Global Policy Forum

Q&A: Charles Taylor and Conflict in West Africa


By Mark Tran

June 4, 2007

Mark Tran profiles the former Liberian president and analyses his role in conflicts both at home and in neighbouring countries.

Who is Charles Taylor?

Charles Taylor was born in January 1948 to a family of Americo-Liberians - a small but traditionally powerful group descended from the freed slaves who founded Liberia in the 19th century. He studied in the US and worked for the Liberian president Samuel Doe until Doe accused him in 1983 of embezzling almost $1m and he fled to the US. He was jailed by the US for embezzlement, but he escaped in 1985 and resurfaced in Ivory Coast. After winning power militarily in Liberia, Taylor was elected president in 1997 and served until 2003.

What charges does he face?

Taylor is being tried on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international law committed during Sierra Leone's civil war. The alleged crimes specifically include murdering and mutilating civilians, using women and girls as sex slaves, and abducting both adults and children and making them perform forced labour or become fighters.

Why is he being charged?

Taylor is charged on the basis of his alleged role as a major backer of the Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and close association with a second warring faction, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). Led by Foday Sankoh, who was also indicted, the RUF was notorious for tactics such as mass rapes and amputations during a conflict that left between 50,000 and 200,000 dead before it was declared formally over in 2002.

When did Taylor first come to public attention?

The Americo-Liberian hegemony in Liberia was finally overthrown in 1980 by Samuel Doe, Liberia's first indigenous leader. But Doe fomented divisions by promoting his own Krahn ethnic group and bloody purges against other groups. In 1989, Charles Taylor invaded with 100 Libyan-trained troops, quickly gaining the support of the groups that had suffered under Doe.

What happened in Liberia under Taylor?

Liberia was wracked by two civil wars. The first, from 1989 to 1996, saw rival factions vie for control of the country alongside overwhelmed African peacekeeping forces. The terrible cost, in a country with a current population of 3.5 million, was 250,000 killed, a million displaced and at least 25,000 raped. In 1997, Taylor was elected president of Liberia and ruled the unstable country until the second civil war began in 1999, ousting him in 2003. In November 2005, Liberia had its first free and fair democratic elections, returning Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa's first elected female head of state.

Why is Taylor so notorious?

The atrocities committed during Liberia's civil war shocked the world. The various factions carried out horrendous acts of violence, often using a mixture of traditional magic and bizarre psychological tactics to terrorise the population. Typical of these was the Butt Naked Battalion, a force of child soldiers loyal to Taylor who were fed amphetamines, prescription drugs, palm wine and marijuana and went into battle either naked or wearing lurid women's wigs and ball gowns.

What was the link between Taylor and Sankoh?

Taylor met Sankoh in Libya in the 1980s during guerrilla training when Muammar Gadafy, the Libyan leader, was keen to export revolution. The two established a relationship that provided a deadly thread running through a series of conflicts in west Africa. Sankoh helped Taylor in the early stages of Liberia's on-off civil war.

Why did Taylor support Sankoh?

Taylor was returning a favour after receiving help from Sankoh for his revolt. In 1991, Sankoh and his RUF, with backing from Taylor, launched a rebellion that sparked a brutal civil war. Apart from any ideological affinity between the two men, diamonds also played a role. In return for helping Sankoh, Taylor was rewarded with "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone. Taylor not only supported rebel forces in Sierra Leone but also in Guinea and the Ivory Coast, although the charges are to do solely with Sierra Leone.

What happened to Sankoh?

The RUF was crushed after the UK, Guinea and the UN sent troops to support the elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 2000. Sankoh was arrested that same year after his soldiers gunned down a number of protesters outside his home in Sierra Leone's capital Freetown that same year. He was handed to the British and was indicted for war crimes by the same court that is trying Taylor. He died from a stroke while awaiting trial.

What is the UN special court?

It is an international body independent of any government or organisation with a staff including Sierra Leoneans and foreigners. Established in January, 2002, days before the war in Sierra Leone was declared over, its job is to try those bearing the greatest responsibility for crimes during the conflict. Although the war started in 1991, the court's mandate is only for crimes committed since November 30, 1996, the date of a failed peace deal. Taylor was sent to a special sitting of the court in The Hague amid fears that a trial in Freetown could spark unrest in Sierra Leone or Liberia. He was arrested in March last year when trying to cross the border into Cameroon, while living in exile in Nigeria.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Charles Taylor
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone
More Information on Foday Sankoh
More Information on Sierra Leone
More Information on Liberia


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