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Liberia President Taylor's Life of Crime

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 25, 2003
 
Murder and rape, guns smuggling and blood diamonds, the abduction and
use of child soldiers, alleged terrorism ties and prison
escapes—the rap sheet on Liberia's flamboyant president, Charles
Taylor, reads like a gangster crime bio.

Now, as Liberia's civil war spirals further out of control, Taylor is, once again, at the heart of the trouble. American President George Bush has demanded that Taylor leave Liberia before the United States considers sending peacekeepers to stabilize the West African country. The mercurial Taylor says he will only leave once peacekeepers arrive.


There is good reason for Taylor to stay. Liberia's on-again, off-again civil war has made him a very wealthy man. Therein lies the problem, experts say. As with many other African conflicts, Liberia's turmoil is caused mainly by the ambition and greed of men like Taylor.

"Taylor is a man with brazen audacity," said Gabriel Williams, the Liberian author of Liberia: Heart of Darkness, who lives as an exile in Sacramento, California. "He's charismatic, charming, and extravagant. He's an influence peddler who knows what it takes to build a close net of loyalty and a solid support base around himself."

Charles Taylor was born in 1948 to a family of Americo-Liberians, the elite minority that grew out of the former American slaves who emigrated to Liberia in the early 1800s.

His reputation as a troublemaker began early. According to George Kun, a Liberian refugee who is now a fellow at Refugees International in Washington, D.C., young Taylor used to beat his own father if his school fees were late, and threatened to burn down his school after he lost a student council election.

Personal Ambition

Like many Americo-Liberians, Taylor studied in the United States, though it's unclear if he ever graduated with an economics degree from Bentley College in Massachusetts, as has been reported.

He returned to Liberia shortly after Master Sergeant Samuel Doe mounted Liberia's first successful coup d'etat in 1980. The coup marked the end of the dominance by the Afro-American settlers.

Taylor, however, had his own ambition. One morning, while the director of the Government Agency Service, which controlled much of Liberia's budget, was out of the office, Taylor reportedly marched into the director's office and declared himself head of the agency.

Doe liked the brash Taylor. But the two fell out after Doe accused Taylor of embezzling almost one million dollars (U.S.). Taylor fled back to the United States, where he was detained under a Liberian extradition warrant and locked up at the Plymouth County House of Correction in Massachusetts.

What happened next is sketchy. Some say Taylor escaped from prison by sawing through the bars on his cell window. Others believe he received help to escape from influential Americans who wanted him to return to Liberia and overthrow Doe's regime, which had grown corrupt and violent.

Back in Liberia, Taylor quickly established himself as a rebel leader, forming the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a cult-like army that soon overran much of the countryside and whose ranks swelled to 10,000 fighters, including many teenagers on drugs.

The movement, however, soon split. After rebel dissidents in 1990 captured and executed President Doe, the country fell into complete chaos. Rebels began fighting each other, remnants of the Army, and Nigerian peacekeepers who had been called in to restore stability.

Taylor, the schemer, used the chaos to cultivate contacts abroad. He befriended Libya's radical leader, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, and is believed to have helped overthrow the president of Burkina Faso in 1987. The main beneficiary, President Blaise Campore, is a friend of Taylor's who has allowed Taylor to use Burkina Faso as a base of operations.

"Taylor has a way of ingratiating himself with those in power," said Williams. "He built strong international links with businesses in America and Europe, particularly in France, and established connections at the highest levels with governments in Africa."

At one point, territory occupied by Taylor's rebels reportedly became France's third largest supplier of tropical timber.

From Rebel to President

Kun, the refugee, remembers all too well Taylor's "Operation Octopus," an all-out assault on the capital, Monrovia, in 1992, which drove Kun's family out of their suburban home.

"Not knowing where we were heading, I decided to go back to the house and pack some food," he said. "The rebels closed in on our house. On my way out, I was under intense gunfire. I was shot in the leg, and my life almost came to an abrupt end."

In 1995, a peace agreement was signed, eventually leading to a presidential election in 1997, which Taylor won in a landslide. Observers called the vote "free and fair," but experts argued that most Liberians simply voted for Taylor out of fear. As Taylor's campaign slogan said: "He killed my pa, he killed my ma. I'll vote for him."

Once in power, Taylor turned his government into an illegal money-making machine, according to analysts. He supported a brutal rebel movement in neighboring Sierra Leone, which was responsible for killing tens of thousands of people and hacking off the limbs of countless others.

The rebels supplied Taylor's regime with a steady stream of diamonds, looted from Sierra Leone's mines. In return, Taylor supplied the rebels with weapons, secured in Eastern Europe and shipped to Liberia. Trafficking experts said Liberia turned into a huge arms bazaar.

"Taylor has used Liberia to host one giant party for arms dealers and diamond smugglers with money and connections," said Alice Blondel, lead campaigner for Global Witness, a London-based human rights organization. "Anyone is welcome, as long as you play by Taylor's rules."

Global Witness even accuses Taylor of collaborating with al Qaeda, the terrorist network, a charge first reported by The Washington Post. A European investigation found evidence that Liberia hosted senior terrorist operatives who conducted a U.S. $20 million diamond-buying spree that effectively cornered the market on the region's diamond business.

According to the probe, Taylor himself received a U.S. $1 million payment for harboring the operatives after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

But with international efforts to crack down on the trade in illicit diamonds, Taylor has turned much of his attention back to Liberia's largest natural resource: timber. Like diamonds, the business is based on trade. Ships arriving in Liberia offload arms and take timber in return, experts say.

Global Witness estimates that the Liberian logging industry generated U.S. $100 million in profits in 2000, a figure that may have gone up since then.

Most of the shipments go through the Malaysian-registered Oriental Timber Company, which has links to international arms traffickers.

Earlier this month, the United Nations imposed an embargo on Liberia's timber trade. But according to Global Witness, Taylor has evaded the embargo by smuggling the timber through neighboring Ivory Coast.

Getting Away With It

A lay preacher in the Baptist faith, Taylor, who has been married three times and has several children, has denied all charges of criminal wrongdoing. He has maintained that he is simply misunderstood.

Some experts say Taylor has been able to get away with murder for so long because he enjoyed the support of key African leaders, French business contacts, and prominent African Americans like Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Lately, that support has dissipated. Taylor now has an indictment for war crimes hanging over his head. The prosecutor for the United Nations Special War Crimes Tribunal for Sierra Leone alleges that Taylor led an international joint criminal enterprise that reaped millions of dollars in profits from the illicit sale of diamonds.

Nigeria has offered Taylor asylum. With rebel troops poised to take over Monrovia any day, most analysts believe Taylor has no choice but to once again flee Liberia. Others are not so quick to count him out. After all, Charles Taylor has made an art of evading the law.
 

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