The Sun headline today reads “24 Carat Bloody Liar” and next to it is a picture of a smug looking Naomi Campbell. Looking across the newspaper stand there is the same smug face and similar headlines. As the jury of public opinion pronounces Campbell guilty of heinous self interest - what, if any are their views on the man on trial – Mr Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia?
It was a bizarre spectacle watching the testimonies of a supermodel, an actress and a Hollywood agent sitting in the witness box of The Hague at a war crimes trial. The three were quizzed about what took place an A-lister charity dinner, hosted by Nelson Mandela at his house in Pretoria in 1997. But before we go into that any further, let’s just get a bit related to what actually happened in Liberia and Sierra Leone between 1989 and 2003.
Who on earth is Charles Taylor?
Charles Taylor is a former lay preacher, warlord and president of Liberia. He was born in 1948, educated in the US and grew up in the regime of brutal Samuel Doe. Whom he later turned on and overthrew in the coup of 1989.
What did he do?
His 1989 coup led to the Liberian Civil War which ran from 1989-1996. This is acknowledge as Africa’s bloodiest civil war, in which over 200,000 people died and over 1 million people were turned from their homes into refugee camps and neighbouring countries.
Taylor’s small group of Libyan trained troops, called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) attacked Liberia from the Ivory Coast with the explicit support of neighbouring African countries and implicit support from the West. The rule of Samuel Doe was known for its severe repression. Taylor was a freedom fighter. In response, Doe meted out an overwhelming wave of violence in an attempt to stop the coup in its tracks. Troops from the Liberian army cased the area of the incursion and opened fire indiscriminately at whomever the found, killing upto 200 civilians in one day. Meanwhile, between 1989 and 1993, Taylors NPFL also made it their business to slaughter civilians, neighbourhood militias and government officers in some of the most mindlessly brutal ways, almost outside of imagining. Many of Taylors NPFL militia, 21% according to were children.
Taylor stayed in the civil war through to 1996 when after 174 consecutive days of bloodshed a negotiated peace deal was secured and the country fell silent for an election on a new president. Taylor won with a massive majority. Although the elections were cited as the most transparent and free that Liberia had seen, they were conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation. The view on the street reported as, if Taylor doesn’t win, he will declare war on whomever does and he won’t stop until he is in power.
This is attested to by the unofficial campaign slogan, sung by children in the streets of Monrovia:
You killed my ma, you killed ma pa, you got my vote.
Once in power, Taylor turned his attentions from leading insurrection to suppressing it by whatever means necessary. And he was successful. Acts of random violence dropped rapidly for the first 2 years following his accession to power. However, icing on a mud pie, does not make a cake.
The Showman of Africa
When he was once told by BBC icon Robin White that some people thought of him as a murderer, Taylor replied ‘even “Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time.”
The flamboyant, gregarious personal style of Charles Taylor made his international image something of the loveable rogue. But this is a dark hearted man who had led a violent vigilante force through nearly a decade of bloody warfare, overseeing the drugging of children with amphetamines to turn them into fighters and the most heinous acts of violence.
During his presidency, the roads remained broken and un-networked, pipe electricity and water was still a distant dream and the economy remained completely stalled with a GDI per capita of only $170.
Taylor also stands accused of buying weapons for armed military groups through money raised from the sale of so called ‘blood diamonds’. He started by making himself an alleged billionaire during the civil war and using the war to expand his personal fortune as a gunrunner. He is purported to have continued this betterment when in office by directly supporting a number of groups, but most notably, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in their violent onslaught against the people and government of Sierra Leone.
It is not that Charles Taylor personally took to the streets of Sierra Leone with guns and machetes. But he is accused of having funded, armed and supported the people who did.
What Happened to the child soldiers?
Taylor sought to harness their experience in the civil war by using them in various security forces which came to be increasingly feared by the people of Liberia. By late 90’s, early noughties the country was suffering an epidemic of violent groups of young men, trawling their areas in cars, rushing a public space or home and obliterating every person in the space with machetes. It is also in the hands of the new president for Liberia -
The Legacy of the Man
By 2003, Liberia was ranked 174 out of 175 countries in the world by the UN World Human Development Index, which measures health and living conditions. Life expectancy had dropped from 57 to 47. Child mortality was at 15.7% (155.8 deaths for every 1000 live births). The economy was completely stalled with an unemployment rate of 85% and iron ore production (foundation of the economy) completely stopped.
Charles Taylor was a billionaire. Under enormous pressure and running around like a hunted man, afraid for his personal safety, Taylor fled in exile to Nigeria.
As Taylor has moved through the legal process for this war crimes trial, the country of Liberia has elected a new president: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Ironically, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was allied to Taylor in the very early days of his campaign for power in 1989. She too believed that armed resistance was the only way to oust the brutal Samuel Doe (who was later executed). She publicly accepts this now as a mistake and a point of regret.
Johnson-Sirleaf has one hell of a task. She is running a country where rape is an everyday occurrence. A place where armed groups of thugs travel the country ready and willing to inflict outrageous violence. She is responsible for answering the question: How do we rehabilitate and integrate an entire generation of young men and women overcoming drug addiction and mental health issues from either being subjected to or inflicting extraordinary violence during the civil war period.
Chickens. Home. Roost.
And now Charles Taylor sits in the Special Court in the Hague, accused and accountable for war crimes including murder, rape, sexual slavery, gunrunning to name but a few.
So, while one might understand a supermodels fear in testifying against one of the world’s most deplorable leaders, one also must ask questions of the intransigence and selfishness implicit in Naomi Campbell’s actions. In the context of the persecution and suffering of the people of Liberia, her (upheld) request for no press at her entry and exit of the trial to protect her personal security seems a little rich.
What Can I do about it?
Loads. There are aid organisations committed to supporting Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in her ambitious goals in making Liberia a country to be proud of, where its people thrive in peace and have the opportunity to enjoy their lives, develop and use their talents and trust in their government. You can donate money or time to any of them.
The International Rescue Committee
Sponsor a Child
You can also get yourself on the ground and volunteer in the country and be part of the teams implementing the projects which kind people all over the world are funding.