What Taylor Should Expect from the Bush Administration

By Alhaji G.V. Kromah

The Perspective
Jan 19, 2001

The dictatorial regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia may have been nightmarishly watching the US Presidential election twisting with a potential Al Gore victory. Earlier this year, the Clinton-Gore Administration banned Taylor government officials from entering the United States, finally deciding to apply more stick than carrot in dealing with the Liberian dictator. Taylor's public relations phalanx built in Washington with millions of dollars to woo American decision-makers inevitably collapsed under the weight of his own mounting notoriety. It would be illusion if the Monrovia establishment takes solace that Gore did not emerge, and George W. Bush may not prioritize Africa.

The Liberian pariah must be sorely mindful of a powerful Republican Senator who rigorously believes, "There can be no peace in Sierra Leone until the strongman of neighboring Liberia, Charles Taylor, is brought to heel." In an article carried in the May 9 edition of the Washington Post last year, New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg said, "as long as Taylor rules Liberia, Sierra Leone's anguish will continue." As the Chief Deputy Whip in the Senate Republican Leadership, the 53 year old Lawyer wields considerable influence in identifying senate agenda. He is particularly close to the powerful Republican Senate leader Trent Lott, who was instrumental in Gregg's becoming a Republican whip.

While Incoming Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor-designate Condoleezza Rice are cautioning against exhaustive US activity around the globe, the two African Americans will certainly not ignore the critical reality of West Africa. Powell has already sounded out warning that the United States under the Bush administration will "stand strong" against "those nations who are poorly led, led by failed leaders pursing failed policies that will give them failed results." Making the comment in accepting his nomination as Secretary of State on December 16, Powell insisted he would serve the "the cause of peace and freedom around the world." Charles Taylor can escape the wrath of a Bush Administration only if he performs a miracle - reverse his game of destabilization in the subregion and uphold human rights in Liberia.

Sierra Leone-Guinea Factor:
The pending American Administration has promised to conduct international affairs in concert with its European allies, a tradition firmly upheld and aptly utilized by the older President George Bush in operations like the Gulf War. And already, Chief US Ally Britain is vehement in its diplomatic effort to neutralize the destructive deeds of people like Taylor in Sierra Leone, a former British colony. London is succeeding in galvanizing support. The Taylor administration is already suffering from a European Union economic sanction and travel ban in some instances.
The trend is intensifying. The United Nations has come out recently with a new report scathingly identifying Taylor as the guru in charge of the unending diamonds-for-guns relations with notorious rebel groups like the so-called Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. A committee of UN experts revealed a wider scope of operation Taylor has launched, naively believing he is acting incognito. According to the report, Liberian registered aircraft are dutifully channeling guns from Europe to destinations in West Africa. The committee is therefore recommending a sanction regime that includes an international travel ban profoundly commensurate with the pariah status of Taylor. The world body is also insisting that Liberian logs and other exports that have kept Taylor lucrative be prohibited on the world market. Taylor has nervously greeted the announcement by herding picketers in the streets and having them deliver a statement of support to him, quite in cadence with decadent Liberian political tradition.

With the RUF rebels in charge of the mineral largesse and virtually getting weapons of their taste, the implications for widespread catastrophe in the subregion are too explosive to be ignored by any leadership in Washington. The international community is faced with Taylor-RUF arrangements, which, among other things, allow the rebel group to freely operate in major Liberian border towns such as Foya. The RUF effectively controls the northwestern Liberian border and the strategic southwestern frontier of Guinea, which is then at the mercy of effortless insurgency from its two neighbors. In border attacks into Guinea in the past eight weeks, the invaders have caused the death of hundreds of civilians.

Since 1997, when Taylor came to power, the RUF has picked up vigor and remains benignant in realizing Taylor's grandiose hope of installing satellite regimes in Sierra Leone and Guinea. Accordingly, Liberia has been an active plotting venue and Sierra Leone the command post for Guineans determined to get rid of the administration of President Lansana Conte. Former Guinean army major, Gbargo Zoumannigui has been the key figure in the anti-Conte operation. He was the leader of the l996 abortive coup which took nearly 24 hours to quell only through a miraculous act of negotiation between the rank and file of the army and Conte himself. Zoumannigui fled to neighboring Mali, and then later to Burkina Faso and Libya. The latter countries provided training and support for Taylor and RUF leader Foday Sankoh. When Taylor became President, it was no surprise that Monrovia would be a crucial center for the Guinean project.

