Liberia: In Search of Enemies
By Tom Kamara
July 24, 2000
If there were any doubts that Liberia under President Charles Taylor had ceased to be a sphere of American influence, they were erased following Washington's threat of sanctions as punishment for Taylor's sponsorship of Sierra Leone's rebels.
"No matter how big or how powerful, Liberia will not respond
to threats", Taylor declared amidst thunderous cheers from
his ever-cheering cabinet. The man who, during the formative days
of his war, declared himself "a born again capitalist"
and later hired scores of US PR firms to allay Washington's fears
of his Libyan ties and sell himself as a reforming democrat, is
now determined to let Uncle Sam know that this West African enclave
will act as it pleases no matter what.
This is a rather dramatic leap for a country that in the past benefited from half a billion dollars in American aid, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa. Under Reagan, its President Samuel Doe, captured and butchered by Taylor's rebels, was listed among 12 leaders around the world for special US protection. Doe was a "gallant soldier" in Reagan's Cold War against the "Evil Empire", the former Soviet Union. But this was two decades ago, and if one believes that there are no permanent friends in politics, only permanent interests, then there should be no surprises. In any case, Taylor and his entourage were utterly surprised and had hoped for the "Reagan treatment," although the Cold War and Liberia's relevance are now history. Their hopes were tied on the fact that they have ears in American corridors of power, ears of men like Congressman Donald Payne, former President Jimmy Carter, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and many others. So why have things gone so sour?
Most of Liberia's anti-Americanism has to do with disappointment that Washington has not applied the same policies and values to the conquerors that it applied to those (like Samuel Doe) they butchered. They cannot see why, despite their claims of being "born again capitalists" and parading themselves as "American educated" this or that, continued rebuff has been the answer. They are surprised because of lessons from Reagan's America, lessons which did not care how many people Doe butchered, nor about the rabid repression of his regime. What mattered then was that Doe was a dependable ally in the Cold War. Yes, Doe, too, proclaimed that "socialists" would "not live to tell the story", but this was at a time when Washington liked such music, not any more. The United States has won the war against socialism and needs no more foot soldiers. The astonishing aspect of all this is that a man proclaimed by African-Americans as soon to be their continental leader cannot see this.
Few Months ago, Taylor's party chair announced that during the early months of the war, the Americans lobbied with, and supported the rebel NPFL to ensure the defeat of the West African intervention force ECOMOG sent in to minimize the mounting death toll and atrocities committed by Taylor's rebels. The man, Cyril Allen, claimed that while Washington was professing to back ECOMOG, the Americans were telling them (NPFL) to intensify their military offensives against the West African troops. Soon, Washington announced that Taylor was a man they could "do business with." Now pressing criminal charges against him in the US, among them jail-breaking, were dropped, a rare action for country so tough with international criminals. However, Taylor's revelations of US-NPFL backing emerged only after the US insisted on the re-opening of the independent Star Radio, the radio station now asked to dismantle and get their equipment out of the country. Prior to this, his notorious security forces, the most atrocious of ex-combatants now uniformed as regular security men, invaded the US embassy, shot and killed fleeing opponents. But all this did not daunt the will and commitment of Taylor's US backers and PR men from assuring the Clinton Administration that he was, indeed, their man.
Now, it seems the marriage, if ever there was any, is faltering, not because of how Taylor rules his degraded subjects who sang "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I will vote for you", but because he has now become what the British call the "Milosovich of West Africa". And despite overwhelming global conclusions, based on several reports, that the warlord has grown extremely wealthy on Sierra Leone's misery, he told Thomas Pickering, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, that he needed material evidence from the Americans who declared they were "satisfied" with the proof they have. When the evidence is provided, he fought back, "the US will understand where we are coming from when we reject any action on their part to muffle and subdue this countryWe refuse to accept and [we] reject efforts on the part of any nation to muffle this country, engage in arm-twisting without facts in an attempt to subdue this nation.
