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Review: Charles Taylor and Liberia – Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State

Colin Waugh's book laments the selective justice and legacy of impunity in post-conflict Liberia.
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On January 31, Charles Taylor tried, one last time, to save himself from the judgement of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.

The one-time warlord and former president of Liberia pointed to a UN report detailing the independent flow of Liberian mercenaries into neighbouring, war-torn Ivory Coast during that country’s post-election crisis. Taylor’s lawyers claimed that the same scenario was true in Sierra Leone’s civil war, for which Taylor is accused of 11 war crimes by Hague prosecutors.

The effort was doomed, and the court’s judges will pronounce his fate this summer.

But does it matter? Will a conviction on all or any of Taylor’s charges actually spell justice for the devastated victims of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and does it even begin to address the unspeakable abominations carried out in Liberia during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s?

In Charles Taylor and Liberia, author Colin Waugh sees only the selective application of the international community’s justice machinery, and its legacy of impunity.

Birth of a nation

Like Taylor himself, the modern history of Liberia is a kaleidoscope of paradox and contradiction, and Waugh positions the country’s most influential personality against a backdrop that begins with African-American Elijah Johnson leading freed American slaves to the shores of West Africa in the early 19th century.

Met by unsympathetic African slave traders, the freemen simply negotiated their lands at gunpoint, sowing the earliest seeds of separation between local tribes and what would become a lighter-skinned, New World coastal elite, who would soon develop their own paradigm of slave labour.

Much can be made of Liberia’s independence. Liberia had its own constitution in 1847, over a hundred years before the likes of Ghana broke off from British rule. But the True Whig Party government was no more than a West African limb of the US, quickly becoming a beneficiary of Roosevelt’s largesse and even furnished with a Yankee administrator in charge of debt servicing, customs, and border police.

Staunchly conservative and deeply Christian, members of the True Whig Party – considered as Americo-Liberians, in ethnic terms – set up a patronage system to extend their influence into rural Liberia with slave labour employed to help the government leverage the 1920s automotive boom.

The massive Firestone rubber plant was born, and the elite saw their lifestyles soar into luxury and prestige that not even the stock market crash or a League of Nations investigation into slave labour could tarnish. By the close of the 1970s, some 4% of the population owned 60% of the land.

From the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, with protest movements amassing in other parts of the world, a progressive feeling had taken hold in the True Whig Party, and reforms had been very slowly deployed. But the speed of change bothered an increasingly educated and frustrated population of have-not Liberians, and Charles Taylor, his father one of the privileged and his mother not, was among the unimpressed.

Taylor’s rise

Throughout Charles Taylor and Liberia, Waugh paints Taylor as being intelligent, hard-working, materialistic, egotistical, exceedingly ambitious, and insatiably power-hungry.

Even though his father was Americo-Liberian, Taylor, seen as a potential embarrassment, grew up with his maternal grandmother. There he was caught between the worlds of coastal aristocracy and the common poverty experienced by native Liberians.

After first becoming a teacher in Liberia, Taylor made his way to New England in the US, where he continued his education, became active in exile politics, and cultivated a taste for clothes, cars, and women.

When Liberian President William Tolbert visited the US, Taylor was one of several in the agitating diaspora invited back to Liberia to witness the country’s progressive reforms. The timing was serendipitous: Thomas Quiwonkpa, with whom Taylor was acquainted through his second wife, led a coup that not only toppled Tolbert, but saw him and some of his family shot by drunken revolutionaries in front of the international press.

Samuel Doe then emerged from the ranks of the army to take over as president, and Taylor found himself in government as minister and director of the Government Services Agency.

This marked the start of a long, dark season of on-and-off violence, rising ethnic tensions, and the birth of a culture of impunity, the effects of which are still in evidence in today’s presidency of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Doe, a frequent beneficiary of America’s Cold War patronage system, was a violent, election-rigging dictator who took stabs at ethnic cleansing. With his Americo-Liberian heritage and penchant for embezzling, Taylor soon found himself out of favour with the regime. He fled to America, was arrested, and, ultimately, returned to Africa after a jailbreak, the possible CIA involvement in which is still being reported by the Boston Globe.

