By Teresa Almeida
In a 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, former President of Liberia Charles Taylor claimed to be so devout that he was able to pray the devil out of hell. Considering what he has wrought upon Liberia, this claim may have some merit. Throughout Taylor’s reign from 1989-2009, the country has been fraught with horrific conflict: coups, corruption, civil war, cannibalism, rape, mutilations, and other atrocities. On May 30, the International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in aiding and abetting such war crimes and plunder in neighboring Sierra Leone. Although this may symbolically signal a new era for Liberia, based on democracy and political participation rather than violence and overthrows, Liberians are still left with the legacy of over twenty years of strife.
The foundation of division and underdevelopment continue to haunt the region, and Liberia remains unable to move forward. In 2010, Liberia was the fourth poorest country in the world with a 15 percent unemployment rate and a little over 50 percent illiteracy rate. Demobilization, disarmament, reintegration, and rehabilitation (DDRR) of combatants, whose numbers were estimated at almost 100,000 (Paes), remains an ongoing process as the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) continually extends its mandate. Guns and violence and the attempt to bring ex-soldiers into mainstream society are constant obstacles. Despite past conditions, some Liberians are still supportive of Taylor and the verdict has been criticized as biased and politically motivated. Indeed, the trial took place outside of Sierra Leone for fear of inciting Taylor’s supporters. Taylor’s legacy of misrule and violence has precluded the formation of stable democratic institutions and bureaucracies. The entrenchment of neopatrimonialism and the history of violence have led to ‘failed state’ status and continuous social turmoil. Although Liberia is free from Charles Taylor, his influence on Liberia’s past is still embedded in its society, posing major obstacles for reconstruction in the future.
Themes of foreign occupation and overthrows dominate Liberia’s political history. Liberia was colonized by the United States in 1822 and chosen as a base of return for freed African American slaves. This program of removal was instituted to prevent free black Americans from participation in U.S. society in ways other than slavery. Known as ‘Americo-Liberians,’ these ex-slaves (who made up 3 percent of the population) settled and dominated Liberian society with the support from the United States. In 1847, Liberia was declared Africa’s first independent republic with a political system controlled by Americo-Liberians (who constituted the first ten presidencies). Every presidency was defined by repression and graft. For instance, President William Tubman (1944-1971) devoted more than 1 percent of the national budget to his yacht.
In 1980, President William Tolbert (1971-1980) was disemboweled by indigenous Krahn Samuel Doe, a sergeant in the Armed Forces of Liberia. Doe assumed presidency and his regime was upheld by the United States, which was in the midst of the Cold War and gave aid to developing countries in exchange for ideological alliances. Doe restructured governance to favor his own Krahn and the Mandingo ethnic groups. After his previous ally Thomas Quiwonkpa (an ethnic Gio) attempted an uprising, Samuel Doe enacted a mass repression of Gios and neighboring Manos. Charles Taylor (a mixed indigenous/Americo-Liberian) was involved in Doe’s administration until he was fired for embezzlement. He rallied the persecuted Gios and Manos and staged a coup in 1989. His movement, the National Patriotic Front (NPFL) began the country’s first civil war. War lasted until the elections of 1997, during which Charles Taylor won the vote using the threat of further violence. In 2003, rebel uprisings in the South defeated Taylor who signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), resigned, and exiled himself in Nigeria. He was turned over to the International Criminal Court in 2006. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female president, was elected in 2005 and won the Nobel Peace prize in 2011 for her efforts in advancing the rights of Liberian women. Even in this instance, the extent of Taylor’s presence is evident. Johnson-Sirleaf has been embroiled in controversy for contributing funds towards Taylor’s early rebellion, and because of this, she was on a list created by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of those who should be barred from public office.