By July l998, a recruiting exercise in the Liberian capital had begun to tap former fighters from all of the erstwhile Liberian factions. Some officers of the defunct United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) were also contacted and had to flee Liberia because of their refusal to cooperate. The officers revealed to me that the plan was to use the RUF to launch the operation from Sierra Leone. The combined rebel operation was to be primarily staged from Koindu, the Sierra Leone town strategically located near where the three countries share borders. The recruitment went on full scale in Monrovia with a two-tier plan Taylor envisaged in his bid to become sole power broker in the subregion.

Under the first objective, it was decided that the Guinean dissidents and Taylor's men along with other fighters would join the RUF to overrun the Sierra Leone government in Freetown. With the country in the hands of the RUF and Taylor, Guinea would then be an easy prey as the second part of the plan. This anticipation eventually led to the RUF attack on Freetown in December, l998. More than 6000 civilians were reportedly killed. The Nigerian armed forces, which were in charge of the West African peacekeeping force protecting the Sierra Leone government, lost more than 700 men before the rebels were repelled from Freetown. The defeat of the RUF initially suffocated the Guinean portion of the Monrovia plan.

There was another critical obstacle that kept the Monrovia plan in check. Disaffected fighters of the dissolved Liberian warring factions, including Taylor's NPFL, organized and began battling Liberian government forces. The fighting occurred in Lofa, Liberia's largest county spread along the Sierra Leone and Guinean borders. For some time, that operation blocked the gunrunning between Monrovia and the RUF in Koindu and Buedu in Sierra Leone. Taylor also had to rely on the RUF entirely to resist the Lofa attack. His commanders in Voinjama, the Lofa capital, were part of the group and therefore put up no resistance when the hour came. Taylor suspected this in advance and called on the RUF to take over the task of subduing the Liberian attackers or risk losing their support from Monrovia. The RUF evidently believed it had no alternative but to engage in one of their fiercest combats since the establishment of the group in l991. It was a battle for survival and the idea of overthrowing the Guinean government as agreed in Monrovia was necessarily shelved.

At the peak of the RUF December attack on Freetown, a special meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was convened to consider further actions against the rebel group and its supporters. At the gathering in the Ivorian capital of Abidjan, delegates from Nigeria and the observer from the United States openly accused Charles Taylor of providing support for the RUF. In London, officials were equally vociferous. Officers of the Nigerian led West African Peace Force in Sierra Leone had long been publicly decrying Taylor for his involvement.

The desperate Liberian culprit sent his late Vice President Enoch Dogolea to lobby for support in Accra, Ghana. The diminutive vice president was stunned when in minutes of meeting with the visibly angry and towering President Jerry Rawlings, he was told that Liberia's support for the rebels was a stab in the back of West African nations. Rawlings went further. Not mentioning Burkina Faso and Libya by name, he said the RUF was receiving help from two other African countries, one in the west and the other in the north. Eyewitnesses say Rawlings was so angry he almost motioned his visitor out. In further protest, he told the shivering Liberian visitor to inform Taylor that the Ghanaian government expected that all Liberian refugees would be immediately evacuated. Of course, the expulsion never occurred.

The American rebuke of Taylor in Abidjan was the first publicly delivered by the United States. Ambassador Howard Jeter bluntly declared in Abidjan that the US had evidence of Taylor's involvement. Taylor took the matter personally and began an evidently unsuccessful smearing campaign against the seasoned and knowledgeable diplomat. First as President Clinton's Special Envoy for the Liberian peace process in l997, Jeter played a crucially supporting role in the concluding of the various peace agreements. A former ambassador to Botswana with stints in other parts of southern and East Africa, Jeter was again quietly instrumental in consummating the Lome Peace agreement between the RUF and the Sierra Leone Government. When Taylor naively launched his smearing campaign against Jeter, he should have known that Washington had reached a zero-tolerance level. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Vicky Huddleston was in Monrovia three months earlier to let Taylor know that the United States was concerned about his possible support for the RUF, even though she said there was no conclusive evidence at that stage. Ambassador Huddleston, who is now head of the US Interest Section (embassy) in Havana, Cuba, said she was unimpressed with the rule of law under Taylor. A month after the Abidjan fireworks, the US State Department itself was putting out hard evidence on the matter and equally instructed its embassy in Monrovia to go public with warnings against Taylor.