"We want to ask those that purport to have evidence (of Liberia's involvement in Sierra Leone) to please bring them forward...They have told us they are satisfied with what evidence they have, but 1 have said what you have is a diabolical 1ie," Taylor counterattacked.
"Powerful countries have said that they have evidence but they will not show it to us," he added. "Well, this is wrong. Even a condemned man deserves his day in court. Bring the evidence. You cannot be the judge and jury at the same time."
Here we go in a vicious circle. Evidence, evidence, and evidence even if there is enough evidence. "Your evidence is not evidence enough. I want more evidence which I know you will not get." As he indicates an end of a love affair with America, Taylor is wooing the other powerful block, the EU, Liberia's largest donor (which last month withheld $48 million in aid over British allegations that Liberia was involved in illicit diamond dealing and supplying arms to the RUF) since the end of the Liberian civil war. Just when he was telling the Americans to go to Hell, he was praising the Europeans for being "extremely reasonable" for their ability "to understand the issues, as intricate as they are," intricacy meaning why he continues to run after Sierra Leone's diamond by arming the RUF.
One must however understand Taylor's knack for material "evidence" in all allegations against him since he initiated his destabilization process in 1989. His first line of action in all crimes linked to him is the perfection of a platform of deniability. For example, when women, children, and several defenseless men were hacked to death in what became known as the Carter Camp Massacre, careful preparations were made to tie the massacre around the necks of his enemies, that time the Armed Forces of Liberia. His killers decided that to convince others that the AFL committed the atrocities, goods looted from the dead would be transported and dumped around AFL positions in Firestone rubber plantations. The alibi worked because when the UN investigators arrived on the scene, they traced the goods to AFL. If the goods were there, no matter how they got there, then the AFL committed the crime, concluded the team headed by a Kenyan jurist named Amos Wako. When news reached Taylor of the UN findings, he staged an elaborate party. "It worked!" the late Samuel Dokie, years later, quoted him as announcing. There was no "evidence" to tie him to the crime. History will hold the AFL responsible when in fact it was he who ordered the massacre to point out that nowhere was safe in Liberia if he did not become president. Now, he is relying on "evidence" from his accusers to tie him to Sierra Leone diamonds despite reports of regular helicopter flights from Monrovia into Sierra Leone diamond fields, and despite the fact that Monrovia is a virtual RUF base. Eyewitness testimonies are insufficient. Evidence means photographs of actual transactions, voice recordings negotiating diamond sales and weapons purchase, pictures of flights from Monrovia into Sierra Leone, photos of Taylor personally receiving the diamonds, etc. to link a man referred to by RUF killer commander Sam Bockarie as "chairman of the RUF."
Nevertheless, "evidence" is key to understanding the substance of Taylor's anti-American rhetoric. Several factors are at work here, prominent among them the knowledge that despite efforts of his salesmen in the corridors of American power, he is still regarded as a pariah. Next, with a rebel war looming over his head, it is time to definitely please allies who could rescue him from imminent personal catastrophe ala Samuel Doe. Thus, the anti-American rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War is packaged for willing Libyan customers who are still collecting their debts for the seven-year war, according to The Financial Times. Whipping up anti-Americanism at this time is a clever ploy, however fatal in the long run, because Taylor realizes that if anyone is to rescue him, it will not be America. Washington knows how to dump allies when need be, as they did with Doe and Mobutu among many others. Thus, Taylor knows that he is Tripoli's creation and can better rely on the hand that feeds. Libya, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso stood by him when the whole world shouted against his atrocities and madness. They will again.
