The saga of Liberia

November 05 2003 | by

LIBERIA’S long-running political soap opera finally came to an end on 11 August this year with the resignation of President Charles Taylor and the swearing-in of his Vice President Moses Blah as the country’s 22nd President. The ceremony, witnessed by four African heads of state – of Ghana, South Africa, Mozambique and Togo was preceded by a presidential speech to the nation by Mr. Taylor, who acted as if the country were undergoing a constitutional emergency. He acutely invoked the Liberian Constitution, which - mimicking the American one, like almost everything else - provides that the vice president take over if the president can no longer serve. With the handover completed Taylor and his family drove in a convoy of dozens of vehicles to the airport, boarded a jet and flew into a quiet exile in the southern Nigerian town of Calabar.

A divided country

In a continent where leaders don’t generally relinquish power willingly, and are either killed in office or forced to flee in shame or even toppled in bloody coups, Charles Taylor had decided that his exit, if not honourable, would at least not be shameful. After being pounded by rebel mortars for more than two months, indicted for crimes against humanity, curbed by sanctions and faced with a humanitarian disaster in his country, he seemed to have finally played all his cards. At first, he dangled promises, while he continuing to fly in arms for his combatants, despite a United Nations arms embargo and the presence of West African peacekeepers at the airport. When that failed, he tried to plea-bargain his way out of the indictment and depicted himself as an African statesman unfairly set upon by the West. Still, disaster loomed until Nigeria offered him a lifeline.
Some diplomats in the region said that the offer of political asylum by Nigeria served not only as an opportunity for a face-saving exit for Mr. Taylor, an Economics graduate from Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, but also a chance to avoid the tragic fate that befell some of the country’s leaders since the Liberian republic was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, with backing from the U.S. government. Even before Charles Taylor’s advent on the country’s political landscape, the Executive Mansion in the capital Monrovia was already regarded as a symbol of the winner-takes-all style of governance that was characteristic of those who held political power here. Not even its coat of arms - “the love of liberty brought us here” - was able to guarantee such liberty.
From the onset, owing to social imbalance, Liberia has been a divided country, with deep mistrust between the freed American slaves, known here as ‘settlers’, who founded the republic, and the local people who inhabited the land before their arrival, collectively called ‘aborigines’ but separately spread into such tribes as Kpelle, Gio, Krahn, Kru, Gola and Mandingo, among others. The ‘settlers’, who are also called Americo-Liberians, belong to churches like the United Methodist, Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, and other Christian denominations, and some are members of the Masonic Order, established here in 1851. The aborigines, on the other hand, belong to secret societies called Poro and Sande, but some are Christians, a fifth are Muslims and others follow traditional African rites and religions.
Although the settlers represent about five percent of Liberia’s three million population, they have always held political power and, because they regarded the aborigines as uncultured, they made two sets of laws: a civil law for the civilised, an indigenous law for everyone else. The aborigines were treated as second class citizens, and were not granted civil rights, including the right to vote, until 1963. In fact, between 1930 and 1935, the United States and Britain refused to have diplomatic relations with Liberia because of its sale of human labour - slaves - to Spanish colonists in Africa. This inequality persisted even after intermarriage began in the 1970s.

Fate of Liberian leaders

Change came with bloodshed when the last ‘settler’ president William Tolbert, was killed in his bedroom, while thirteen of his ministers were tied to telephone poles and shot on the beach during a bloody coup led by Mr. Taylor’s predecessor, Samuel Doe, an aborigine from the Krahn tribe. But the psychopathic Master-Sergeant Doe, who transformed himself from a semiliterate, khaki-wearing soldier into a ‘designer-suit president’, made no effort to rectify the situation when he took over. His reign, marked by corruption, nepotism and profligacy was one of arrogant maltreatment of all tribes except his. And when it suited him, in the mid-1980s, he dropped his army uniform, organised elections and became a civilian president.
But his reign would end in tragedy. His downfall began in 1985 when Charles Taylor escaped from the Plymouth House of Corrections in Massachusetts, where he had been detained for sixteen months following his arrest by the FBI on charges of embezzlement. He was to be extradited to Liberia for trial when he escaped to Libya and enrolled in the Tajura Military Training College. On Christmas Eve 1989, Taylor returned to Liberia with about 100 rebel fighters. He soon won the support of the Gio tribe who had been sidelined by Doe. But it was in the hands of another rebel leader, Prince Johnson that Doe met his death, inside a two-storey building at the Free Port of Monrovia - an assassination so cruel it was made into a documentary film and sold to video shops all over West Africa.

