Taylor's Millions Target US Politicians
By Tom Kamara
Sept 19, 2000

The Liberian Government, currently on a PR crusade to win vital converts in countering and reversing its pariah image, has launched a new lobby group to complement dozens others already in operation. The group's aim is to intensify the campaign of influencing American elections and politicians. The team, Liberia Support Network, says one of its immediate objectives is to initiate an avalanche of legal and other actions against Liberians opposed to President Taylor and allegedly destabilizing the country from the United States.

A man called Sam Jackson heads the group. Sam Jackson was one of the young recruits of Samuel Doe's 1980 military junta that violently toppled the oligarchy of the Americo-Liberians, descendents of freed slaves who ruled the country from 1822 to 1980. Sam Jackson served as the junta's Deputy Minister of Commerce, but was sacked for alleged misappropriation, just as Taylor was and arrested and jailed in the US on similar charges, although he escaped to wage the Liberian civil war, which made him president. Both men deny the theft charges levied against them by the junta. Like many Liberians, Jackson fled to the US after his dismissal, later admitting having problems with drugs from which he said he has now recovered. Since Taylor's election, Jackson has been shuttling between Liberia and the US, purportedly advising the Government on policy and strategy.

Prior to the formation of the lobby group, President Taylor asked US-based Liberians to initiate legal actions against the American Government for allegedly demonizing him through accusations of stealing Sierra Leone's diamonds and backing that country's ruthless rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Another case Taylor has filed in London against Dr. Stephen Ellis, author of The Mask of Anarchy, in which the writer detailed Taylor's alleged cannibalism, still hangs. Sources say prosecution of the case would require Taylor's presence in a British court. He was deported from London in the 1980s. With Britain's campaign against him for allegedly acerbating the Sierra Leone war, along with London's successful campaign that suspended $48m of aid to Liberia, the likelihood of Taylor's presence in a British court is slim, particularly with the Pinochet factor still looming. Taylor's failure to attend the OAU conference in Lome, Togo this year, it has been hinted, was due to fears of possible arrest in connection with the Sierra Leone war. The former warlord has unsuccessfully tried to visit the US since his election, but mass protests by human rights groups and Liberian community organizations, including a letter reminding US authorities of the 5 American Catholic nuns Taylor's rebels killed in 1991, canceled the visit despite sustained efforts by his PR teams. But their PR campaign led to the dropping of charges against the Liberian President for breaking jail in Boston, Massachusetts.

Many Liberians, now facing mass deportation and scrambling for political asylum since their Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) will expire this year, laughed off Taylor's request for their collective legal action against America on his behalf. "If anything, we would like to take him to court a million times over, skin him alive, for the humiliation, suffering, bondage he has subjected us to for almost a decade with no indication of an end. Sue America? If visas were available, the whole of Liberia would migrate to America, leaving, Taylor and his hoodlums to roam around in the forests eating one another," said a former University professor now in exile in New Jersey.

However, the task before Jackson's lobby group, believed to be financed by Taylor, is to change minds where other giants in the American political arena have virtually failed. Their challenge is to convince the world that Taylor has been unnecessarily and unfairly maligned in the Sierra Leone war and the resulting orgy of child amputations which have hit world TV screens. More than that, the group faces an uphill battle in presenting convincing evidence that their President, now dubbed by the British as "the Milosevic of Africa", is serious about regional peace, human rights, democratization, and therefore development," said a former politician who now lives in Germany.

But Taylor's problem is far from a shortage of fans and promoters in America. To the contrary, it is the catalogue of crimes hanging over him that has overshadowed whatever goodwill there is amongst his many influential admirers. Their job is made more tedious by the fact that there are no indications of a letup in the deterioration of human rights conditions. From the beginning and perhaps now, he benefited immensely from the backing of some leading figures in the Democratic Party and American politics. Says Jon Lee Anderson, who lived in Liberia in his youth, in an earlier article in The New Yorker, "The Devil They Know":

