Charles Taylor Should Face Trial

The past few years has seen the American media periodically shift focus on a variety of “most wanted man” types. Starting with Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks, then soon spreading to Mullah Omar, then to Saddam Hussein. Presently the main name is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian coordinator of the Islamic element of the Iraqi insurgency. Yet it could be argued that perhaps the worst criminal of all (equal even to that of Hussein but with less an arsenal and time) has largely escaped such notice while living in a luxurious government guesthouse in Nigeria for nearly the past two years.

     Charles Taylor served as president of Liberia from 1997-2003; prior to this he was a leading figure in a brutal eight-year civil war that racked the nation and surrounding region. Currently Taylor is under indictment by the UN backed Special Court for Sierra Leone for his training and support of the murderous RUF in next door Sierra Leone who achieved headlines for their choice tactics of hacking off the limbs of civilians in their path (in many instances these attacks were committed by drugged up teenagers; estimates are that up to 80 percent of RUF soldiers were child soldiers, (the Liberian civil war also saw huge numbers of children fighters), eventually overthrowing a democratically elected government. All in all Taylor’s wars left two West African nations destroyed, hundreds of thousands dead, and millions more displaced. Life expectancy in both countries is now under 50 years of age (about 42 and dropping in Sierra Leone).

     A good sense of what life was like for a child soldier in the RUF comes from Douglas Farah’s book Blood from Stones: “One thing the children do remember vividly is the preparation for what they called “mayhem days”, sprees of killing and raping that lasted until the participants collapsed from exhaustion. They said they were given colored pills, most likely amphetamines, and razor blade slits near their temples, where cocaine was put directly into their bloodstreams. The ensuing days were a blur; the children often remembered only the feeling of being invisible, before the drugs wore off.” 1

     In addition to the sheer carnage, is Taylor’s economic plundering of the region: It is estimated by the U.S. government that, as a warlord, Taylor had about $75 million a year passing through his hands; according to a recent report by the International Coalition for Justice, after becoming president this number grew to at least $105 million a year (Taylor wasn’t shy about helping himself to public funds). 

     Much of the money went towards funding the proxy war in Sierra Leone, weapons purchases for which came with the help of many organized crime groups, including al-Queda, all of whom extracted millions of dollars in diamonds and timber. During his reign Taylor allowed an array of predatory logging interests access to Liberia’s forests clearing parts of significant forest reserves.

     In August 2003, with rebel armies against Taylor’s government converging on the capital city of Monrovia and vowing to kill Taylor, he was granted political asylum in Nigeria in a sinister compromise where according to the Special Court he continues, in violation of his asylum conditions, to interfere in Liberia’s politics by contributing money to nine of the twenty-two presidential candidates in the recent Liberia elections. The Special Court has also publicly accused Taylor of the assassination attempt against Guinean president Lansana Conte and it is believed that Taylor still receives up to $1 million a month in revenue.

     It should never to forgotten that the U.S. government has a long history of depraved involvement in Liberian politics. Basically founded by freed American slaves in 1820 (along with a smaller number of slaves freed from ships intercepted along the African coast) through the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color in the United States (later know simply as the American Colonization Society)- lest of course too many free slaves make the still enslaved restless. The capital city Monrovia, named after James Monroe, was established in 1822 and until the American Civil War stopped colonization in 1861 about 12,000 slaves were repatriated. Eventually, after some repatriates were killed by disease, the repatriates merged their settlements, expanded into the interior, and established the state of Liberia.

     For all purposes this minority ruled over the diverse indigenous majority for 110 years and always proved to be a loyal ally of American geopolitical interests. As part of an effort to break the British monopoly of rubber (after World War I the U.S., driven by its automobile industry, became the world’s largest consumer of rubber), Firestone established the world’s largest rubber plantation in Harbel (originally renting the land for six cents an acre) in 1926. From 1926 until 1977 when Firestone left the country it is estimated that the company made a total profit of $410-415 million, of which the Liberian government received only about $110 million2. Firestone’s example led to further American exploitation of Liberian resources as between 1962-1973 nearly $300 million worth of ore was sent out of the country by the American controlled National Iron Ore Company (the Liberian government’s share added up to only $2.5 million).3

     By the time the Reagan years came along Liberia was ruled by Samuel Doe, who came to power in a bloody military coup initially supported by many Liberians (including many Leftists); Doe was the first Liberian president not to have descended from the settler elite and seized power bearing a message of reform: music to the ears of long suffering citizens. However it was not to be as Doe proved to be worse than his predecessors regarding corruption while further poisoning ethnic division by favoring his own ethnic Krahns over numerous other groups (while leaving the settler elite power structure largely in place).

     At first ostracized by neighboring African countries (for coming to power in a coup, though this period wasn’t one of enlightened African statecraft), callous Cold War politics brought massive increases in aid from a U.S. government in fear that Liberia landing in the Soviet or Libyan spheres after Doe sent out diplomatic feelers eastward. American aid reached $90 million in 1986, including $14 million in military assistance, a full third of the Liberian government’s revenues. Total aid from 1981-1985 was over $500 million, while American private investment during Doe’s decade long tenure added up to over $5 billion4. During this time Reagan labeled Doe “a dependable ally, a friend in need”.

     In return “Chairman Doe”, as Reagan affectionately called him during a White House visit in 1982, gave the U.S. government consistent UN support, resumed Liberia’s diplomatic relations with Israel (relations had been discontinued after the 1973 war in the Middle East), broke relations with Libya, and allowed the CIA to use Liberian territory as a operations base (including to ship arms to UNITA in Angola).

     As the economy plunged due to Doe’s mismanagement and corruption, American aid allowed the unjust status quo to fester until the end of the Cold War when the aid dried up and Liberia predictably imploded with Charles Taylor’s (himself a former member of Doe’s government) invasion from Ivory Coast, which eventually turned into the eight-year civil war that engulfed the region.

     However as the Coalition for International Justice’s report profoundly closes:

But there is no reason for Taylor to escape justice. The grotesque nature of the wars he financed over fourteen years- the unspeakable acts of violence he encouraged and rewarded, the profound suffering that continues for hundreds of thousands in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the cripples, the amputees, the disfigured, the widowed, the child soldiers, and the dead- are all well documented. 

     This year the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on the Nigerian government to deliver Charles Taylor to the Special Court of Sierra Leone. As the Liberian people vote this week in perhaps their first truly free election, it is time for the international community to join this chorus and declare Charles Taylor a “Most Wanted Man” and demand he be delivered to Sierra Leone for trail and inevitably solitary prison. From an American perspective this can be the first step to repay many a payable debt.

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