The Dilemma Posed by the Newsweek Story, "A Big Man in Africa"

By William E. Allen

The Perspective
May 15, 2001

Jeff Bartholet's "A Big Man in Africa" (Newsweek, 14 May 2001) presents a real dilemma for Africans. The author clearly outlines the shameless corruption and autocracy of President Charles Taylor of Liberia. The information can go a long way in shaping public opinions in Western capitals, which tend to influence foreign policy. This brings me to the problem that I find with Bartholet's article. While it is strong on details, it falls far short on causal explanations. Without an explanation into the causes for the evolution of the "Big Men in Africa," Charles Taylor and his likes are portrayed as a unique African phenomenon. Furthermore, Bartholet's comments (e.g., "penchant for violence") suggest that Africans are inherently a decadent people.

There are instances where Africans should rightly take the blame for the emergence of some of the bloodthirsty dictators that plunder, kill and maim innocent civilians. However, an analysis of some specific cases of corruption and autocracy in Africa will show that Western capitals are just as culpable - if not the actual architects of these evils. For example, Taylor's murderous odyssey to the presidency began, to a large extent, with the 1985 "jailbreak" in the United States. Was the usual routine investigation conducted into how he "escaped" from a Massachusetts prison and went through US airport security (with a Liberian passport?) to somehow "resurface" in Africa and lead the incursion? The fact that Taylor's lawyer (or one of them) was a high-profile, ex-government official, should have inspired Newsweek's "senior writer" to ask the hard questions: e.g., Had Taylor not "escaped" at the time that he did, would the thousands of innocent Liberians he and his gang butchered, still be alive?

Moreover, how did the 1997 elections legitimize Taylor's tyranny, given that Bartholet concedes that "no country was willing to properly disarm fighters ahead of the vote?" The author writes that Liberians elected Taylor "in part" out of fear. He does not, however, give the "other part" of the reason. Had Bartholet inquired, he would have discovered that the United States and its allies worked hard to stage the "fair and free" election, although Liberians at home and abroad warned against holding the election at the time because Taylor's Reign of Terror gave him an unfair advantage. The pivotal question is why was it necessary to hold the election in such an undemocratic atmosphere (i.e., armed fighters terrorizing citizens)? And Bartholet speaks of the Taylor "blood diamonds" but says nothing of France's role in Taylor's timber trade which is reportedly the conduit for the diamonds. The revenue from both the timber and diamonds helps to maintain local thugs and mercenaries that prey on the innocent, among others. France's reluctance to go along with the UN-sponsored sanctions against Taylor should have raised another "red flag" for the "senior writer." Only time will tell if the final watered-down version, the UN-sponsored "targeted sanctions," will achieve the desired results. I also wonder if the author would refer to an American student who earned B-minus and C (he does not say what Taylor's other grades were) as "well educated?" Or is Taylor well educated because he intersperses his speech with American idioms such as "Where is the beef"and "Don't go there?"

Africa is indeed "littered with Big Men . . . " in the words of the author. But some of these plunderers and murderers are "imports." Could the Savimbis and Mobutus survive as long as they do without the generous assistance from their transatlantic overlords? Had the senior writer probed, he would have noticed that some of the overseas assistance is used to maintain what he calls the "vampire state." How long could the "illiterate," slain former Liberian military dictator, Samuel Doe, maintain his ruthless regime without US intelligence and arms? Bartholet does not mention that in 1985 Liberians overwhelmingly elected Jackson Doe in perhaps the nation's first free election and the US State Department congratulated "winner" dictator Samuel Doe, although it admitted there were "irregularities." At the time the US State Department argued that in spite of the irregularities, the election was fair according to "African standards" (whatever that means). The word "irregularities" was actually a euphemism for the glaring election fraud that the dictator had the audacity to commit under the gaze of Western journalists, election monitors from the US and, most significantly, US Ambassador William Swing. Swing's role in solidifying the despotism of Samuel Doe during the early years of the military coup could be the subject for a useful dissertation in political intrigues. During Swing's tenure, "socialist plots" were efficiently uncovered and the "masterminds" routinely imprisoned; a number of the accused were summarily executed after "trials".

Bartholet's narrative is the kind of journalism that makes historians chuckle about how journalists often end up being the authors of the first drafts of history. His article contains all the ingredients for a solid inquiry. But for now it remains a rough draft and, perhaps, a good rough draft. However, Bartholet must rework it so that the American public can better understand the evolution of the "Big Men in Africa"; they are as big as Washington and its allies are prepared to bloat them.

Editor's Note: William E. Allen is a doctoral candidate at Florida International University

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