"Despite the fact that during the civil war Charles Taylor commanded one of the most vicious armies of modern times, and is widely believed to have abused his power for personal enrichment on a grand scale, he has an impressive roster of liberal American friends and acquaintances that includes the Reverend Jesse Jackson and former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Taylor enjoys an especially close relationship with former President Jimmy Carter, a fellow-Baptist, who travels frequently to Liberia to oversee 'democracy building' and human rights programs that the Carter Center foundation operates there. Taylor's lawyer and PR man in Washington, D.C., is Lester Hyman, a Kennedy protege and the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Massachusetts. Hyman says that when President Clinton was in Africa this spring he telephoned Taylor from Air Force One and gave him a "pep talk that was very encouraging"

As can be seen, outcries against horrendous abuses, along with detailed, factual reports by the US State Department, have not dented the enthusiasm of some leading Americans from seeing him as a man with redeeming values. Key among his friends is African-American Congressman Donald Payne with whom he has cultivated strong ties. Ryan Lizza writes in The New Republic:

"Indeed, Payne's relationship with Taylor goes back to the early '80s, when Taylor was in jail in Massachusetts and Payne, then a member of the Newark municipal council, spoke out against his extradition to Liberia. Payne says he was simply helping Taylor at the behest of a friend and didn't actually meet the Liberian until 1997, when he attended Taylor's presidential inauguration in Monrovia. But since then the two men have clearly become friends. One visitor to Payne's office tells of watching the congressman hang up the phone with Taylor and remark that the Liberian president had just told him he was tired of dealing with Jeter, the U.S. envoy for Liberia. (Taylor is known to dislike Jeter, once referring to him as a "burnt-out" diplomat.) Taylor suggested that Payne become the U.S. envoy instead. 'What surprised me was that Payne didn't say anything,' says the visitor. 'He seemed flattered.' Payne says he does not remember any such conversation. At one point, according to an associate of Payne's, the New Jersey congressman jokingly complained that he was getting so many calls from Taylor that he was tired of talking to him. Payne insists he has talked on the phone to Taylor no more than half a dozen times"

Similarly, Lizza tells us that the relationship between Taylor and the Rev. Jackson actually solidified after Taylor's 1997 presidential victory:

"[Jesse] Jackson first met the Liberian dictator on an official trip to West Africa in February 1998. Taylor, worried that Jackson, like prior American diplomats, would hector him about human rights, invited an old Liberian friend of Jackson's named Romeo Horton to brief him on America's new envoy. Horton says Jackson and Taylor's meeting went extremely well. 'Instead of meeting an adversary,' says Horton, Taylor 'met a friend.' The following month, when Clinton toured Africa, Jackson arranged a 30-minute phone call between the two leaders from Air Force One. Upon returning home, Jackson organized a conference on 'reconciliation' for Liberians at his PUSH headquarters in Chicago. According to Harry Greaves Jr., co-founder of a Liberian opposition party, who attended the Chicago conference, 'The message was, `[Taylor's] been elected, and let's give him a chance.' It's all about p.r., and Jackson is part of that campaign.' As Leslie Cole, an old friend of Taylor's, wrote to the new president soon after Jackson's conference, 'Getting Jesse on the bandwagon was a good and smart idea'"

Other contacts include Black Congressional leaders, and the goodwill Taylor has enjoyed amongst them has filtered down to his RUF allies. The rebel's former spokesman, Omrie Golley, was often presented on CNN as a suave and polished politician determined to end the war. Lizza's findings throws light on the forces that influenced the now collapsed Lome Agreement, one of Rev. Jackson's achievements in Africa. Writes Lizza:

"Within three months of Golley's February 1999 visit to the State Department and the congressional offices of Donald Payne, the phone call initiated by Howard Jeter had led to a government/RUF cease-fire. With striking unanimity, Sierra Leonean intellectuals believe that Kabbah, a rather weak president, agreed to the cease-fire under pressure from Jackson and against the advice of some of his ministers and prominent members of civil society. Days before the cease-fire, Jackson and Kabbah met up in Ghana, where both were attending a conference. From Ghana, Jackson abruptly flew Kabbah to the talks in Lomé, Togo, where the cease-fire agreement was signed. One Freetown newspaper even reported that Kabbah was "kidnapped" by Jackson. 'The story was,' explains Zainab Bangura, "that he was kidnapped, because [Kabbah] went [to the conference in Ghana] with his finance minister and information minister"--at the time both men were thought to be against signing the agreement--"and they all went to the airport to go to fly to Lomé, and Jesse Jackson said there were no seats for them. So they didn't go"

