Global Policy Forum

Liberian Leader Again Finds Means to Hang On


Taylor Exploits Timber to Keep Power

Douglas Farah

Washington Post
June 4, 2002

It was the end of March, and President Charles Taylor of Liberia seemed out of options. With U.N. sanctions tightening and a rebel force staging hit-and-run raids near the capital city of Monrovia, Taylor was running low on cash. According to sources with direct knowledge of events, diplomats and intelligence analysts in the region, he had been unable to pay his elite commando units since the beginning of the year. As a result, Taylor's top commanders threatened revolt and sounded out regional governments about overthrowing him, according to sources and documents.

Diplomats predicted Taylor's imminent fall. South African mercenaries hired to prop up his government left, their contracts canceled for lack of funds. But as he had so many times in a career that has taken him from a U.S. prison to the Liberian bush and then the presidential palace, Taylor turned to Liberia's natural riches as the key to personal survival.

Selling timber concessions inside Sapo National Park, one of West Africa's main woodland reserves, Taylor received several million dollars from the Oriental Timber Co. of Hong Kong. The sum allowed him to buy back, at least temporarily, the loyalty of his senior commanders and rearm his troops, according to the sources.

"As of four weeks ago, Taylor was worse off than a year ago," said a U.S. official monitoring events in Liberia. "But then he stopped the slippage, at least for now. He can still acquire the resources he needs, but I don't think the long-term prognosis is good."

Diplomats, analysts and intelligence sources say Taylor's unexpected rebound not only illustrates the Liberian leader's resiliency, it also goes a long way toward explaining why West Africa has been mired in violence and chaos for more than a decade. Many fear that such instability is far from over, despite peaceful elections held recently in nearby Sierra Leone and Mali.

Both as a rebel fighting for power and as a president fighting to hold on to it, Taylor has been able to muster cash and weapons by exploiting anything of value. Timber, iron ore and rubber from areas under his control, diamonds from Sierra Leone and the sale of airplane and shipping registrations all have kept Taylor on his feet.

Yet while Taylor has continued to find ways to buy weapons, Liberia has virtually no health care system. The capital is without electricity and running water, communication with the outside world is mostly limited to satellite telephones, and the education system has collapsed. A civil war that he helped foment and sustain in Sierra Leone left that country largely in ruins and created security problems for Guinea next door. Even Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network was linked to Taylor, allegedly laundering millions of dollars by buying diamonds from Sierra Leonean rebels under Taylor's protection, according to sources familiar with the diamond trade and Western intelligence officials.

"As long as Taylor is in power in Liberia, West Africa runs the risk of being a failed region," said a European diplomat. "He is a threat not just at home, but for spreading conflict far beyond his borders, as he has already amply shown."

Taylor rose to prominence in late 1989 when, a few years after escaping from a prison in Massachusetts where he was being held for possible extradition to Liberia on embezzlement charges, he organized a revolt against President Samuel K. Doe's brutal, corrupt government. Soon afterward, he helped form the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, which rose up against a succession of weak governments there while working closely with Taylor's Liberian rebels.

Doe was killed in 1990, but Liberia's civil war raged until 1996, with a handful of factions and a West African peacekeeping force fighting among themselves and plundering the country. A peace deal led to elections the next year and Taylor, leader of the strongest rebel force, was chosen to be president.

Once in power, Taylor continued to assist Sierra Leone's RUF, which gained international notoriety for hacking limbs off civilians and abducting thousands of children to fight in the war. In exchange for diamonds mined by the RUF, Taylor supplied the rebel group with weapons, ammunition and logistical support. As a result, the United Nations placed Liberia under an arms embargo and banned Taylor, his senior government officials and their families from traveling outside Liberia.

Nevertheless, Taylor's government was able to acquire weapons through myriad sources -- including purchasing false end-user certificates from the governments of Ivory Coast, Niger and Burkina Faso, and smuggling weapons through Gambia and Chad, according to sources directly involved in the weapons trade and Western intelligence officials. Analysts and diplomats say such dealings have left West African nations unstable and their governments weak.

"There is no doubt that the government of Liberia continues violating the arms embargo," said a U.N. report on Liberia issued in April. "And the proliferation of arms within [neighboring countries] is a reality."

Liberian officials did not respond to e-mails and telephone calls seeking comment, but in recent nationwide radio addresses in Liberia, Taylor has argued that the weapons ban was depriving his government of its legitimate right to self-defense. He also denied meddling in other countries, instead accusing Guinea, Britain and the United States of supporting the rebels seeking to overthrow his government.