But in his endless struggle to handle infinite enemies he has created, some hard lessons are unfolding for a man a number of Americans predicted would have brought some "color" to Liberia's "colorless" politics. The first is the fundamental difference between a rebel leader and a president. In the first instance, there are hardly any responsibilities. The rebels pay themselves by looting. The rebel leader, with no national obligations such as paying civil servants, keeps his loot for himself and buys weapons to continue looting. As a president, the responsibilities and expectations are enormous. Constantly looking over your shoulders to ensure that no one cuts your head to take your job, meeting regular payrolls, providing services such water, electricity, etc. place heavy attention on you, particularly so when you are stealing diamonds from another country. Thus, less than three years in office, West Africa's most colorful warlord finds himself encountering the same forces his predecessor battled to the gruesome end. Except for the absence of some of the cast, the plot in this tragic drama is the same, the scripts unchanged. Just a few months ago, Taylor admitted the difficulty in winning a guerrilla war. Less than two weeks after rebels launched their offensive, the symptoms of his prophesy are emerging.
Already, despite the boast of having the best fighters in West Africa, the nascent rebellion is tapping his resources. Wounded soldiers at the only state main hospital (if one can call it that since it was destroyed) went on rampage less than two weeks into the fighting demanding better treatment from doctors they flogged. Calls for all able-body men yielded not more than 200, a disappointing show for a man whose party platform promised 15,000 strong army complete with an Air Force and Navy. Reinforcements are trickling in, but the resolve to fight in the absence of things to loot is minimal. In this case, the Mafia boss must dip into his pocket to pay the war bills. The longer the war lasts, the emptier the pockets, more so when Sierra Leone's diamonds mines are becoming less accessible to his proxy RUF force. A demonstration planned by his cronies expecting 50,000 attracted about 3000, according to the BBC. Reports from Monrovia say the demonstrators were mainly ex-fighters of the Small Boys Unit, a group of child soldiers that terrorized the country for almost a decade, the same crowd that sang, "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I will vote for you." What this shows is that the chronically paralyzed economy cannot contain any war or a crisis. It was the foundations of the economy in the 1980s that actually fought Taylor's war. Those foundations, such as sufficient food supplies, water, electricity, luxury goods as enticement for looting rebels, are no more. They can only be found around the new wealthy class of Taylor and his disciples and this explains the difficulty of fighting a war when you have so much to lose. From 1989 to 1997, Taylor and his disciples had nothing to lose, only much to gain through stealing and looting. Now, the roles are reversed. It is one of those human follies, the dream that one can destroy properties of others, proceed to "acquire" your own in their blood, build luxurious mansion in the midst of grinding poverty, and expect to live in peace.
Moreover, as war drums sound, Taylor's extended army, the RUF, have come under siege since the UN forces freed the 500 hostages they seized. Faced with losing his grip on the RUF rebels as they continue to surrender, Taylor is now selling the disco dancer-hair dresser Sam Bockarie as the real alternative to detained comrade Foday Sankoh. With Bockarie back into the RUF, Taylor can redraw his strategies and prolong disarmament of the rebels. Like he said during the Liberian war, "We will talk, and talk, and talk about the talks." But the key to Taylor's destabilization scheme was that he never expected UN (and the British) resolve at this level. His scheme in Liberia, where unmitigated terror led to political dividends, became his Bible in Sierra Leone.
The regional effects of these schemes are too glaring. Increasingly, Liberia is becoming a barometer for West Africa's stability, and there are sufficient past and present factors for this. Much now hinges on the direction and continuity of a regime determined to use crime to entrench itself. The long-term implications of an entrenched criminal regime in Liberia are scary for West Africa. Such a scenario could mean cementing the foundations of Liberia as an assembly line for the production of rebels and export of anarchy within the region, confirming Taylor's status of what Africa Confidential calls, the "godfather of rebels" and the uncontested grandfather of anarchy. Based on Liberian Government's pronouncements and actions, one of the first casualties will be Guinea, a country that faces long-term problems with an increasingly paranoia regime in Liberia. Unlike Sierra Leone, endowed with a caring former colonial master (Britain), Guinea does not have one. It kicked out the French long ago, making it clear that it wanted nothing to do with Paris after independence. The angry French responded by ransacking prisons and uprooting anything they could carry home. Since then, French influence has been almost non-existent. And of late, France has found a new ally in Taylor, at one time bestowing on the warlord a French state honor. He is reported to own several villas in France. If Liberia's current virus of instability spreads in Guinea, Conakry can expect to stand almost alone. There will be no big power to sell its nightmare to the UN Security Council as Britain has so successfully done for Sierra Leone.
