Charles Taylor in Sierra Leone: Was it More Than Money?

Charles Taylor’s direct participation in war crimes was in Liberia where he still has too many supporters for a trial to be held there.  His actions in Sierra Leone were indirect in support of insurgencies whose crimes were many. But it is not clear what control Taylor had over their actions.

The two main insurgents, Foday Sankoh and his deputy, Sam "Mosquito" Bocharie, that Taylor is thought to have armed and advised, have died.  They can neither be tried nor asked to testify against Taylor.  Three persons, including a US citizen, have been arrested in Sierra Leone for plotting to spring Taylor from jail. These are probably not the only persons promised funds to get Taylor out.  Thus, we may be some way from hearing the evidence against Taylor.

Taylor’s support for Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was certainly well rewarded in money.  The "Blood Diamond" trade as it was called flowed from the diamond fields held by the RUF through Liberia to Europe, Israel and the Far East.  Taylor, nicknamed "Superglue" was able to skim off money from everything he touched.  There is little doubt that Taylor "got a cut" from the flow out of diamonds and the flow in of arms. He added Sierra Leone timber to his vast timber exports he controlled in Liberia.

The are currently two unanswered questions:  How much did Charles Taylor advise on the strategies of the insurgency in Sierra Leone?  Were the insurgencies in Sierra Leone and Liberia part of a wider program of destabilization of West Africa -perhaps in the interest of Libya?  Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh had been together in revolutionary training camps in Libya after Charles Taylor escaped from jail in the USA.  How long they stayed together in Libya and what they learned in the camps has not yet been established.  What is known is that Foday Sankoh, who had been a professional soldier in Sierra Leone, was with Taylor when Taylor began his attack on Liberia from a base in the Ivory Coast on Christmas Eve 1989.

Foday Sankoh stayed with Taylor while Taylor’s troops advanced toward Monrovia, but Taylor could not take Monrovia on his first try being blocked by West African peacekeeping forces.  Taylor withdrew to areas he held and developed his timber export business.  Sankoh, perhaps less interested in making money than in gaining power brought together a small armed force and in 1991 attacked Sierra Leone from Liberia.

Liberia and Sierra Leone had similar social structures, and the military insurgencies were carried out in the same way.  Was Taylor part of the planning for the attack on Sierra Leone?  Was there a master strategist in Libya who had trained and advised both Sankoh and Taylor?  Conspiracy theories grow quickly on tropical forest soil, but they are not necessarily false.

Sierra Leone like Liberia had been founded by freed slaves.  Liberia’s founders had been for the most part household slaves or artisans in the northeast states of the USA before being sent to Africa.  Many could read and write and had participated in a "developed" country.  Sierra Leone’s founders were recently freed slaves who were aboard ships taking them from Africa to the West Indies.  The slave ships were stopped by the British Navy who controlled the West African coast.  There were also slaves freed from slave forts along the coast who were waiting for ships.  Although there were a few slaves from Canada and Jamaica, most of the freed slaves were not more educated than the tribes of Sierra Leone’s interior.  They, nevertheless, reproduced the same pattern as Liberia: a coastal, detribalized group who took up trade and looked down upon the tribes of the interior. When Sierra Leone developed into a British colony, it was normal that the coastal population was first to benefit from education and joined English firms.  The coastal population was also the first to create modern political parties on the eve of independence in 1961.

The Sierra Leone government after independence was even more corrupt than that of Liberia.  The Sierra Leone governing class played a "winner take all" game of power while Liberia’s was more a "share the wealth among us" pattern.  Thus Sierra Leone politics was more brutal, and the power/wealth circle smaller than Liberia’s.

As with Charles Taylor, Foday Sankoh had no tribal authority on which to draw.  He followed Charles Taylor’s lead and established an armed force of "child soldiers" – disenchanted and impoverished youth for whom Sankoh became "Papa" and Sankoh received son-like devotion on the part of the troops.  In return, the troops could loot everything they could carry and rape all the women they could catch. 

The badge of belonging to the group was to mutilate: to cut off hands, arms, feet, ears or noses of the defeated or of the ordinary villages they controlled.  Such mutilation was both a sign of being part of the "in group" but also made them outcastes from traditional society so they could not be easily integrated.  They had to remain loyal to Sankoh. Other insurgencies in Sierra Leone such as the AFRC and the pro-governmental Civil Defence Force learned the same pattern and acted no differently.  Thus there are leaders from all these forces who are to be tried for war crimes.

Sierra Leone seems even less able to recover from the years of war than Liberia.  The economy destroyed, the society is fragile. The court trials are probably a first but necessary step to move beyond havoc. 

Related articles from Toward Freedom by Rene Wadlow:

Taylor’s Liberia: Shattered, Fragmented, Ruined May 8, 2006

A Taylor-made Criminal Court? April 17, 2006

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva.