Introduction: Liberian History has never been captured in a vivid story telling picturesque narrative that leaves you thinking and wondering about Africa's first republic, the nation state, and the people that populate its borders.... to say that the Liberian war was gruesome is to put a blunt argument on the table, while leaving out the most important details the mouth refuse to speak. It is not uncommon in Liberia, for people to shun the past as if it never existed. For example, Liberian intellectuals and the media seldom talk about Fernado Po and Liberia humiliation in world affairs between 1923 and 30.The excessive greed for political power in the country and the ritualistic killings which has always been part of the culture, that saw a climax with Allen Yancy and others being hung in 1979 by the Tolbert regime! Tubman, and his shameless despotic 27 years rule. Samuel Doe and his naked use of power in disregard to civil liberties, all these episodes and others are being gradually forgotten. It is as if to say Liberians should reconcile at all cost and forget the past, as if it never existed. Retelling the past should be part of the reconciliation and healing process say some analysts, to remind ourselves constantly what happened to the country we all love dear and how we got here, thereby serving as a guide to the future. The work of Bill Berkeley in this piece speaks for itself, He has written one of the best chapters on Liberia from his 2001 book:
The Graves Are Not Yet Full Race, Tribe And Power In The Heart Of Africa, which appears under the current title.The Charles Taylor VERDICT is due next month making this piece written during 2001 all the more relevant and poignant as Liberia graduates from war to peace! It can be argued still, that the Taylor ghost hunts Liberia immensely. Many of the current angry unemployed youths causing mayhem were former child soldiers gradually growing into men. They need sources of support to sustain themselves in the form of wages. Uneducated, uncouth and used to violence, they are a dangerous time bomb! Taylor loyalists still abound across the country and the Liberian Diaspora, and some of them are unabashed, wealthy (a loot from war) and audacious in their support of him, but he ranked right there with Amin, Seseku, Abacha, Doe, and Mugabe, if not even worse!
On a Saturday morning in June 1992, the Liberian
"How the day?" one of them muttered.
A shudder ran down my spine. The bullets were bigger than his fingers. The boy brushed by the stool where I was sitting and approached the woman who owned the stall. He lifted his fingers to his mouth. The owner dutifully fetched some bananas and buttered some rolls. The boys shuffled out into the street—no word of thanks, no suggestion of payment—savoring their breakfast as they walked.
It was six years since I had last visited
So I had watched from afar as the country descended from repression into slaughter—from tyranny into lethal anarchy. On Christmas Eve, 1989, a band of insurgents invaded
Now, two years later,
The boys in Buchanan were soldiers in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the rebel force that had launched the war against Doe, and that at this moment of attenuated stalemate controlled 95 percent of the country outside
"Many of these boys are orphans of the war,"
Charles McArthur Taylor is an Americo-Liberian, a descendent of the freed American slaves who founded
The fact that so many of
Charles Taylor comes as close as anyone in this volume to being outright evil—or "wicked," as Liberians say. Race war was his method. By "race war" I mean not a war between whites and blacks but rather between groups distinguished by ethnicity, in which their ethnicity is a calculated instrument of mobilization. In this case it was a war between groups distinct not just from each other but from the man who set them against each other. It was Taylor's signature insight that someone else's will to mass slaughter, that of the aggrieved Gio people toward Samuel Doe's tiny minority Krahn, could be harnessed to his own will to power. "Kill the Krahn!" became his battle cry.
As many as 150,000 Liberians were murdered in the seven years between 1989 and 1997 out of Liberia's prewar population of 2.5 million, and 25,000 women and girls were raped, as Taylor made one disastrous miscalculation after another, survived to fight another day, and finally prevailed.
Like so many of the Big Men examined here,
The story of
"Peace is our answer"
"There was no other way to get power from Samuel Doe than to resort to arms,"
The rebel leader and I were sitting in leather-upholstered chairs in the plush, carpeted, air-conditioned living room of his "official residence" in Buchanan. A satellite dish sprouted from the roof, and a big screen TV dominated a corner of the room. The scene was as cool and comfortable as any home in suburban
I had spent the previous night in Buchanan's only functioning hotel, a dingy, roach-infested bungalow with candles for light and buckets for bathing. The night before that,
After Doe's coup in 1980,
For our encounter
"War is not our answer,"
From his rebel domain
"He is much slicker than Doe," I was told in Buchanan; "that's what makes him dangerous."
No one doubted that Taylor is a figure of immense cunning and ruthlessness, and monumental recklessness, who would stop at nothing—not mass murder, not gang rape, not even the wholesale ruination of his country—in pursuit of power and the loot that goes with it.
At the time of my visit with
Three months after my visit,
"A mad, horrified people"
"We have been angry a long time," said Blamo Nelson, cochairman of SELF, the home-grown relief organization that was overseeing the distribution of food in besieged
Charles Taylor's war was not a purely "tribal" affair.