Taylor’s war

Having long made friends with Félix Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast, Taylor launched his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebellion from that border in December 1989.

In the subsequent fighting, which increasingly grew along ethnic lines, Taylor eliminated NPFL leadership rivals, made war against the Nigeria-led ECOMOG peacekeeping mission, and watched as an NPFL splinter group led by Prince Johnson tortured and murdered Doe on camera, infamously cutting off the babbling president’s ears and distributing the footage to media around the world.

By the middle of 1990, Taylor controlled much of Liberia from the new capital of Gbarnga. A pathetic shell of government still existed in Monrovia, complete with the debt burden of its internationally-recognised existence, while Taylor made great hay with the abundance of resources in his Greater Liberia. Enjoying the support of francophone West Africa, Taylor even improved labour conditions and studied traditional religion.

When civil war broke out the next year in neighbouring Sierra Leone, Taylor made quick friends with Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh. Both had trained in Gaddafi’s Libya, although Taylor would later tell the Special Court for Sierra Leone that he didn’t meet Sankoh until 1991. Whatever the case, the relationship saw a regionalisation of violence from both countries and brought about the guns-for-diamonds relationship between Taylor and Sankoh that would see the former arrested in 2007.

At the same time, ECOMOG and Liberia’s crop of warlords put constant pressure on Greater Liberia. Eventually, the borders collapsed, forcing Taylor to the negotiating table. There, he deftly manipulated the different players and received a hero’s welcome on his arrival in Monrovia.

President elected and rejected

In July 1997, in elections deemed free and fair by the international community, Charles Taylor became president with 75% of the vote. He crushed Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, international banker and former backer of his rebellion, whose purse was stuffed with America’s donor dollars.

However legitimate, Taylor’s grip on power would be short-lived. Taylor, who seemed at first to have support from America or at least its intelligence community, could not mend fences with the US. While other opponents readily joined his government, Johnson-Sirleaf shunned him. Waugh suggests that these rotten relations, coupled with intelligence linking Taylor and Sankoh’s diamonds and guns racket to Al-Qaeda, were crucial in sealing his future.

The conflict in Sierra Leone raged on, and Taylor’s government, cut off from the aid dollars of the world’s biggest donors, was increasingly implicated in its brutal machinations. A travel ban was followed by sanctions, and ultimately by an arrest warrant. At the same time, a new force of rebels invaded Liberia from Guinea.

Perhaps Taylor would have been able to call on the beleaguered Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo for traditional support, but Taylor had chosen Burkina Faso’s side in Gbagbo’s civil war. A second rebel force mounted itself from Ivory Coast.

Monrovia was once again the scene of much violence as Taylor’s government collapsed and he went into exile in Nigeria where he was ultimately arrested and brought to Europe to answer for war crimes in Sierra Leone.

What about Liberia?

Taylor perpetrated mass violence and crimes against humanity, and Waugh does not dispute the fact. But a host of unanswered questions loom over the motivations behind the drive to bring Taylor to international justice.

Why, for example, did the UN decline a special investigation into Liberia’s war years? What of the many players in that country’s violent past who have entered their senior years with complete impunity, be they Liberians or, as the case may be, Americans? What is to be made of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which damned a plethora of the country’s current politicos and barred people like President Johnson-Sirleaf from seeking public office for 30 years?

Waugh also points out that it is illegal to bring a sitting president to international justice. He concedes that Taylor was no longer president when he was arrested in Nigeria, but contends that he likely would have been had the chain of events leading to his arrest not been set in motion by Europe and America.

And while Taylor’s involvement in the early stages of Sierra Leone’s civil war is admitted even by him, Waugh posits that serious doubts remain about his role in the war’s latter stages, which are the focus of the court.

Taylor will likely be found guilty when the verdict comes down in the next few months, and some kind of accountability is beyond a doubt his due. But the kind of justice to be meted out by the Special Court on Sierra Leone is selective and ill-contrived. It will not bring closure to the Liberia’s recent history nor to its victims. Worse, it never even set out to address those problems. Some crimes committed in Liberia are seemingly beyond accountability.

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