Liberia, Shed No Tears for Taylor
By Benedict Nyankun Wisseh
As I watched and listened to the flamboyant Taylor, dressed in an immaculate dark-gray suit, he told the court that he was a victim of an international conspiracy led by the United States. He told the judges that “when a conspiracy was born and all systems put in motion, and here I stand today before you. I never stood a chance.” Then, appearing contrite, he went on to assert his innocence that he “would never have supported rebels who committed atrocities. What I did to help bring peace to Sierra Leone was done with honour.” Personally, I was not surprised by his claim of being a victim of powerful international conspirators as I anticipated it. I was only amused by this performance, which was impressive for a play-acting that only the Nigerian playwright, Wole Soyinka, could h ave written.
Charles Taylor, a “victim of an international conspiracy?” Perhaps, he was. But no one should shed tears for him. He began his dance with the United States intelligence in the late 1970s as a member of the United States based Liberian students’ organisation, ULAA. But the real benefits for Taylor came in 1985 when he mysteriously escaped from a federal prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he was being detained in response to an extradition request for him by the Doe regime. In an interview with Collin Waugh in 1992, author of “Charles Taylor and Liberia: Ambition and Atrocity in Africa’s Lone Star State,” Taylor divulged how he escaped from the prison with the assistance of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He told Waugh that “I wouldn’t be in Liberia t oday if it weren’t for the CIA. One night I was told that the gate to my cell wouldn’t be locked, that I could walk anywhere. I walked out of jail, down the steps out into America. Nobody stopped me and I came home to Liberia.”
In Taylor’s own words, it leaves no doubts that he was a satisfied beneficiary of the designs of a United States led international conspiracy that, using all its systems, catapulted him to the head of the leadership of an armed rebellion that ended the life of Doe’s regime. Not only did this conspiracy plan and execute his escape from prison, it ensured his election as president of Liberia. He took this backing as a cart blanche for him to behave like his powerful foreign benefactors, destabilising other countries without any consequences. Therefore, delusional and arrogant, Taylor ignored that a partnership in an international conspiracy, especially one led by the United States, is always a perilous game of Russian roulette in which steps taken unilaterally by smaller players, to t he chagrin of the big players, always lead to the demise of the former.
In Liberia, thousands of miles away from The Hague, Taylor’s supporters were vociferously defiant that their man should not have been forced from office and put on trial for crimes committed in the civil war of another country. They argue that he was democratically elected and, therefore, see his forced removal from office, arrest and conviction as a national humiliation. Perhaps it is. But no law abiding Liberians should shed tears for Taylor. For his supporters, one understands why they have missed him. No one is useful as a leader without followers who see the relevance of their existence and purpose in the approval, inspiration, and vision of the leader. Taylor’s followers were violent and excelled in lawlessness and Taylor was violent and personally embraced lawlessness as pres ident. This created the climate of impunity for his followers to terrorise peaceful Liberians as they wished. But with his departure, the climate of impunity evaporated, leaving them powerless.
Taylor launched his armed rebellion to remove a swinish tyrant from power because, as he said in an ABC Nightline interview, to “bring about fair play and justice in Liberia.” In other subsequent interviews, he justified himself to Liberians by asserting that he had launched the rebellion to restore their civil rights, civil liberties, empower them and establish their sovereignty that had been suppressed by the Doe regime. Liberian voters, the majority, believed Taylor as they ignored the painful recollection of the mindless atrocities and destructions committed by his men and voted for him. But, as president, Taylor quickly relinquished his belief in the effectiveness of justice, fair play and democratic dialogue with his critics. He put the consolidation of personal power and the protection of greed and privilege above the interests of Liberia as he imposed reign of terror on the country with his immediate family members in the vanguard enforcing it with despicable brutality.