It was the Americo-Liberians who built that system. Ultimately the Krahn, traditionally one of
The first freed American slaves arrived in 1822, but white governors ruled the settlement on behalf of the Colonization Society until 1847, when Liberia was handed over to the settlers—the Americo-Liberians—and proclaimed Africa's first independent republic. The new country's motto, "The love of liberty brought us here," survives to this day. But the years of settler rule were characterized by severe exploitation of the indigenous inhabitants, who still constitute more than 97 percent of
Among those linked to forced labor was the Firestone rubber company, which operated the world's largest rubber plantation in
Graft and repression peaked during the prolonged regime of President William V. S. Tubman, who ruled from 1944 to 1971. Tubman is said to have appropriated more money for ceremonial bands than for public health; he devoted more than 1 percent of the national budget to the upkeep of his presidential yacht. Tubman created a personal cult based on an elaborate network of kinship and patronage, personal loyalty, the manipulation and co-optation of tribal chiefs—and force. He built an extensive secret police network and laid the groundwork for much of what was to come under Doe: a personal autocracy based on weak institutions and contempt for law.
But Tubman established himself as a reliable ally of the
Tubman's successor, William Tolbert, did try to liberalize the political machinery, but his reforms merely heightened expectations that could not be satisfied. One memorable confrontation in
Unfortunately, the agent of change was the army. Originally called the Frontier Force,
The enlisted ranks were mainly illiterate peasants, school dropouts and street toughs. In the hinterland areas under their control, they were kings—unpaid but able to plunder what they needed, from cattle and rice to women and girls. It was a West African version of
The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), as it came to be called, was a malignant organism in the body politic, inherently opportunistic, unlikely to be a source of progressive change. In retrospect it's clear that the institution of the army was a microcosm for what ailed
On April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe, then an unknown semiliterate master sergeant, and a band of sixteen collaborators—the youngest was sixteen years old—stormed the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, captured President Tolbert in his pajamas and disemboweled him. Two weeks later, in an unforgettable public spectacle that haunts Liberia to this day, thirteen members of Tolbert's cabinet were tied to telephone poles on the beach and mowed down by a drunken firing squad. There followed weeks of bloodletting in which hundreds were killed.
Nevertheless, Doe's coup was widely applauded at first. There was dancing in the streets of
Master Sergeant Doe and his comrades styled themselves the "People's Redemption Council" (PRC), and they lost no time in consolidating their control. Within a matter of days after the coup, the PRC suspended the constitution and declared martial law. Political activity was banned. Military rule evolved into a Byzantine pattern of plotting and intrigue, alleged conspiracies, and executions by firing squad. In his first five years in power Doe executed more than fifty rivals, real and imagined, after secret trials. Scores of civilians were detained without trial for violating the ban on political activity. Informal charges ranged from plotting coups to "discussing Sgt. Doe's level of education." Doe, for his part, adapted to the perquisites of power in a manner familiar to leaders across the continent, expanding from the scrawny sergeant in battle fatigues to a blowfish-fat, self-proclaimed doctor in a three-piece suit.
"When the coup took place in 1980, it was an exact reflection of the kind of army that the system had produced," said Commany Wesseh, a onetime student activist who spent a decade in exile during Doe's regime. "Arrest on mere suspicion, strip people naked, parade people naked through the streets, kill people on the beach after summary trials—the same acts that were carried out against my own father and others prior to 1980 were carried out against their creators. Doe was the embodiment of everything that had happened before. The difference with Doe was a difference in scale, not quality. If Tolbert did it twice, Doe did it a thousand times."
Patrick Seyon, president of the
Dr. Seyon is a gentle, soft-spoken scholar with a wry wit and wispy white goatee. In 1981, when he was forty-three and vice president of the university, he was jailed for two weeks on suspicion of plotting to overthrow Doe's year-old government. He told me he received fifty lashes twice a day for eight consecutive days. Flogging has long been the most common form of summary punishment in
"There were two of them, two soldiers," Dr. Seyon recalled. "One of them used a fan belt from an army truck, doubled up. The other used a strip from a rubber tire. The rubber portion of the thing was removed, so that the fiber, the nylon, was exposed. First they put water on your back. Then they sprinkle sand on your back so that when the piece of rubber was used, you get traction. The sensation you got was as if your skin was being pulled off your back."
The campus of the
In October 1985 Doe brazenly stole an election that was to have ushered in civilian rule. There were piles of burning ballots. The Special Election Commission appointed to verify the vote was abruptly replaced with a new panel stacked with Doe partisans. Opposition parties had been banned, criticism outlawed, newspapers closed, opposition leaders detained and beaten.
Doe by then was well on his way toward bankrupting the country. In a decade in power Doe and his cronies are estimated to have stolen about $300 million—equal to half of the anemic gross domestic product for their final year at the till. Doe himself stashed $5.7 million in a
Doe, for his part, had largely disappeared from public view by the time I arrived in 1986. Unpolished, inarticulate, consumed with the intrigue of barracks politics, Doe never went in for the kind of personality cult promoted by the likes of Mobutu in
My own first impression of Samuel Doe's
I had been sent to
The "November 12 business," as it came to be called, established an unprecedented new level of brutality and yielded a critical mass of enduring hatred for Doe—particularly among the Gio and Mano. This was the ethnic division that Charles Taylor would exploit for his own ends five years later. It was from
Bill Berkerly Jr