As per his character, however, Taylor ultimately chose to single out Jeter, making it appear it was a personal matter between him and the ambassador. Taylor woefully suggested that Rev. Jesse Jackson, a non-employee of the State department, should substitute Jeter, whom he described as a "burnt out" diplomat. Taylor clearly observed that not only did his moves against Jeter proved futile, but also the US was indeed prepared to deal with him over the RUF affair. Thomas Pickering, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, traveled to Monrovia in July last year to verbally deliver the ultimatum that Taylor immediately stops his backing of the RUF or face sanctions. Pickering told Taylor his refusal to withdraw support from the RUF would not only damage relations with Washington but also the rest of the international system. He said Taylor was both "patron and benefactor" in the gunrunning and diamond smuggling from Sierra Leone. The Undersecretary told Taylor he had personally reviewed evidence and intelligence showing the Liberian dictator was providing arms and other support to the RUF. Taylor argued bitterly and did not pay heed to the warning. And indeed, the international sanctions began with the travel ban by the United States and Britain, and the withholding of funds from the EEC.

The United States, which has no colonial history with Sierra Leone, ironically took interest in the crisis much earlier than Britain. It's open secret that the then US Ambassador John Hirsch, more than anyone in the international configuration, was the driving force behind the l996 elections, which brought President Tejan Kabbah to power. Once at the VIP lounge of Lungi International Airport in Freetown, I extended my thirty-minute waiting to a full two-hour stay listening to Hirsch passionately trying to convince me it was necessary to have elections at that time, even though certain parts of the country were still under RUF control. Hirsch succeeded in selling the idea to Washington, which, to the slight embarrassment of Britain, seemed to have assumed a democratically patronizing role for the former British colony.

London eventually redeemed itself through the remarkable performance of its soldiers in defending Freetown against rebel attacks in l999 and in the rescuing of more than 200 UN peacekeeping troops abducted by the RUF. The British brought in special forces and anchored a war freighter nearby to protect the government in Freetown. Military trainers are currently in the Sierra Leone capital to help build a new national army. In fact, the British peace lobby through strong anti-RUF and Taylor measures were so intensive that the Clinton-Gore Administration appeared to have lagged behind in its declared commitment to the Sierra Leone peace process. Thanks to the travel ban on Taylor, his associates and government officials, Washington is once again seen robustly dedicated to dealing with the Sierra Leone problem.

Human Rights Debacle:
Gunrunning and blood diamond dealing to destabilize his neighborhood is only a part of Taylor's problem in West Africa, with the United States, Britain and the rest of the international community. Taylor's domestic record in the short three years he has been President of Liberia abundantly qualifies him for punishment under Colin Powell's announcement that the Bush Administration will appropriately deal with "failed leaders pursing failed policies that will give them failed results."
As early as two months after Taylor assumed the Presidency in August 1997, opposition figures literally began falling victims. The most notorious case was the butchering of former Deputy House Speaker Samuel Dokie along with his wife, sister and security guard. Anxious to dissociate themselves in anticipation of public backlash, officials of Taylor's Justice Ministry nervously announced that the Dokie's were last seen in the custody of agents of the President's Special Security Service. A mock trial was held and expectedly exonerated all of the suspects.

In a review of the first year of the Taylor administration, the Pan African News Agency reported in a July 30, l998 dispatch that, "insecurity and human rights abuses continue to haunt Liberia a year after Taylor became President with promises of delivering stability. " It reported that the atmosphere of paranoia has not escaped the presidency. Within weeks of his inauguration, Taylor announced that he would not abide by the ECOWAS peace arrangement of restructuring the military and security forces with the involvement of ECOMOG, the peacekeeping force. He saturated various government security institutions with former fighters of his NPFL militia.
Judges and lawyers in Liberia describe the judicial branch of the government as an instrument of the Executive Mansion due to the gross interference of the President and his security personnel in judicial matters. At a national reconciliation conference held by the Taylor government in July 1998, Counselor Varney Sherman, a prominent Liberian lawyer, simply described the Judiciary as "rotten." A local newspaper reported that Circuit Court Judge William Metzger disclosed that government security officers pulled a court official out of his vehicle and publicly flogged him. In another court incident, Star Radio in Monrovia reported that an attempt to enforce a debt court judgment against a local bank failed because Security officers from the Executive Mansion blocked the process. The case involved a debt of $600,000. In its 1999 Human rights report, the US State Department said the "judicial system, hampered by political influence; economic pressure, inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of resources, was unable to ensure citizens' rights to due process and a fair trial."