The difficulty of Taylor's PR men no matter how much they get paid is polishing a rugged image that from all indications cannot absorb polish no matter how hard they rub. Years of continuing atrocities have left their indelible marks on the minds of many that the man is simply irredeemable. Anderson:

"More Western diplomats, relief workers, and businessmen in Liberia say that the pattern of 'pillage and plunder' instituted by Taylor during the war years has continued during his tenure in office. 'He is very corrupt", said one diplomat, who charges Taylor with operating a 'dual system': the official one and the private system based on profits from illegal extraction of timber, gold and diamonds. Taylor is also believed to be receiving a cut of rice and other necessities. The diplomat calculates Taylor private revenues to be 'possibly equal..."

But Taylor's drive to woo American politicians and influentials has been unrelenting because of his belief that Washington holds the key to funding his corrupt regime. Not satisfied with the performance of Rev. Jackson and others of the Black Caucus, he hired former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen as his PR, hoping that Cohen's influence would lead to much needed US aid with the opening of doors in Washington for the type of massive aid Doe received. Frustrated over US snub, he complained on Dutch TV that while his predecessor operated with US$500m budget, he was stuck with $50m. But according to reports, Taylor was earning about US$500m from Sierra Leone diamonds alone by 1995, two years before he became President.

His ambition to enter the US as a conqueror (since he was imprisoned here for alleged theft) and make a grandstanding at the UN faltered due to the mass protests from many human rights groups and individuals. But he has been successful in wooing the Congressional Black Caucus and Civil Rights leaders. Ties between him and the Rev. Jackson remain strong, evidenced by Rev. Jackson's defense of, "He [Taylor] is not encouraging the [Sierra Leone] war." Rev. Jackson and Taylor's household maintain close ties. For example, the reverend's goddaughter was seriously wounded, and the former Executive Director of the NAACP, Earl Shinhoster, killed in a car accident as Alabama State Police were providing VIP courtesy to Mrs. Jewel Taylor, then on a tour of Alabama, Montgomery, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Dallas. According to Donna Muhammad, "Mr. Shinhoster was serving as one of the Atlanta hosts to the Reconstruction & Revitalization Tour for Liberia. The tour, designed to raise international awareness of Liberia's internal reconstruction and economic revitalization, included Her Excellency Madame Jewel Howard Taylor, the First Lady of the Republic of Liberia; Honorable Dunbar Jenkins, minister of Lands, Mines and Energy; Mrs. Sandra Howard, advisor to the President on Economic Affairs; and Mr. Sam Ricks, consultant to the minister of Energy."

Mrs. Taylor's "Reconstruction & Revitalization Tour" was to be followed by the "goodwill tour," arranged by Rev. John Gimenez, bishop of Virginia Beach-based Rock Church, with eight congregations in Liberia. The "goodwill tour" bungled when reports emerged of her husband's implications in the death of his vice president. The scandal led to the cancellation of the tour and her immediate return home, according to the Virginia Pilot.

But like many Americans, Rev. Gimenez seems not to have been informed about Taylor's horrible human rights abuses. He told the Virginia Pilot, after hearing of the execution and mutilation of some of his Liberian flock, opposition politician Samuel Dokie and his wife and two others:

"It was terrible what happened to Dokie,'' Gimenez said. ``His wife, who was a wonderful lady -- they just chopped her up in pieces. Even Dokie's children believe Taylor did it. I don't know one way or the otherIt could have been him. I'm not saying he didn't do it. Dokie was very vocal against Taylor in the elections. If Taylor was behind it, nobody knows.''

But in spite of this, the cleric has been so impressed with Liberia's current political setup that he has initiated plans to build a TV and radio station in the country (among his many projects) regardless of abundant evidence of clampdown on independent media and journalists.