Generally, the Taylor’s administration, which was elected, was ironically characterised by extrajudicial killings of ordinary Liberians. Chucky Taylor, Taylor’s son and commander of the notorious anti-terrorist unit, became a master above the laws of Liberia. He and his bodyguard- thugs routinely arrested and tortured ordinary Liberians because they overtook his car in traffic. Some were summarily shot to death in public while others were taken to his military base and tortured to death. Although this behaviour was in violation of Liberian criminal law, Taylor did nothing to stop it.
There was also Joe Tate, police director and Taylor’s cousin. As police director, Tate saw his job description to include the violation, if not the suppression, of civil liberties and civil rights of Liberians. Liberians who criticized government’s shortcomings in speeches and conversations were summarily arrested and punished. Offices of newspapers that published such speeches were raided by the police and their reporters taken to jail and tortured. The brutality employed by Tate to harass and intimidate the press into silence was brutally efficient that some journalists reluctantly resorted to self-censorship while others fled into exile.
In 1999, one Henry Cassell, Taylor’s brother-in-law and deputy commissioner of immigration, mindlessly shot and killed a taxi driver in broad daylight for overtaking his car in traffic. Mr. Cassell was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. However, he was promptly pardoned and freed by Taylor.
Yet, in his address to the court, Taylor tried to depict himself as a caring man with an unequivocal commitment to fairness and justice. He told the court that “during the war in Liberia, I punished people responsible for crimes against others. Some were executed for rape, murder and other serious crimes. Let me be very, very clear about one thing: I do not condone impunity in any shape or form.” Really? Then which Charles Taylor, as elected president, swore to uphold the laws of Liberia but allowed his son, cousin and brother-in-law to senselessly murder people in cold blood with impunity? If, as president, he did not allow the Liberian judicial system to determine the guilt or innocence of his followers who committed murders in peace time, he wants for us to believe him that he di d not condone impunity for people who committed murders in his name in lawless rebel land? In fact, as its modus operandi during the war, Taylor’s rebel organisation only assigned senior military ranks to those who committed grotesque murders in his name. So, if he punished people for crimes against others, it is reasonable to assume that it was those he personally had no use for and who were not related to him.
Taylor’s effort to dislodge Doe from power destroyed whatever development that had taken place and automatically halted whatever development that was taking place in Liberia. Everything that constituted infrastructure development in Liberia was destroyed. Buildings that housed schools, hospitals and community health centers were damaged, leaving the educational and healthcare systems unable to provide needed services to students and the sick. Destruction to roads and bridges made travelling inconveniently challenging, if not impossible. Also, the rebellion disrupted lives in the rural areas and dislocated people as they sought safe havens from village to village from predatory combatants who robbed and tortured them and gang-raped their daughters. All these conditions, at the end of t he civil war, presented national development challenges for anyone who became president of Liberia.
As fate would have it, Taylor was elected president. Having led the rebellion that destroyed the country’s infrastructure, expectations were high that Taylor would take on and meet the challenges of reconstruction and development. But he failed miserably. In Gbarnga, the city that served as his headquarters during the civil war, Taylor did not repair a single one-mile road nor construct a two-room school building for kindergarten pupils. While ordinary Liberians struggled daily to meet the demands of life, in the absence of healthcare services, quality education, sanitation services, improved roads, pipe-borne water and electricity, he and his cronies rode around Monrovia in the latest expensive automobiles. The only concern Taylor had was that his then wife, now senator, Jewel Howard , did not recruit young women for him to satisfy his sexual appetite.
Taylor became president at a time Liberia was at a dangerous crossroad in its history because of his armed rebellion that is believed to have taken the lives of more than 200,000 people, displaced others, and destroyed the infrastructure of the country. At this crossroad, Taylor’s presidency began a public transaction with history. But, in more than six years, he did nothing to serve the greater good of all. He had neither visions nor imaginative dreams to find and use avenues of complex thread of reasoning to address the problems of Liberia. Taylor was elected democratically to govern democratically. But he ruled Liberia as a tyrant with Napoleonic delusions. For such president, Liberia should not shed tears. Goodbye Charley!