Tables turn

Meanwhile, Taylor fought his way to the presidency in 1997. But as fate would have it, in August this year, exactly 14 years after taking on a leading role in the violent events that would eventually shape West Africa, the tables were also turned on him. Trapped inside the Executive Mansion while Monrovia burned, he found himself boxed-in by a cabal of mutineers, who called themselves ‘Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy’, LURDS - a ragged band of rebels wearing basketball jerseys and women’s wigs. For three weeks, after seizing the ‘Gateway to Liberia’s Economy’ - the Free Port of Monrovia - the rebels doled out cheap rice and free gas to people on their side of the divided capital.
By holding the port and splitting the capital in two, they steadily squeezed the life out of the side of Monrovia controlled by Taylor, whose own radio station, KISS-FM struggled to find fuel for its generators. Ordinary men and women were lucky to find a cup of cornmeal for their one meal a day. That was when Taylor realized that he was standing in the same place that Doe had stood in 1989, and, almost in resignation, ordered that each Liberian government soldier be paid “a farewell compensation” of $11,000 Liberian dollars (about US $200). Some reports said that the rebels enjoyed the blessings of neighbouring Guinea, which receives military aid from the United States.
Interestingly, in the 14 years that Taylor held centre-stage – eight as a warlord and six as president – he was persistently accused of financing rebel incursions into Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, engineering chaos in these countries. As a result, a power contest was created between armed groups that connect to government and rebel factions in each of these countries. The governments of Guinea and Ivory Coast for instance, actively supported the two Liberian rebel factions, and Mr. Taylor in turn supported rebels in Guinea, Sierra-Leone and the Ivory Coast. This, in addition to pillaging his country of its diamond and timbre heritage.

A mini USA

In early September, weeks after he had gone into exile in Nigeria, a senior United Nations official in Liberia, Jacques P. Klein, announced that Taylor took with him $3 million donated for disarming and demobilizing thousands of armed combatants. Describing the theft, Mr. Klein, a special representative of Secretary General Kofi Annan, said the donor was an Asian nation. Some government officials reportedly said it was Taiwan, the only Asian country with an embassy in Monrovia and close ties to the former Taylor administration. A week after this, a close review of government records and an investigation by UN experts, revealed that Taylor had stolen about $100 million of government money in his six years in power, using same to buy houses, cars and sexual partners.
Liberia, once called a mini United States, has been so plundered that it did not even rank on the United Nations Human Development Index for 2002. Yet, for nearly 150 years, this country was a virtual American colony. Its capital boasts of a promontory once named after an American president, James Monroe, on which stands what appears to be a perfect replica of the White House - Monrovia’s Masonic Temple. Throughout the Cold War years, it was a staunch US ally as American aid poured into the country no matter what sort of president was in power. It hosted a powerful Voice Of America (VOA) transmitter, a CIA listening station and an operational post for the CIA’s anti-Qaddafi campaign during the 1980s. Today, the memory of that strategic alliance sits on the outskirts of the capital, at the exact spot that the VOA transmitter once stood. It is called the VOA refugee camp.
Even the old public hospital, once the seat of the health ministry, standing on a hill overlooking the Atlantic, where a generation of Liberians was born, has been reduced to a hollow cavern offering a dour sanctuary for families displaced by the unending civil conflict. Gone were Liberia’s sane years when it was a vibrant country with running water and electricity around the clock and thousands of foreigners who made their living here; the Lebanese with a school opposite the old public hospital; the Indians with a Sikh temple down the road; Swiss, American and Belgian airlines which made regular flights to the airport. The young, above all, had hope for a better tomorrow – that is, until the world collapsed on them.

Updated on October 06 2016