Taylor’s Liberia: Shattered, Fragmented, Ruined

He has too many followers left in Liberia and too many shares in local business for the new Liberian government to risk holding a trial there.  Moreover, Taylor is widely believed to have powers of witchcraft, and few would want to testify, fearing revenge through the spirit world.

Taylor began in Liberia’s administration in 1979 just as the "Old Liberia" was ending. The West African Republic of Liberia’s population of some three million is made up of a vast majority of indigenous people and a community of Afro-American settlers who came originally from the USA between 1822 and the 1840s.  Most from the USA were freed slaves from the northeast states.  They had been household slaves or craftsmen who could often read and write.  They took control of the costal area largely ignoring the tribes of the interior.  In 1847, the Americo-Liberians who were some 3,000 declared the nation independent – the only African state not to have been a European colony -with the possible exception of Ethiopia if one considers Italy’s occupation as ‘conquest’ and not ‘colonization.’

In the century which followed independence, there was considerable tension between the coastal Americo-Liberians and the indigenous peoples but relatively little violence.  Liberia was an oligarchy with positions, money and power distributed among the Americo-Liberians so that regardless of who was president some people from each leading family had a piece of the power-wealth pie.

The only exception to this rule took place prior to the 1950s shows how the system worked.  Momolu Massaquoi (1870-1939) was the first and only indigenous Liberian traditional leader, a chief of the Vai people, to enter government service.  He became a cabinet member, a diplomat and eventually challenged the Americo-Liberian ruling elite by contesting the 1931 presidential election.  However he resembled the Americo-Liberians by being college educated in the USA and had married into a leading settler family that of Liberia’s founding President Roberts.  His unique position serves as a good indicator of the monopoly of power in the hands of the Americo-Liberian social class.

Following World War II, the "winds of change" were being felt throughout Africa and the Americo-Liberians made some genuine attempts at accommodation of the interior peoples, but the pace of change was slow, particularly in the eyes of the young, educated in Liberia only some of whom were co-opted into the ruling system.  President William Tubman’s administration lasted from 1944 until his death in 1971.  It was time enough to bring in a few indigenous without upsetting the system.  Tubman’s successor was his vice-president William Tolbert who was less crafty at handling the growing opposition, and by 1980 the system was ready to fall apart. 

There was always a small migration to Liberia of African Americans from the USA and the West Indies attracted by the idea of an African-led state.  They usually married into the Americo-Liberian society.  One such person was Charles Taylor’s father who came from the USA and who had married into a relatively prominent Americo-Liberian family. Charles Taylor was born in January 1948.  As is traditional for Americo-Liberian families, Charles Taylor went to college in the USA -Bentley College in Massachusetts – and when he returned to Liberia in 1979 he was given a job in the administration.  He was a good orator and became a lay preacher in the Baptist church – the church of the majority of Americo-Liberians.

Then in April 1980, with little advance warning that the system was about to end, President Tolbert and members of his Cabinet were killed in a coup d’Etat, led by Sergeant

Samuel Doe and a group of non-commissioned officers who had no ideology other than getting some of the wealth for themselves.  Doe, however, put an end to the Americo-Liberian social structure.  Many of the leading families left for Europe and the USA where they often had homes and friends.

Samuel Doe was a member of the Krahn tribe who were considered by others near the bottom of the indigenous tribes – one cigarette-at-a-time-merchants, prostitutes, and soldiers.  None of the coup members had any administrative experience outside the low ranks of the army and so had to turn to others to fill administrative posts.  Since Taylor had just returned from the USA and had not had time to get into the network of Americo-Liberian power relations and corruption but was educated and articulate, Doe named Taylor to head the General Services Agency, a position controlling much of Liberia’s budget.

Taylor has a gift for making money but not sharing it widely with others.  By 1983, Taylor fell out with Doe who accused Taylor of embezzling nearly $1 million (and not sharing it with Doe and Doe’s inner circle). Taylor left for Massachusetts where he had friends from his college days.  However, he was arrested on a Liberian demand and placed in the Plymouth County House of Correction.  Just who helped Taylor escape from the Massachusetts jail has always been a mystery. Some say it was his college friends, others think that the US intelligence services gave a hand as by 1983 it was obvious that Doe was incompetent and fast taking Liberia to ruin.  A new leader was needed.