U.S. officials deny supporting the rebels. But they acknowledge that, after sometimes heated debate, the Bush administration has opted not to publicly condemn the rebels or their backers in Guinea as harshly as some U.S. diplomats in West Africa would like.

Liberian sources, as well as senior U.S. and European officials, say Taylor is more determined than ever to cling to power, largely because he fears being prosecuted by a U.N. court being established in Sierra Leone to judge those responsible for the atrocities and crimes against humanity committed in that country.

"He is very, very concerned about the court," said a source who has spoken with Taylor recently. "He thinks the British and the Americans want to make an example of him and are pushing for his ouster."

U.S. officials who supported the tribunal said the court's mandate was made deliberately broad to allow prosecution of Taylor and others outside Sierra Leone who nonetheless drove the conflict. "It would be interesting for us if Taylor were indicted," said one U.S. official. "I think we would take great delight in saying 'Let justice be done.' " However, it is not clear that Taylor's ouster would improve Liberia's woeful state.

The rebel force now fighting Taylor, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, is described by regional intelligence officials as a motley assortment of some of the worst elements who fought in Liberia's civil war, both for and against Taylor. The rebels have offered no program for governance, no ideology and no political vision beyond getting rid of Taylor.

Military sources in the region describe the rebel force as lacking command-and-control structures. They say it is undisciplined, and that it is as likely to prey on the civilian population as Taylor's notorious government forces.

The president of Guinea, Gen. Lansana Conte, has made little effort to hide his military's support for the rebels, despite widespread reports of their human rights abuses. Despite some congressional misgivings about Guinea's support for the rebels, the Guinean military will receive $3 million in U.S. military aid for training and communications equipment this year.

With the RUF disarmed in Sierra Leone and international attention focused on cutting off the flow of diamonds through Taylor's network, Taylor has turned increasingly to timber to fund his regime.

Sources with direct knowledge of Taylor's arms shipments, whose information was confirmed by intelligence sources in West Africa, said most weapons were coming to Liberia by sea, primarily in logging ships, because such shipments are much more difficult to monitor and detect than air shipments.

While logging companies have long operated in Liberia, Taylor's deal with Oriental Timber Co. (OTC) was the first time the Sapo park was opened up for exploitation, endangering the fragile ecosystem that is home to thousands of unique species of plants and animals.

OTC, which has come under criticism by environmental groups, already owned Liberia's largest timber concession outside the protected area. The company has been identified in a series of U.N. reports compiled since December 2000 as a key provider of weapons to Taylor's government. U.S. and European intelligence officials and sources with direct knowledge of events concur with those findings.

A study released in May by Global Witness, a nonprofit organization in London that investigates connections between the exploitation of natural resources and human rights abuses, found "direct links between Liberia's timber industry and the network of illegal arms transfers, private militias and human rights abuses that threaten international peace and security in western Africa."

According to internal OTC documents obtained by The Washington Post, OTC-chartered ships delivered weapons to Taylor at the Liberian port of Buchanan on Sept. 28, Oct. 28 and Nov. 16, 2001. The shipments contained about 7,000 boxes of ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles, 5,000 rocket-propelled grenades, 300 howitzer shells and tons of other equipment.

Regional intelligence sources and sources familiar with Taylor's weapons network said an additional 30 tons of weapons on OTC-chartered ships arrived at Buchanan in mid-January.

OTC's manager in Liberia, Gus Kouwenhoven, did not respond to numerous e-mails and faxes seeking comment. In a faxed statement delivered last year, Kouwenhoven, a Dutch national, strongly denied any OTC or personal involvement in the arms trade.

Kouwenhoven, who is under the U.N. travel ban for his alleged role in the weapons trade, said that OTC operates "in strict conformity with the terms and conditions of our timber concession agreement with the government" and that the company has "never paid any funds directly or personally to President Taylor."

Last month the United Nations gave Liberia six months to draw up "transparent and internationally verifiable audit regimes" to ensure revenue derived from the timber industry was "used for legitimate social, humanitarian and development purposes."

U.S. and British officials, who had unsuccessfully pushed for an international ban on Liberian timber in the Security Council, said the new requirement was a half step at best but would allow stronger action against the timber industry in the future.

A senior U.S. official said that "if we can effectively cut off the timber, especially OTC, the man [Taylor] is in big trouble. His reach is already diminished with the falloff of his diamond trade. But he always seems to find a way to hang on."

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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.