The dilemma in the region, as Sierra Leone has shown, is that under its prevailing political chemistry, Liberia presents real dangers of a regional catastrophe. The gradual institutionalization of criminal economic institutions within a decaying economy is a cancerous policy that knows no boundaries, particularly demarcation within weak states plagued with serious socioeconomic problems.
On the other hand, Taylor's anti-Americanism may served him well as they did during the elections when he convinced Abacha that his (Taylor's) coveted presidency would be delivered to a pro-American, thus depriving the Nigerian dictator of his much earned glory in Liberia. But regardless of Taylor's rhetoric, the hitch is that Liberians see America as the panacea to all their problems, as indicated by Taylor's Minister of Information when he declared that: "If America just pushes one button, we would have water and electricity. But they (Americans) are playing politics with our people." How Tripoli, now receiving periodic payments for financing a war that made Taylor President but destroyed the country, can erase this perception and deliver to keep its new colony is the question.
Arguably, Taylor's political metamorphosis that is ending the shattered dreams of his African-Americans lobbyists and tying him further to Libyan ropes at the detriment of Liberia has its roots in liberal America's confused love affair with the warlord, along with the belief that the man was what he portrayed himself to be, one who, from "both worlds," knows "what sells here", in the words of US Congressman Donald Payne. This dream has suffered a series of ignominious setbacks in terms of public perception because the man African-Americans and their Democratic allies wish to sell to the American establishment as an innovator to rule this backward African country founded in the 1800s by freed slaves could simply not be sold to fit the desired model. The mounting evidence against the wishes of his paid lobbyists is just too overwhelming for any PR man no matter how well paid and committed. Says The New Republic, an influential American journal:
"One of Taylor's first military innovations was his creation of the Small Boys Unit, a battalion of intensely loyal child soldiers who were fed crack cocaine and referred to Taylor as "our father." Soon, refugees from the Liberian countryside began recounting stories of horrific cruelty. Taylor's soldiers were seeking out pregnant women and placing bets on the sex of their unborn children. Then they would rip open the women's wombs and tear out the babies to see who was right. Evidence of cannibalism also began to trickle out. One soldier told Reuters, "We rip the hearts from their living bodies and put them on the fire, then eat them." A Liberian human rights organization claimed cannibalism in Taylor-controlled territory was so widespread that "there is fear of persecution based on one's fitness for consumption"
Nevertheless, this is a man liberal Americans portrayed as a redeeming figure to lift Liberia from the yoke of backwardness and dictatorship even if they did not mean it. Many liberals, including former president Jimmy Carter, saw Taylor as a suave politician who would soon be a "continental leader". To their consternation, he became a continental pariah. The New Republic again:
"To bring "peace" to Sierra Leone, the Clinton administration first had to show that Sankoh and Taylor were men with whom one could legitimately do business. 'Their whole policy was to "mainstream" them--that was the word used by someone at State,' explains an aide to the House International Relations Committee. 'If you treat Sankoh like a statesman, he'll be one.' ... [A State Department official] used the term to explain what they had done with Taylor and what they were trying to do with Foday Sankoh.' In Jesse Jackson, appointed "Special Envoy for the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa" in October 1997, Washington had the ideal man for the job".
Since he assumed office, Taylor has been dancing between Tripoli
and Washington. Tripoli may have helped him to destroy the country,
but as he sees it, he needs Washington to build it.
In the time of trouble, one must look to true friends. Once again, Taylor is doing that, and he may survive this machination. In the end however, economic development is the casualty. Libya may supply the weapons and mercenaries for destruction, but it is unlikely to build. There is enough evidence for this.
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