In other incidents of human right violation, Liberian newspapers reported that Taylor's Special Security Service snatched a rights advocate group leader, Madame Nowai Flomo from her Monrovia home without any explanation. She is presumed dead. The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and other human rights organizations are harassed and threatened when they protest against human rights violations. The JPC executive director Kofi Woods was at one point listed for elimination by the State Security. The leakage of the plan received mass public protest, which helped save the human rights activist. In summarizing some of the events under Taylor, the US State Department report indicated that, "The government's human rights record remained poor, and the security forces committed many extra-judicial killings." The report said the Taylor government security forces "violated citizen's privacy rights, conducted warrantless searches, harassment, illegal surveillance, and looted homes."

On a regular basis, the government security forces have physically assaulted journalists, leading to their hospitalization. Journalists Phillip Wisseh, Hassan Bility and Andrew Redd were arrested by government security operatives at various times and manhandled. Redd had to flee for his life, and is now in the United States. The Statement Department report confirmed that the government "restricted freedom of the press and assaulted, threatened, and intimidated journalists into self-censorship." The situation has since not improved.

The Liberian people's problems under Taylor are further exacerbated by their dismal living conditions. Prices of imported and local goods continue to rise and the government is constantly in at least four months behind in paying the meager salaries due its employees. Electricity and pipe-born water and other basic public services seem to be a decade away, and Liberia's largest hospital, the JF Kennedy center closed down last month. The dilapidated road network and public buildings from the war remain the same or have further deteriorated. Taylor and a few local and foreign partners run the economy through petroleum, logging, and mineral and imported rice trade arrangements.

The international community, including Americans and their institutions continue to bear witness to the sustained and gruesome violation of human rights now set in motion in Liberia. About two years ago, a consortium of rights non-governmental organizations called on the United Nations to investigate what they called "Threat to Peace" in Liberia. The group, which included the United States Committee for Refugees, TransAfrica, and the International Rescue Committee, said in their October 21, l998 submission that, "Reports of looting and disregard for civil liberties by government security forces have undermined the confidence of Liberians and others in the government's commitment to reconciliation and the rule of law." The consortium worried that "many have questions about the legitimacy of the treason charges the Liberian government lodged against opposition members." Today several hundred thousand Liberians are living as refugees in the subregion, Europe and the United States for fear of death, harassment, or sheer impossibility to survive economically.

A US-based African group, the Universal Human Rights Center in Boston, said in a press release that "it was in the vital interest of the (Liberian) government, not only to ensure that life and property of citizens and foreigners are protected but it is also important that citizens and foreigners feel secure..." The Boston group protest was launched just five months after Taylor assumed the Presidency.

Recently an American institution, which was stubbornly optimistic about growth of democracy under Taylor, finally packed up and left Liberia. Former US President Jimmy Carter and his Atlanta-based Center were prepared to help build institutions of democratic governance in post war Liberia. This evidently turned out to be wishful. When the group withdrew a few weeks ago, it did so embarrassingly. The Carter Center had fastidiously endeavored to illustrate it was possible to succeed with its objective even under a character such as Charles Taylor. The former President had played a controversial role in the preceding Liberian war when he was perceived to be supportive of Taylor the rebel leader. He since then labored to demonstrate his neutrality and was in Monrovia to observe the 1997 elections and individually meet with leading presidential candidates.

When I met the statesman at his headquarters in Atlanta two years ago, I was particularly touched by his resolve to pursue his humanitarian goals in Liberia. I however concluded that President Jimmy Carter was unrealistically optimistic and excited about building democratic institutions in post-war Liberia under Taylor. Knowing the kind of leadership we were dealing with, I thought it was only fair to admonish the former President against building monumental hopes. Carter's initial target was to strengthen the Human Rights Commission set up by Taylor. He told me he wanted to help the commission function as part of his desire to see the rule of law, genuine reconciliation and honest national reconstruction take place in the embattled West African nation. The commission is today totally limp if not extinct. Its chairman, Judge Hall Badio, fruitlessly complained about the lack of funds and other necessities. It was sad that three years of struggle in Liberia only siphoned vitality out of the Carter initiative.