‘Strong Man’ Rule & Chaos
A dominant rhetoric in explaining African conflict and underdevelopment has been the myth of “ancient tribal hatreds” or “ethnic divisions.” But, although ethnicity was sometimes manipulated as a recruiting tool, the more essential explanation is that of a typical power struggle for wealth. Indeed, Charles Taylor is said to have claimed, “I’m not interested in ideology. I just want money and I want to be on top,” (Hoffman). Since the first coup of 1980, the economic and political development of Liberia has been obstructed by continuous civil war and uprisings. This has precluded the formation of stable political institutions and diminished economic growth. Rather than engage in state building, the Liberian administrations have focused on maintaining a hold on power, founded on elite patronage and warlordism. GDP has been in decline since Samuel Doe took power and has experienced a dramatic 90 percent decline with the onset of civil war in 1989 (Johnson-Sirleaf).
Despite such mass poverty, the leadership continued to amass its fortune and sustain rule with the help of foreign connections. During the Cold War, aid from the United States helped prop up the regimes. But, this option was closed to Taylor, who began his movement in 1989 after the Cold War and did not become president until 1997. Taylor, however, was able to exploit and monopolize trade of important resources. According to Reno, Taylor engaged in a neopatrimonialist system in which the survival of his movement relied on external commercial networks—that is, using external commercial resources and connections (other than in state institutions – taxes, government positions, etc.) to maintain a ‘strong-man’ rule without requiring institutionalization. His later involvement in the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone, for which the ICC convicted him, illustrates this concept. Taylor’s control over exporting important West African natural resources (timber, gold, ore) financed his militia, granted access to weapons, created political alliances, and gave command over important territory.
In addition, during this period as a rebel leader, Taylor did not have official international recognition and was able to avoid legal entanglements and debt obligations. He made contacts with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company who provided facilities and a base for an attack on Monrovia in 1992 (known as Operation Octopus). He controlled the export of timber to French and Lebanese firms, and sold plundered mining machinery overseas. Indeed, by 1991, Taylor was France’s third largest provider of timber (Reno). His Nimba Mining Company (NIMCO) provided iron ore to North American, European, and Japanese firms, which raised money and prevented outside interference in his interests (Reno). Rather than using state bureaucracy and institutions for legitimate authority, he used commercial networks and the threat of violence to solidify his power.
Taylor’s power and influence was widespread in all dimensions: economic, social, and political. The presidency, rather than functioning as public service or advancing a political agenda, was a channel for warlordism or mafia politics (that is, governance based on profiteering and substantiated by private commercial enterprises). The collective state interest was indistinct from his private interest, and Taylor’s authority came not from bureaucratic institutions, but from “control over the trade in resources and the ‘cultural capital’ accrued through his ability to manipulate violence,” (Hoffman). He maintained his singular power by a distributive patronage system made possible by global commercial networks. For example, the salaries of Taylor’s security forces, the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU), and the Special Security Service (SSS) were paid by Taylor’s manipulation of the petroleum export market in which $300,000 to $600,000 were collected in ‘fuel taxes.’ In addition, he created a rice export monopoly in which his soldiers received 1.3 million dollars worth of free rice (Hoffman). This neopatrimonial governance allowed Taylor to prosper despite the failure of state governance. His ability to provide occupation and sustenance for his armed followers was supported by the extraction of resources, monopoly of the market, and the exploitation of international commercial enterprises. The support Taylor received was a result of this selective prosperity under a warlord economy.
The maintenance of Taylor’s regime additionally required the chaos of violence to uphold his rule and sources of wealth. The effects that such a strategy had on the population of Liberia and Sierra Leone are appalling. The nation remains traumatized by 14 years of civil combat with 40 percent of the population displaying symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (Johnson, et al.), with 250,000 killed and 2.7 million displaced (Harris). 70 percent of women in Liberia having been raped (Smith).
His rise to presidency was immersed in violence as well. With a campaign slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him,” Taylor won the 1997 elections by a landslide (over 75 percent). Yet, the elections were monitored by around 500 international observers who pronounced the elections “free and fair,” (Harris). Taylor had an enormous advantage by controlling a large part of the country, possessing vast resources, including a monopoly on radio communication – Radio Liberia International and Kiss FM Harris). However, Harris argues that his “apparent dominance over the security question appears to have been the major determinant of the result.” The majority of Liberians may have considered Taylor to be the best equipped to handle a nation devastated by conflict, being that he was one of the main sources of it. In somewhat paradoxical reasoning, voting Taylor in would mean peace for Liberia. Clearly, though, this strategy did not pan out. Thus, under Charles Taylor, patrimony and violence defined authority for the Liberian state, preventing the establishment of institutions and democracy. It was only a combination of his indictment for war crimes by the Special Court in Sierra Leone, the invasion into Monrovia of anti-Taylor resistance forces (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), and increasing international disapproval that forced Taylor’s resignation and exile in 2003.