Taylor having no visible ideology other than self-advancement, seemed to many like a ‘natural leader’.  Taylor accepted help from any direction that it came.  He spent probably a couple of years after leaving Massachusetts in Libya where Col. Gaddafi had set up training camps for potential revolutionaries.  The period from 1984 when Taylor was in Massachusetts until 1989 when he led a guerrilla force into Liberia is not well documented.  Taylor also spent time in the Ivory Coast where he was befriended by the conservative President Felix Houphouet-Boigny who was having problems with Doe and would have been glad to see Doe replaced.  Taylor was also befriended by the younger Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, who was Houphouet’s son-in-law as well as a military coup plotter who became President after killing his ‘best friend’ – the then president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara.

It was in the Ivory Coast that Taylor brought together some 200 fighters.  Some he had met in Libya; others were dissatisfied Liberians as Doe had filled the ranks of the Army and the administration with members of his own tribal group, the Krahn, and some of their traditionally-allied tribes.  Taylor crossed the frontier from the Ivory Coast with his small group with the aim of recruiting as he went along.  At first, his effort was not taken seriously.  A couple of months later in 1990, in a discussion with the Liberian Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, I was told "not to worry. Taylor was an ordinary bandit and had no political significance." However, from 1990 until 1997 when Taylor won the civil war and was "elected" president, Liberia was the scene of marauding actions. Coercion, pillage, and rape by an armed rabble seemed to be the order of the day.  Each armed group took on an impressive-sounding name.  Taylor’s was the National Patriotic Front of Liberia; another, the United Front of Liberia for Democracy, yet another was the Liberian Peace Council.  Most of the armed groups had the tribal base of its leader.  As Taylor was a member of the dispersed Americo-Liberians, he could not turn for support to tribes.  Thus he turned to child soldiers whom he "socialized" into a new tribe with himself as chief.  With a mixture of coercion and drugs he built his Patriotic Front into a violent force of 10,000.  The fighting and deliberate destruction of villages and towns pushed some 700,000 Liberians outside Liberia as refugees to Sierra Leone, Guinea, the Ivory Coast and some to Ghana and Nigeria. Many people, some 300,000 were internally displaced.

Since Taylor had little taste for fighting, he turned his talents to making money, selling timber, diamonds and iron ore through the port of Buchanan which he controlled.  Liberia attracted a floating population of gun-runners, diamond merchants and others who would show up again in Sierra Leone as the Liberian disintegration spread into Sierra Leone.

By 1997, Taylor had "won" the civil war and was elected president. His years as president 1997-2003 were marked by the heritage of violence, hatred and vengeance of the civil war period.  As there was little stability, skilled administrators from the Americo-Liberian community did not return.  Most of the refugees from neighboring African countries did return but without possibilities for real development.  Taylor who wanted no competition surrounded himself with weak administrators.  He put nearly all his talents into making money, buying parts of what remained as businesses, often through front men.  He backed Foday Sankoh whom he had met in Libya in the violent struggle in Sierra Leone and was no doubt compensated with diamonds.  The role of Taylor in the Sierra Leone conflict will be the third in this three-part series.

There are estimates that Taylor and his close partners took $100 million from 1997 to 2003, a hundred times what Doe had accused him of taking in his earlier days.  Taylor had a single-minded aim: to make money, and he surrounded himself with people who aided this policy.  In 2001, I was in the same hotel as Taylor in his state visit to Taiwan. I wanted to discuss with his staff the problem of refugees from Liberia in Guinea.  As these people were originally from Guinea who had gone to work in Liberia, they were considered by the UN as "returnees" not as refugees and so could not be aided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  Taylor’s staff was interested in what money they might make through Taiwanese connections, and my discussion of the need to help people in Guinea received little interest.

As Taylor never learned to hand out money to people who might cause trouble, there were leaders of other armed factions who felt that Taylor was not doing enough for them.  Insurgencies, based on tribal loyalties, broke out.  Pressure from the USA and the European Union, especially Taylor’s role in Sierra Leone let to Taylor’s negotiated resignation in 2003.

He had already placed much of his money outside Liberia.  As there was little new wealth being produced, he left for what was to have been a comfortable stay in a Nigerian coastal city.

What is troublesome about Taylor’s Liberian adventure is not that he was corrupt.  He is neither the first nor the last Liberian leader to have confused public and private welfare.  The newly elected Speaker of the House, Edwin Snowe, the third most prominent person in government after the president and the vice-president – grew rich as Taylor’s son-in-law. What is troublesome is that so many went along with Taylor in order to grow rich themselves – a pattern repeated in Sierra Leone.


This is the second of three articles on Charles Taylor by TowardFreedom.com writer Rene Wadlow. The third will look at Taylor’s role in the Sierra Leone conflicts.

Read A Taylor-made Criminal Court? 5/17/06

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org 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.