The Carter experience only further solidifies the growing alienation of the Taylor government in American circles. Public figures like Jesse Jackson and Congressman Donald Payne, who were once criticized by Taylor adversaries for backing the Monrovia regime, are now distancing themselves. Even paid professional Washington lobbyists like the former Assistant Secretary of State, Herman Cohen, have refused to renew their retention contract with Taylor. The resignation of Rachel Gbenyon-Diggs as Taylor's ambassador in Washington in 1999 exposed the fatigue in trying to patch up a pariah image. It is this Liberian backdrop that particularly spells doom for Taylor in the corridors of Congress, and inevitably soon the Bush presidency.

Vital Interest:
Liberia has long been written off as subject of US vital interest. But the West African subregional political and economic web that crucially links the United States makes actions coming out of Liberia difficult to ignore. American men and money are providing specialized military training for Nigerian, Ghanaian and other West African soldiers to take peacekeeping positions in Sierra Leone. The move is helping to nurture US influence in a region assumed to be under the cloak of British and French colonial culture. Top Bush officials like Dick Cheney and Colin Powell with intense defense experience will certainly want to pursue the strategy.

Nigeria, the most powerful in West Africa and the most populous on the continent, is at the center of the US operation for critical economic reasons as well. Oil is the West African nation's mainstay, accounting for about 90% of export earnings. Crude oil reserves are estimated by various sources to average about 22 billion barrels. A member of OPEC with an average annual production of nearly 700 million barrels, Nigeria continues to value its partnership with American and other western companies. The low-sulfur Nigerian oil is luring to the West, where efforts abound to curtail air and environmental pollution.

Last month, Chevron oil of the United States won a major Nigerian bid to prospect oil in newly identified areas. Along with Shell, Chevron will work in the most coveted deep-sea allocation. ExxonMobil and the Italian Agip company won smaller prospecting bids.

It is not clear whether Bush National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice will resign her membership on the Chevron board of directors, but the long-term commitment of the company in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa is vital to the United States. The company has also entered a contract to spearhead the multimillion-dollar West African Gas Pipeline Project. Upon completion, the 620-mile offshore pipeline is expected to have the capacity of shipping 180 million cubic feet of gas per day. The Nigerian gas will be servicing power plants and other facilities in Togo, Benin and Ghana.

The combined oil exploration and gas projects portend significant benefits for the United States, where the simmering global energy threat nearly created a crisis last year. The Clinton Administration had to deflate the political time bomb by authorizing the release of emergency national petroleum reserves. With energy bound to preoccupy the new comers to Washington, whatever affects an important source like Nigeria will have repercussions on the already slowing US economy. After all, Former President George Bush did not mince words in pointing out petrol economics as one of the main reasons for the United States' involvement in the Gulf War.
Besides Advisor Rice, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney is himself familiar with the security and economic implications of the critical commodity. As Defense Secretary during the war and later as CEO of the Halliburton Energy Service Company up to his selection as a Bush running mate, he is in the position to recognize the connection between America's vital interest in Nigerian oil and the threat posed by the spreading anarchy engulfing the West African sub-region. Cheney is familiar with the economic and political intricacies of his former company's host locations in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and other African countries.

It is not fantasy to foresee where trouble hatched in Liberia could literally engulf the subregion and undermine all of these petroleum and gas interests, so vital to the struggling economies of the area as well as the energy needs of the United States and Europe. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) practically led by Nigeria, is saddled with security problems mostly manufactured in Liberia. Nigeria got bigger in stature when it led the efforts to end the seven-year Liberian war. It certainly is doing everything to maintain regional leadership and respect. And the Nigerians are fully aware that only a responsible and effective role in West African conflicts, in addition to proper management of their own governance system, can guarantee their regional leadership. Liberia as a source of West Africa's most explosive problem, therefore remains at the top of the Nigerian agenda. As for now, the fundamental approach, as far as Nigeria is concerned, is to fulfill a sense of moral duty in pursuing the peaceful survival of Sierra Leone, a fellow African and Commonwealth country. Britain shares that obligation, and the United States is certainly not impotent in the matter.

With blood diamond and gunrunning taking international proportions under Taylor's sponsorship, pervasive abuse of human rights and decadent economic conditions in Liberia, the Bush team has opportunity to manifest compassionate conservatism towards innocent victims on both sides of the Atlantic. It is comforting to recall that the Republican leadership in the Senate believes the best relief is to engender a dictator-free Liberia. Charles Taylor should expect no less from a Bush Administration.

Editor's Note: Alhaji G. V. Kromah is a former leader of the ULIMO-K, one of the warring factions that fought during the Liberian seven years civil war. He served as a member of the transitional collective presidency of Liberia from 1995-97.