Global Policy Forum

In Ruined Liberia, Its Despoiler Sits Pretty


By Norimitsu Onishi

The New York Times
December 7, 2000

Soon after the sun sets, the road into this capital, which has had no electricity in nearly a decade, disappears into the dark night. The glimmer from candles and oil lamps casts faint shadows of pedestrians moving about in the very center of town, where the few clusters of light come from private generators. There are no traffic lights.

All of Monrovia is plunged into darkness -- except one short block, where a huge house sits surrounded by a white wall that extends almost to the side of the road. On this block, two rows of majestically tall street lamps yield constant light.

The house on the block belongs to Charles Taylor, the president of this country, the warlord who destroyed Liberia in one of the most barbaric civil wars in Africa's recent history, and who terrorized its people into electing him in 1997. Having made an inaugural promise to "not be a wicked president," Mr. Taylor, 52, has spent the past three years becoming the single most destabilizing force in West Africa, diplomats and international workers say.

At a time when Africa draws less and less attention from the United States and Europe, Mr. Taylor's deeds could easily have gone unnoticed; he could have been dismissed as yet another African despot ready to fill his pockets and leave his people's bellies empty. But from his corner of the continent Mr. Taylor, perhaps more than any other leader, has forced the West to pay attention -- whether to the diamonds sold in New York and Paris to fuel African wars, or to the peacekeeping role the West should play in Africa.

Next door in Sierra Leone, he has backed the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, who have given him diamonds in return for guns. With the largest operating United Nations peacekeeping force now installed in Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor's role there has drawn increasing condemnation from the Security Council. His government has become an international pariah.

Meanwhile, he has transformed Liberia into what one Western diplomat in the region calls "Charles Taylor Inc." In addition to Sierra Leone's diamonds, he has plundered his country's natural resources, enriching his family and a small circle.

"Electricity is the key to Liberia's socioeconomic progress," reads a billboard not far from the presidential palace, a relic of Mr. Taylor's unfulfilled promise to provide power by the turn of the millennium.

There is no running water here, either. And the government has nearly abandoned the schools and hospitals. The brutal security forces provide the one lasting reminder that a government does exist. A five-minute walk from downtown leads to a neighborhood near the gutted Inter-Continental Hotel, where people have dug holes in the ground, getting water from wells as if they were living out in the country, not the capital of what once was one of the continent's better-off nations.

"Before the war I stayed in my home and opened the faucet and water came out," said Dominic Weah, 40, who dug one of the wells after the war began in 1989 and still comes to draw from it every day. "We have a lot of problems in this country. I expected Charles Taylor to do much better. He brought the war in this country and destroyed the water system, the electricity, the sewer, telecommunications. These are the things used by the common people. Everything is upside down."

Jobless despite his high school education, Mr. Weah works out two hours a day. "So I won't have to think too much," he explained. The dream of leaving Liberia sustains him, as it does many Liberians. His own sister won the green card lottery and left for the United States this year.

"We have a saying in Liberia," he said. "The day you get a visa to go to America, your suffering is over. You are in heaven. You are out of hell."

Mr. Taylor, who received an economics degree from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., has brought Liberia's relationship with the United States to a low point. It was freed American slaves who founded this country in 1847 and whose descendants kept the symbols marking that link -- a red-white-and-blue flag with a star and stripes; a currency called the dollar; and English that oddly resonates with the accent and cadence of the American South. The capital was even named after President James Monroe, who decided to pay to establish a place in Africa for freed slaves.

In October, Washington stopped granting visas to Liberian government officials and their families -- a big blow because many of them have lived in the United States or have other strong ties.

The last time Mr. Taylor spent an extended period in the United States was in 1985, when he broke out of a Massachusetts prison as he awaited extradition to Liberia on embezzlement charges.

He then went to Libya, where he received military training as the guest of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. It was in Libya that he met another dissatisfied West African rebel, a cashiered Sierra Leonean corporal named Foday Sankoh, who would go on to establish the Revolutionary United Front and start the war in Sierra Leone in 1991.

Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sankoh would help each other over the next decade, as soldiers loyal to both fought in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia provided a conduit for diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone, as well as a source of arms. In their war against their respective governments, Mr. Sankoh copied the guerrilla tactics that Mr. Taylor pioneered here: the widespread use of child soldiers, who were often drugged to commit atrocities; the deliberate victimization of civilians to bring about their submission.

In 1997, a year after the war ended, Liberians overwhelmingly chose Mr. Taylor as their president -- believing that he would resume the war if he lost. And while Liberians have lived in relative peace in the past three years, Mr. Taylor has, in the words of a religious official who has been here since 1983, "pushed things back 50 years."