“If I were the problem, which I know you know I’m not, I would step aside. I would become the sacrificial lamb; I would become the whipping boy that you should live. I love you from the bottom of my heart. I will always remember you where I am. And I say God willing, I will be back.”
(From the resignation speech of Charles Taylor, November 8, 2003)
After Charles Taylor resigned, the UN Mission in Liberia was established to disarm and reintegrate combatants into society. Paying for weapons and instituting educational and vocational programs for soldiers is key to ensuring that hostilities are less likely to recur. However this process of disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and rehabilitation (DDRR) is still problematic in Liberia. Originally, the mandate was set to end in 2009, but it has been extended multiple times and is most recently set for termination in September 2012. According to Paes, the disorganization and the lack of available resources have made UNMIL problematic. The scarcity of jobs available for ex-combatants, pressure on funding, increased demand for assistance, and system abuse aggravate an already intense procedure. Overwhelmed by the influx of people, rehabilitation time spent in camp was reduced from three weeks to five days. The sparse labor market in Liberia means that ex-soldiers have little options once discharged from UNMIL, which heightens the risk of resuming arms. In addition, the UNMIL process was rife with system abuse. Rebel commanders used children (who did not need to turn over a weapon) to obtain stipends. Additionally, they distributed weapons to non-combatants to receive a relinquishment reward, or submitted spent ammunition that was filled with sand (Paes). There is also uncertainty as to how many weapons are at large in Liberia. Heavier weapons (mortars, anti-aircraft guns) may have been sold to neighboring countries that were in the midst of conflict (such as Cote d’Ivoire). As of 2004, only one gun per four rehabilitation participants were received, and over 80,000 combatants were unaccounted for.
Liberia remains one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. In 2008, foreign aid to Liberia represented 711 times government spending (Chester). Poverty and slum conditions are widespread, and the opposition has contested the recent reelection of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Despite these problems, Liberia has survived what may be the worst period in the state’s history. Under Johnson-Sirleaf, economic growth has averaged 7.2 percent since 2006 and the electoral process has avoided major violent escalation. Hopefully, the course of reconstruction will continue to see the improvement of governance institutions, the creation of a legitimized political process, and the development of a functioning economy. God willing the spirit of Charles Taylor will not be back.
Chester, Penelope. “Liberia and Aid Dependency”. UN Dispatch. 2010.
Harris, David. “From ‘Warlord’ to ‘Democratic’ President: How Charles Taylor Won the 1997 Liberian Elections”. The Journal of Modern African Studies. 37: 3. 1999.
Hoffman, Daniel. “Despot Deposed: Charles Taylor and the Challenge of State Reconstruction in Liberia.” Legacies of Power. Human Sciences Research Council Press. 2006
Johnson, et al. “Association of Combatant Status and Sexual Violence With Health and Mental Health Outcomes in Postconflict Liberia” The Journal of the American Medical Association. 200:6. 2008.
Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen. “How American Aid is Lifting Liberia”. The Washington Post. August, 2011.
Johnson-Sirleaf, Ellen. “Liberia: The Challenges of Post-War Reconstruction – the Liberian Experience.” All Africa. June, 2011. http://allafrica.com/stories/201106140356.html
Paes, Wolf-Christian. “The Challenges of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration in Liberia”. International Peacekeeping. 12: 2. 2005.
Reno, William. “Reinvention of an African Patrimonial State: ¬Charles Taylor’s Liberia.” Third World Quarterly. 16: 1. 1995.
Smith, Shane; Capper, Andy. “The Vice Guide to Travel: Liberia.” Vice Magazine. September, 2010.
Photo by Juan Freire