.

He is now in a UN jail in Sierra Leone but it seems likely that the trial will be transferred to The Hague. A hearing in West Africa could well reignite the region’s conflicts. Taylor still has many supporters in key positions in government and the Liberian parliament. During the election his party members were on the streets shouting: “Our pappy, dat dey carry, dey go bring back” (Our leader, who they took away, will be brought back). Many Liberians regard the pictures of Taylor in handcuffs as a violation of the peace accord. Some fear that, even from his cell, Charles Taylor could mobilise a guerrilla army, capable of attacking the court in Freetown from the surrounding hills.

Nor is it the case that he is without supporters elsewhere in the region. The politics of Africa are messier, and murkier, with their ethnic suspicions and resonances of old colonial grudges, than most outsiders could ever understand. In the past, Africa’s corrupt leaders knew that even if they were forced from office as result of their excesses, they could usually rely on their fellow presidents to offer them sanctuary. The arrest of Charles Taylor could signal that that may no longer be the case. Which will be another step forward in Africa’s long slow trek to development and democracy.

A Life in Brief

BORN January 1948 in Arthington, near Monrovia, Liberia.

FAMILY Married three times. Current wife, Jewel, is an economist.

EDUCATION Studied economics at Bentley College, Massachusetts 1972-77.

CAREER Served in the government of President Samuel Doe but returned to the US where he was arrested for embezzlement. Escaped from prison and ended up in Libya for paramilitary training. From 1989 to 1997 headed a rebel insurgency and was a prominent warlord during Liberia’s seven year civil war. In 1997 was elected president of Liberia. Closely allied to Foday Sankoh’s RUF rebels in Sierra Leone throughout the civil war there. In 2003 was indicted for war crimes.

HE SAYS “Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time.” – to an interviewer who suggested Taylor was no better than a murderer.

THEY SAY “Charles Taylor is one of the single greatest causes of spreading wars in West Africa” – Peter Takirambudde, Human Rights Watch

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