for National Geographic News
Murder and rape, guns smuggling and blood diamonds, the abduction and use of child soldiers, alleged terrorism ties and prison escapesthe 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.
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.
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