Fourteen Years of Death and Destruction
The legacy of a failed politician

By James Seitua

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 28, 2004

The Liberian people were going about their normal business, with everyone overwhelmed by the sweet melodies that arouse nostalgic memories that time of the year. Worshippers and holiday shoppers streamed in a beautiful mixture of religious festivities and commercial grandeur. For many years, Christmas Eve had not been so exciting as it was in 1989.

Then came a bombshell: “Fellow citizens, dissident forces have attacked our country,” the government announced. The announcement by President Samuel Doe was received with much skepticism, given his government’s own history of concocting coup plots and assassination attempts to silence the opposition. Even the unusual movement of troops and military hardware did little to prove the government was right this time around.

Barely a month afterwards, Charles Taylor, a former junior official in the Doe regime wanted on embezzlement charges, announced he’s leading a “90-day armed campaign to remove Samuel Doe from the backs of the Liberian people”. Liberia and the West African subregion were plunged into trouble ever since.

By July 1990, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) had overrun 12 of the 13 counties of Liberia, leaving behind a horrific trail of death and property destruction in one of the most heinous crimes in human history. “It’s like the locusts passing through a green vegetation,” one correspondent compared the obliteration.

President Doe, himself a criminal who shot his way to power in 1980, controlled only a part of the capital Monrovia, while a breakaway faction of Taylor’s NPFL took charge of the other Taylor settled on the outskirt of the capital overlooking the Executive Mansion but never ventured to capture it. It was a “no war, no peace” situation, with devastating consequences on the lives of ordinary civilians.

The growing numbers of internally displaced people and the massive flows of Liberian refugees into neighboring states had created West Africa’s largest humanitarian crisis. Taking care of the dead was no longer an issue, as the need to keep people from dying became more critical.

Aid agencies estimate that over 250,000 people died in the war, but the actual figure, which is believed to be much higher, may never be known.

The leaders of the West African subregion played the good neighbors, putting together and deploying a well equipped, pioneering peacekeeping force to the war-torn nation once respected for her role in resolving conflicts.

Hope for survival was enlivened as the peacekeepers cleared the way for the delivery of much needed humanitarian supplies.

Taylor viewed the military intervention as an attempt to deprive him of the presidency; therefore, he would not cooperate with the West African Peace-Keeping Force (ECOMOG). Taylor also ignored an interim government headed by university professor, Dr, Amos Sawyer, to lead the country to peace and elections. Even the capture andsubsequent murder of Samuel Doe by Taylor’s rival faction didn’t change the mind of the callous warlord.

With most of the country under his control, the man who stops at no length just to be called president, was now armed with the political leverage he needed to accept nothing short of the presidency, signing peace agreements from one capital to another and flouting all.

Taylor set up a rebel-style government in the eastern provincial capital of Gbarnga, ruthlessly exploiting the nation’s natural resources for his personal aggrandizement and executing civilians.

What was seen as an attempt to end the conflict militarily and install Taylor president surfaced on the early morning of October 15, 1992, when the NPFL attacked Monrovia in one of its deadest operations since it invaded the country from neighboring Ivory Coast.

Monrovia was simultaneously attacked from all entry points, with the NPFL rebels indiscriminately unleashing clustered bombs on a city overcrowded with displaced people.

The base of the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force was nearly overrun by rebels, a situation that was embarrassing to Nigeria as a regional military powerhouse.

The rebels were beaten back after inflicting heavy civilian causalities, but Charles Taylor remained even more intransigent.

Liberia’s much needed peace had never been elusive. The country became a patchwork of armed factions, with each group fighting either to capture Taylor or to subdue another group.

In a desperate attempt to end the chaos, international peace brokers brought the warlords together in a weird fashion to form a unity government, an arrangement that only provided the factions a forum to demonstrate their military prowess in the capital.

When the factions finally agreed to a peace deal that was to pave the way for disarmament and the holding of national elections, Liberia was already shaken to its foundation - important historical landmarks stood bare or broken; Liberia, the peacemaker, had become Liberia, the troublemaker.

Although no comprehensive assessment has been made of the damage done to the country’s infrastructure, one can guess its enormity from a glimpse. The drugged and unschooled NPFL soldiers set ablaze every semblance of development - the country’s only international airport, the water treatment plant, and the mini hydro plant that provides electricity to the capital and its environs - are just a few of the essential entities that suffered massive damage.

The countryside lies in ruins as burned-out towns and villages turn into forests.

