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In parts of Liberia, ex-dictator Taylor still inspires sympathy

GBARNGA, Liberia—At the height of his power, Charles Taylor carried around a map of "Greater Liberia," his vision of a republic that would one day encompass parts of three neighboring countries and their diamond, mineral and timber reserves.

Taylor's dream—and West Africa's nightmare—began here in Gbarnga, an unassuming provincial town where he launched his rebel movement in 1989. Behind an army of drugged-up boy soldiers, Taylor rose to the presidency of Liberia, laid waste to his country and stoked conflicts throughout the region, amassing a vast personal fortune in pursuit of his empire.

Now Taylor holds a special place in the annals of African dictators: the first to be tried for war crimes by an international court. He is due to face charges in April that he funneled cash and weapons to neighboring Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front rebels—who killed, mutilated and raped thousands during a 1996-2002 civil war—in exchange for access to diamond mines.

Taylor left power in 2003, forced into exile by a domestic insurgency and growing international condemnation, and might have expected to live out his days in his oceanfront villa in Nigeria. But last March, under pressure from U.S. officials, Liberia's newly elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, demanded that he be transferred to Sierra Leone's U.N.-backed war-crimes tribunal.

He briefly escaped custody but was caught trying to sneak across the border into Cameroon in a Range Rover with diplomatic license plates.

Fearing that his trial could throw Sierra Leone back into turmoil, authorities extradited Taylor to the Hague, where starting April 2 he'll answer to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery and enlistment of child soldiers.

"As long as Taylor was at large in the region it made Liberians sort of always wonder, was he coming back," said the U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Donald Booth. "It's really a major step in convincing Liberians that there is an end to impunity."

More than any other of West Africa's notorious strongmen, Taylor is seen as responsible for the wars and misery of the 1990s. The worst of it was in tiny Liberia, where an estimated 250,000 people, one-twelfth of the population, were killed.

While many Liberians cheered his arrest, others remain conflicted about the fate of the man whose outsize legacy still hangs over the country. In depressed Gbarnga (pronounced "banga"), where Taylor's former hilltop compound now houses relief workers, some feel the former president has been unfairly singled out.

"Many people committed crimes," said Matthew Flomo, a 34-year-old security guard, one of the lucky few in Gbarnga who hold steady jobs. "We blame President Taylor, but not him alone."

Gbarnga was a sleepy market town with peeling-paint storefronts when the National Patriotic Front rebels crossed over from neighboring Ivory Coast and set up shop. Their leader was Taylor, a descendant of the freed American slaves who settled Liberia in the early 19th century. He studied economics at Bentley College in Massachusetts in the 1970s and later attended military training camps in Libya before returning to Liberia.

In the 1990s, signs outside Gbarnga welcomed visitors to "Greater Liberia," which Taylor dreamed would one day include the diamond-rich Kono district of Sierra Leone, bauxite hills in Guinea and forests in the Ivory Coast, according to the regional analyst Douglas Farah. For much of the decade, Liberia was in anarchy as Taylor's forces battled rival rebel groups.

The fighting stopped in 1997 for elections, but Taylor made it known that he'd restart war if he wasn't made president. His supporters sang, "He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, I'll vote for him," and he captured 75 percent of the vote.

Over the next six years, while Liberians starved, Taylor socked away millions of dollars from the country's diamond and timber reserves in his own Swiss bank accounts. He put his son "Chuckie" in charge of a vicious Anti-Terrorist Unit that trained outside Gbarnga and committed some of the worst atrocities of the era—raping women, murdering civilians and even burning people alive, according to Human Rights Watch.

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department brought its first-ever criminal charges for torture committed in a foreign country against "Chuckie" Taylor, 29, who's now in federal custody in Miami. His unit's low-slung barracks, some painted in camouflage, are now empty shells of crumbling concrete, overgrown with weeds and brush.

Charles Taylor won't be tried for crimes in Liberia because no tribunal has been established here. At the 2003 peace negotiations, Liberian leaders decided that pursuing war-crimes cases would reopen too many old wounds. Instead they established a truth and reconciliation commission modeled on post-apartheid South Africa's, but it lacks the authority to question top perpetrators.

The result is a peace that feels incomplete. It's evident nowhere more than in the new legislature, which includes former Taylor associates such as Adolphus Dolo, who as a rebel commander took the moniker General Peanut Butter.

One day in 1994, a group of Peanut Butter's boy soldiers showed up at Flomo's house in Gbarnga. The boys were high on drugs, Flomo recalled, and beat him with the butts of their guns.

Then, Flomo said, his face expressionless, they dragged his mother outside by her legs and killed her.

But ask Flomo today about justice for Taylor, and he shrugs. At least Taylor's forces tried to protect Gbarnga, he said; most people had jobs, staples such as rice and vegetables were affordable, and children were in school.

Franklin Siakor, a young parliamentarian from Gbarnga, confronted that sentiment during the 2005 election campaign.

"I had to stop talking negatively about Taylor," Siakor said. "People would get up and walk out."

Taylor's ex-wife, Jewel Howard-Taylor, was elected to the senate from Gbarnga and remains one of his staunchest defenders. The mother of two of his children, she divorced him a few months before his arrest, citing irreconcilable differences—it might have had something to do with Taylor's numerous girlfriends—but they still speak every other day by phone from his jail cell.

Howard-Taylor believes that Western countries are trying to pin all of West Africa's troubles on her former husband.

"If Liberians have a problem with the former president, they should take it to whatever level they want to," she said. "But I don't think he's responsible for anything that happened in Sierra Leone."

The Taylor issue was a tricky one for Johnson-Sirleaf, who briefly backed his rebellion in 1989. During her presidential campaign, Johnson-Sirleaf dodged questions about whether she'd have him arrested. In an interview she said his extradition was necessary for Liberia's political stability, but many believe she was pressured by U.S. officials.

"She was very brave to do it," Siakor said. But "she also didn't have much choice."

U.N. officials in Liberia worry about unrest during the trial, which will likely implicate Peanut Butter and other powerful figures in Liberia. Armed groups loyal to Taylor cronies are said to lurk in the country's forested hinterland, where the 15,800 U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the country are unable to patrol.

But others downplayed the threat. Tiawon Gongloe, who holds a position similar to the U.S. attorney general, said Liberians are tired of violence and eager to give the new government a chance.

"The Taylor era feels like 10 years ago," Gongloe said. "He is gone from the pages of the newspapers, he is gone from conversation. He is gone."


The Special Court for Sierra Leone's case against Charles Taylor:


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