Requiem For Charles Taylor: Those Who Make History Don't Usually Write History


William E. Allen, Ph.D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 14, 2003

True to his nature, Charles Taylor, the exiled former president of Liberia, lied and schemed at the last hours to avert his inevitable political demise on August 11, 2003. As his regime faced imminent collapse from attacks by rebel forces and relentless diplomatic pressure, Taylor called for international peacekeepers to end the deadly war that had reportedly killed hundreds of innocent civilians. He promised to step down once the peacekeepers arrived. Yet all along, Taylor intended neither to stop fighting nor to step down: He smuggled an airplane load of arms into Liberia while the very peacekeepers he had requested were on the ground. Then when he could not get his hands on the arms and all his other machinations failed, Taylor staged his exit, desperately attempting to carve a favorable place for himself in Liberian history. The deceptive Taylor, who is indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone, portrayed his forced and humiliating departure from the presidency as an act of ultimate altruism: "This is why I have decided to sacrifice my presidency... I would become the whipping boy that you should live." Indeed this was Taylor's grand finale, a shrewd undertaking by this master charlatan intended to characterize himself as a patriot, notwithstanding the well-documented fact that for 14 years he brought nothing but misery and oppression to Liberians: Murder, Thievery and Deceit were his trade marks. Now as he made his ignoble exit, Taylor unashamedly declared "I love this country very much." It is this well scripted and choreographed final act, rife with lies and chicanery, that Taylor wants Liberians to remember. But he will soon discover that those who make history do not usually write that history.

The makers of history, such as ruthless dictators whose actions significantly affect the lives of others, do not usually write what society finally accepts as history. As soon as that dictator loses power (e.g., President William Tubman, 1944-1971 and President Samuel Doe, 1980-1990), the people quickly discard the lies that he and his band of unscrupulous praise-singers had recorded as history. It is only then that history (in this case the actions of the tyrant) as the masses had remembered, is subsequently written. This phenomenon explains, for instance, why all the accounts that Tubman's praise-singers wrote about his benevolence and enlightenment have been replaced with books that portrayed him as most Liberians actually saw him, i.e., an autocrat. See, for example, Tuan Wreh, "The Love of Liberty: The Rule of President William V. S. Tubman in Liberia, 1944-1971."

The history that Taylor tried to grudgingly write as his presidency collapsed will be renounced even faster than those that Tubman and Doe attempted to write. One reason is that the level of violence that was unleashed between 1989 (when Taylor began his so-called war of liberation) and the present, is probably unmatched in Liberia's entire history. And Taylor is the person that most Liberians and the international community directly blame for this unprecedented violence. So before his disgraceful fall, the people were already writing the history of his brutal dictatorship.

Taylor's last-ditch attempt to recast himself in a positive light is particularly hypocritical since he squandered several momentous opportunities to make the right history, a history that could have endeared him to Liberians. For instance, Liberians could have remembered warlord Taylor as the "liberator" he professed to be in 1990 had he ordered his motley bunch of killers to stop fighting when Prince Johnson executed President Samuel Doe. Instead, the "liberator" ordered his troops to continue the battle, determined to capture Monrovia, the only obstacle to his presidential ambition. At the time, thousands of civilians had sought refuge in Monrovia. Hundreds upon hundreds were summarily executed by soldiers loyal to both Taylor and Doe. It is alleged that the "liberator" himself carried out some of the murders. How can Liberians ever forget Taylor's infamous justification for the murder and the pillage: "We will spoil it and we will fix it," he ranted. Fate did give the "liberator" an opportunity to fix it, to make history, a history that would have been kind to him.

Elected as president, Taylor said all the right things during his inaugural ceremony in 1998 (e.g., justice, jobs, computerized classrooms, restoration of water and electricity). But just as some long-time Taylor watchers had expected, the imposter continued his regime of terror, plunder and theft. Critics were killed or routinely incarcerated. Government employees went unpaid for months and then years. Education became a privilege as only few private schools operated regularly. In Monrovia, the people reverted to drinking water from wells since Taylor did not keep his promise to repair the war-damaged hydro plant. His promises of restoring electricity and public hospitals were never fulfilled. The entire nation lay in ruins. In the meantime, the man who now cast himself in the same light as Jesus, the "sacrificial lamb . . . that you may live," pillaged the nation's meager resources. He imported a stream of luxurious cars and squandered the national revenue on his narrow circle of thieves, family and ever-expanding ring of wives and concubines. They flew abroad, in spite of a United Nations travel ban, spending extravagantly while the Liberian economy, along with every social service, decayed. All along Taylor, the self-proclaimed "sacrificial lamb," wallowed in opulence as his flock succumbed to poverty and disease right before his very eyes. "I have fulfilled my duties" he told the starved and beleaguered Liberians on the hour of his shameful departure.

The irony of the history that Taylor orchestrated on his final days is that it looked real. First he addressed the "nation" although the rebels were closing on him and the "nation" lay desolate as famished citizens dodged bullets to forage for food in swamps and other unsavory places. The charade continued the next day. He traveled to the airport to welcome three of his presidential peers that had come to bid him farewell. Enthroned in the Executive Mansion, surrounded by a dwindling circle of killers and thieves, including Vice President Moses Blah, Taylor addressed the "nation" once more and then handed the reigns of power to Blah. He immediately left for the airport and absconded to Nigeria. The greatest paradox of this sham is it all took place with CNN and Fox News providing international coverage for Charles Taylor, an indicted war criminal; the world watched and his fellow African "dignitaries" applauded.

Charles Taylor (R) with President Obassanjo
Taylor may have unintentionally spoken the truth during his carefully organized exit when he declared, "God willing, I will be back," although history does not appear to be on his side. Dictators forced from offices do not generally return home. Here are some examples. Since his ouster in 1979, Idi Amin of Uganda has lived in exile; he is ill and dying in Saudi Arabia. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire narrowly escaped from pursuers but died in 1997 in Morocco. Mengistu Halie Mariam, Ethiopia's "red terror," fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 where another dictator is sheltering him. Panamanian Strongman, Manuel Noriega is spending the rest of his life in an American jail. And the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, is facing genocide charges in The Hague, Netherlands, which could result in a life sentence. Yet, even though Taylor's return seems unlikely, God willing, it could very well happen, although not as the fallen dictator suggested. Remember Foday Sankoh, Taylor's partner-in-crime who recently died at home (Sierra Leone) in custody while awaiting trial for war crimes? Taylor is implicated in the deaths of hundreds of Liberians, some of the most prominent being Gabriel Kpolleh, Jackson Doe, Moses Dupou, Emmett Johnson, the Dokie family and the victims of the Harbel massacre. Relatives of these murdered victims certainly want to see Taylor brought back to Liberia to face charges for his evil deeds. His return could come before or after he had answered to the UN tribunal in Sierra Leone for chopping off the arms of innocent people, one of a number of gruesome charges against him. But whether Taylor faces justice for his cold-hearted atrocities or dies in exile like other dictators, experience must make him realize that Liberians were not fooled by his shameless attempt to manipulate public opinion with his chameleonic performance: Liberians are already writing the history of his murderous and scandalous regime while he sits in relative solitude staring at four walls, either in the mansion he is confined to in Calabar, Nigeria, or in a jail cell somewhere.