Following what was described as a symbolic disarmament, 12 political parties, including Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party, campaigned to participate in national elections set for July 19, 1997.

Peace negotiators knew the disarmament program was a fiasco, but the meandering peace process had created a “donor fatigue” situation, so anything devoid of actual hostilities was good to go.

Taylor ran his campaign on threats that Liberia would degenerate into further chaos if he were not elected president. “Let no one fool himself,” he told supporters, “the NPFL is still the largest armed group in this country.”

Yielding to the threats, Liberians went to the polls that Saturday morning and entered a deal with the devil, voting Taylor overwhelmingly as president.

One elderly statesman said the decision “defied logic of all times”, and “can be compared to the decision taken by the officials of a powerful bank to surrender the key to their vault to a robber so that he would stop robbing”.

In his inaugural address, Charles Taylor implied his government would not tolerate any interference from a foreign power and overstressed the term sovereignty in a capital where residents rely on people from Europe and America for safe-drinking water.

The boastful Western-educated president whose actions and utterances always portray a character from jail, not Yale, was now clothed with the authority not only to call Liberians “rats and cock roaches”, but also to treat them as such.

The deal with the devil has backfired. Liberia and West Africa will soon be on fire.

Secret killings and politically motivated murders became the order of the day.

The body of opposition politician and Taylor’s former ally, Samuel Dokie, along with those of his family members, was found burned. The Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Francois Massaquoi, made the list of murder victims.

As fear and insecurity gripped the nation, Taylor set eyes on a destabilization plan that was to affect the whole of West Africa, starting with Liberia’s neighbors as experiment. Sierra Leone was already on fire. The Ivory Coast, which allowed Taylor unhindered access through its border during the Liberian conflict, was to start burning a few years later.

Like the wicked fish that muddies clear water to swallow one of its own, Taylor stood between Liberia’s eastern and western neighbors while they burn, using his right hand to grab the war spoil in the east, and the left in the west.

Under United Nations sanctions that included travel bans for his damaging human rights records, Taylor turned to the underworld. He masterminded a criminal ring that thrived on mercenary trading, harboring al-Qaeda operatives for raw cash, and gunrunning with atrocious rebels of Sierra Leone for blood diamonds.

The mandate of the government has been shifted from protecting lives and property to institutionalizing criminality, a situation that made Liberia a classic example of the survivor of the fittest theory.

Civil servants’ salaries went unpaid for as long as 24 months. Electricity and pipe-born water became luxury items. Telephone service was now for those who could afford to sign up with Taylor’s private cellular phone company.

The government cried broke, but the president, usually dressed in a French-style tailcoat, rode a convoy of limousines in Monrovia streets littered with overflowing garbage that was not collected for months.

The capital became a “hold your nose and pass” city, with Taylor and his associates lining up their pockets from the stench.

Already, political discontent, general atmosphere of insecurity, and unnecessary hardship in the country had made Taylor a target of multiple rebel attacks that were to render the leader of the “largest armed group in this country” defenseless.

Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria last August amid sustained pressure from rebels, but the main force that got Taylor out was the statement by President W. Bush to the effect that “Mr. Taylor must leave” as a condition for U.S. involvement in the peace process.

One war-weary Liberian at the time praised President Bush for demonstrating love for the victims of the Liberian conflict, saying, “Had it not been for President Bush, that monkey (Taylor) will still be sitting at the Executive Mansion”.

With the help of the United Nations, the United States, and other friendly nations, an interim government instituted under a new peace deal to prepare the country for elections in 2005 has already begun offering essential services the dethroned president could not provide in 14 years.

Taylor repeatedly said his government’s inability to carry out its mandate stemmed from the lack of international support. What he never said is that he and his maritime commissioner Benunoi Urey need to account for the $25 million the Liberian Maritime Program generated annually while they were in office.

Many Liberians regret that, having ruined his country into nothingness and destabilized its neighbors, Taylor could still find a place to live as a vacationer, not a prisoner.

Nigeria insists Taylor was granted asylum on humanitarian grounds and had so far refused to hand him over to a UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone where he’s under a 17-count indictment for crimes against humanity.

With a $2 million bounty placed on his head by the United States and more calls for his arrest, however, the trial of the man whose greed for power and wealth propelled conflicts of catastrophic proportions, may be only a matter of time.

Human rights and other groups pushing for Taylor’s trial maintain there can be no stronger message to those who take up arms to loot and commit massacres under the guise of protecting freedom, human rights, and democracy

About the author: James Seitua is former editor of the Liberian Daily Observer