Liberian President Charles Taylor’s record reads like a rap sheet: U.S. jail escapee, diamond smuggler, arms trafficker. But it was last month’s indictment by a United Nations-backed court that makes him cringe the most.
Wanting to avoid the label “war criminal,” Taylor said he would reject any peace agreement with rebels closing in on his capital, Monrovia, until the indictment was quashed.
Analysts say the response was typical: He was willing to hold his nation of 3.3 million people hostage because he wanted to be seen as having political legitimacy.
For two decades, international human rights groups say, Taylor and his armies killed hundreds of thousands of people to further his main goals: to seize power and get his hands on Liberia’s gold, diamond and timber resources. By running the country as his personal fiefdom, Taylor has become one of the richest men in Africa, amassing billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts while Liberians remain among the poorest people in the world.
His presence now draws almost daily pronouncements from the White House that Taylor must leave Liberia. His departure is considered a precondition for international peacekeepers -- possibly headed by a U.S. contingent -- to arrive in the war-ravaged country. On Sunday, Taylor said he would be willing to accept asylum in Nigeria, but the questions of whether he would actually go, and whether he would ever face war crimes charges, remained unclear.
If Taylor leaves, it could mark the end of the road for a man who has gone from being a student and gas station mechanic in Massachusetts to what his critics regard as one of the most destabilizing figures in West Africa. Taylor stands accused of sowing insurrection in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast.
David Crane, the chief prosecutor of the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which unsealed the war crimes indictment against Taylor a month ago, told the Los Angeles Times that he had no plans to drop the indictment.
“There can be no soft landings for war criminals,” said Crane in a telephone interview from his office in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. “Charles Taylor is the centerpoint of a joint criminal enterprise that has terrorized and destabilized West Africa. To allow this man to walk away for the things he has done -- 500,000 people killed, raped and maimed -- would be a grave injustice.”
Much like Liberia’s, the 54-year-old Taylor’s political roots began in the United States. Those who know Taylor said he nurtured his ambition to become president while he was an economics student at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., in the 1970s.
Like other children of Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves who returned to found Liberia in the mid-19th century, Taylor had come to the United States seeking a college education. He helped to pay his way through school by working in a gas station, a toy factory and in other low-paying jobs.
He became an active member of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, a group dominated by young Liberian intellectuals opposed to the then-government of William Tolbert Jr. Taylor attended meetings hosted by Liberian students on campuses along the East Coast. Colleagues remembered him as a flamboyant showman famous for extravagant partying.
“He stood out from the crowd,” said Bai Gbala, who was ULAA president in the late 1970s. Gbala, who served as an advisor to the Liberian president until Taylor imprisoned him a few years ago, now lives in Philadelphia.
Gbala also was with Taylor when he returned to Liberia in 1979. They had been invited to visit Liberia by Tolbert after they disrupted his speeches during the president’s U.S. visit.
When the ULAA group returned to the U.S., Taylor remained behind, saying he had to take care of personal matters, according to Gbala. Tolbert was later overthrown by Samuel Doe, a 28-year-old master sergeant in the Liberian army, and disemboweled in his bed. The coup ended 143 years of domination by the descendants of freed American slaves, who many agreed had denied freedom and equal treatment to Liberia’s native people.
According to Gbala and others, Taylor became head of Doe’s procurement agency simply by marching into the office following the coup and throwing out the incumbent. Heading the procurement body presented Taylor with vast opportunities to enrich himself and he did that by embezzling $900,000, according to court papers filed in Liberia and the United States.
Doe’s government sought to charge Taylor with embezzlement, and he fled to the United States in 1983. Taylor was jailed for 15 months at the Plymouth County House of Correction in Massachusetts awaiting extradition before he and four petty criminals used a hacksaw to cut through the bars of their cell and then climbed down a knotted bedsheet to freedom.
Taylor made his way to Libya, where he and other Liberians attended training camps of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, who was then trying to extend his influence across sub-Saharan Africa.
Doe’s downfall began on Christmas Eve 1989, when Taylor and his band of rebels, mainly Americo-Liberians who saw Taylor as their ticket back to power, crossed into Liberia from Ivory Coast.
Taylor’s rebel rival, Prince Johnson, captured Doe. A videotape showing Doe stripped naked and having his ears sliced off while Johnson, guzzling beer, grilled him about the numbers of his bank accounts, sold out in markets across West Africa.
After Doe’s death in 1990, Liberia descended into a blood-soaked war that was marked by torture and massacres, including the 1992 killing of five American nuns. By some accounts, 250,000 Liberians perished in the fighting and half the country’s population was forced to flee their homes. Fighting stopped in 1997 when Taylor was elected president with 85% of the vote.
Comfort Ero, who heads the Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s West Africa program, said Liberians who wanted an end to war felt they had to elect Taylor, who openly declared that he would return Liberia to war unless he became president.
Ero said the bitter choice was epitomized by a popular campaign song chanted by Taylor supporters: “He killed my Pa, he killed my Ma, I’ll vote for him.”
In a preelection interview, Taylor acknowledged that he had ruined Liberia. “I agree that I spoiled it,” he said, “and I need to be given the chance to fix it.”
As president, Taylor presided over a country with 85% unemployment. The vast majority of Liberians do not have electricity or running water. An average Liberian earns about $85 a year. ICG likens the nation’s economy to a business with Taylor serving as chief executive and doling out key industries to shareholders.
Money from state businesses and Liberia’s maritime registry -- Liberia is No. 2 in the world for registering ships under its flag -- never passes through the state treasury, according to the ICG and Global Witness, an organization that investigates human rights abuses.
By some estimates, Taylor earned up to $400 million during Liberia’s civil war, but estimates by Global Witness researchers suggest that the Liberian president now controls most of the $4 billion in Liberian money stashed in Swiss bank accounts.
Much of Taylor’s wealth came from the diamond fields in Sierra Leone, according to Ero and other analysts. Many witnesses have told investigators with the court for Sierra Leone, a country emerging from its own brutal civil war, that Taylor received diamonds in return for the arms he supplied to the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.
Taylor, according to the Sierra Leonean court, encouraged the RUF’s grisly crimes. It boasted squads that perpetrated specific atrocities. The Cut Hand Unit, for example, was entrusted to chop off limbs of victims. The Burn House Unit simply torched the houses of people suspected of being the RUF’s opposition.
“It doesn’t take much of a leader to terrorize human beings,” said Crane, the special prosecutor. “The man is essentially a common criminal.”
During the last two years, United Nations sanctions have reduced the sums of money that Taylor raked in from trading in arms and diamonds. With the reduced money, Taylor’s fighters have had rice allowances cut and their $50 monthly salary paid only intermittently, according to the ICG. Because soldiers were no longer willing to fight, rebel groups advanced on Monrovia, causing the latest crisis and calls for Taylor to leave.
But Ero and others said that even though Taylor might accept a deal granting him asylum in Nigeria, he has broken nine previous peace agreements and 13 cease-fires.
“By saying he will leave but not agreeing to a timetable, Taylor is looking for every single way to muddy the water and buy time to remain in power,” Ero said. " He’s done it so many times before and gotten away with it. Why change now?”