The peace has betrayed fragility in recent months; a long-simmering conflict with neighboring Guinea has erupted. Hundreds have been reported killed in skirmishes between Liberian and Guinean soldiers.

Near the billboard promising electricity stands another: "Liberia is a country of laws, not men! Help keep it that way!" Perhaps the message is supposed to give some credibility to the National Assembly, whose members have not helped fulfill the billboard's promise. Mr. Taylor has allowed them the shortest of leashes: he gave each lawmaker a dark blue Isuzu Trooper sport utility vehicle, which the legislators drive around Monrovia, with license plates like "16-REP" and "44-REP," as if defiant symbols of their complete lack of independence.

The president has likewise squelched nearly all criticism, having chased out most dissidents.

"The media has found itself the only voice of criticism left of the government," said Suah S. Deddeh, president of the Press Union of Liberia. "A few political opponents are here, but they are more or less paper tigers."

The government has cleverly selected its media targets. In March, it shut down the two independent radio stations, though one of them, belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, reopened a few weeks later. But it has allowed great freedom to newspapers, betting on the fact that they are not sold outside the capital, that only a third of the three million Liberians are literate and that even fewer can afford the 50 cents for an eight-page daily.

And few read recent newspapers that described the near-collapse of the country's largest public hospital, the John F. Kennedy Medical Hospital, as well as public health care in general. Few read the explanation from the health minister, Peter Coleman, that there were only 25 doctors in public hospitals in Liberia -- down from 85 in 1997 and 400 in 1989.

International relief workers say the government gives little money to its hospitals, and the same is true of its schools. An official at one organization that feeds schoolchildren said that half of the teachers at schools were volunteers and that the other half had not been paid in three to six months. Competent teachers have left.

Public services continue to deteriorate even as Mr. Taylor and his family -- several of his relatives head ministries -- loot Liberia, according to Western diplomats, international workers, Liberian and foreign business people here.

A principal income source in the last couple of years has been Liberia's rain forests, according to these officials. The Forestry Development Authority, headed by the president's brother, Robert, has allowed a shadowy logging company, Oriental Timber, with headquarters in Hong Kong but mostly Indonesian workers in Liberia, to wipe out entire forests, diplomats say. No one knows where the government's profits are going.

"The country is going through an economic devastation," said Conmany B. Wesseh, executive director of the Center for Democratic Empowerment, a private group that gets American financing. "There is not any economy to speak of. There is nothing working in this system. Everything revolves around the whim and caprices of the president."

(A few days after Mr. Wesseh was interviewed, a group of men believed to have ties to the government ransacked his office and beat him, as well as the chairman of the organization, Amos Sawyer, a former interim president of Liberia. The incident, the second attack on Mr. Wesseh since last year, was condemned by the Carter Center, which recently shut down its Monrovia office because of "concerns over the threats to human rights." In a statement released on Dec. 5, former President Jimmy Carter said he was "profoundly shocked and saddened by this incident," adding, "Such organized violence against this organization is an affront to all those who advocate peaceful dialogue and democracy in that country.")

In the past, Mr. Taylor has blamed the West for failing to provide money to rebuild Liberia. While acknowledging his ties to Mr. Sankoh, he has always denied accusations that Liberia provides the Sierra Leonean rebel group with arms for diamonds.

The president's press secretary, Reginald Goodridge, said the West had demonized Mr. Taylor by falsely accusing him of diamond smuggling and gunrunning.

"We have diamonds all over Liberia," Mr. Goodridge said, adding that there was no need to take Sierra Leone's. He indicated the presidential grounds outside his window and said, "I could go outside and dig there, and I'd find diamonds."

Most people in Monrovia were content to dig and find water.

A young woman, Heretha Takpa, who was carrying a baby on her back, had drawn three buckets of water from the well near the city center. "I voted for Pape," she said, speaking of Mr. Taylor. Asked whether she would support him again in the 2003 elections, she said nothing for a few seconds, then blurted out, "The things I expected from him, he's not doing it."

But with no political freedom or opposition, Mr. Taylor is not expected to lose.

"Our leaders here are so greedy -- they got us into such a mess," said Mr. Weah, the brother of the green card winner. "We got everything in Africa. We have resources, everything. But they are so greedy. They buy luxurious cars, they have lots of teenage girlfriends. Our leaders want to be in power until they die. If all African leaders agreed to serve their term and give another man a chance, there will be total peace in Africa."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.