According to Liz Szabo of the Virginia Pilot, the genesis of Rev. Gimenez's links to Liberia's corrupt and callous warlords turned born again Christians in search of money began at the time when they were storming the world in search of funding for their holocaust. It was then that one of their fundraisers, Gene Cox, met Rev. Gimenez. The story is one of a web of con artists capitalizing on what seems to be the sincere zeal of a man (Gimenez) determined to spread the "Word". It is evident that with little more information such as the bogus New Jersey-based business which "Church Elder" Woewiyu and Taylor ran during Doe's reign that siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from Liberia, Rev. Gimenez would have "saved" this "Church elder" from coming any where near money. From indications, Woewiyu's prime objective in establishing Gimenez's Liberian "congregations" in multiplying numbers was money before God. The tale of Woewiyu, Cox, and their clans encounter with Gimenez is wrapped in greed and graft. Liz Szabo writes:

"Gimenez said he had never even heard of the West African country before 1996. Then, a man named Gene Cox approached him about donating money to Taylor's rebel army. Gimenez said he wasn't interested. 'I told him, `What you need is Jesus, not guns," Gimenez recollected:

"Cox came to Rock Church and was saved, Gimenez said. Cox then called Taylor's defense minister, Thomas Woewiyu, who was in the United States raising funds, and invited him to the Kempsville church. Woewiyu received the Lord and was baptized, Gimenez said.

"Woewiyu told Gimenez he should start a church in Liberia. Cox's sister, the Rev. Rosetta Cox, agreed to go. But she had only been in Africa a short time when fighting became so intense that she and other Americans had to be evacuated to safety.

"Months later, Cox and Gimenez returned to Liberia, meeting transitional leaders and eventually Taylor, who was elected president in 1997. Although the State Department says the elections were free, officials add that they were conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation.

"Woewiyu, an elder in a Liberian Rock Church, was promoted to labor minister in Taylor's government and has since been elected senator, Gimenez said. The wife of the country's new vice president is a member, too, he said.

"It was Woewiyu who suggested that Rock Church play host to Taylor and the first lady during their trips here, said Gimenez, who added that he had little to do with arranging the visits. ' I'm not close with him,'' Gimenez said of Taylor. ``I'm not his buddy. He's got to answer to God one day.''

The paper said although Rev. Gimenez acknowledged that Taylor is a former warlord, he concluded with available information that: "Taylor also is a huge improvement over Liberia's previous president, Samuel Doe, who was widely known to be corrupt and vicious".

Here lies the power and evil of misinformation. Had the Rev. Gimenez known the real difference between Doe's and Taylor's Liberia, and that Taylor and Doe were partners who fell off over sharing of the booty, he would have been more careful in reaching such clearly erroneous conclusions. What would have happened if Rev. Gimenez knew the real stories behind the death of 250,000 people, 45,000 of them children from the war and its related causes is now guesswork. It is highly unlikely that Rev. Gimenez knew of Taylor's active participation in the coup that brought Doe to power and that he was one of the most corrupt officials in the junta. Nor was he told that according to Church figures, over 10,000 women were raped by competing rebel factions, including Taylor's NPFL which murdered 5 Catholic nuns. But Rev. Gimenez admits that: "You hear a lot of things about Charles Taylor", adding to the amazement of many Liberians and others familiar with the country, "But he has done a marvelous job. If you had seen the country after the civil war, you'd see. He's brought in a lot of business.'' Other American Church figures more informed on the country find such statements baffling.

Says Rev. Jeri Bishop of the Methodist Church, one of Liberia's mainstream churches. "The people there, they're scared to death of him,'' Bishop said of Taylor. "I find it difficult that the (Rock) church is going to hail this man who began such a brutal war in Liberia,'' The Virginian Pilot reported. It added that:

"Binaifer Nowrojee of Human Rights Watch returned from Liberia in May. Her research found many cases of civil rights abuses, including the silencing of media outlets such as Star Radio and The New Democrat newspaper. Nowrojee recommended that Norfolk limit its involvement with Liberia to humanitarian aid such as food, books or medicine". It quoted human rights worker as saying, "A church that would really have the welfare of Liberians at heart would not support this government, or Taylor He charted the course of modern warfare.''

Thus, the rhetoric of human rights, transparency in government and adherence to moral values led many to conclude that Taylor, perhaps the worst warlord West Africa has produced in recent times, would have been denied legitimacy by world opinion. To the contrary, he became and remains a darling of many within America.

"Every society indeed has its disciples that preach, promote and protect its lunatic fringes", says a Liberian political activist in Europe. President Taylor's best PR is to do the right thing in Liberia. Perceptions about the country will not change by pouring money on American politicians. It only exposes the naiveté of the Government. Good luck to the Liberia Support Network. The country needs all the support it can get, something difficult in view of prevailing conditions fostered and encouraged by President Taylor.