Liberia President Taylor's Life of Crime
for National Geographic News
"Taylor is a man with brazen audacity," said Gabriel Williams, the Liberian author of Liberia: Heart of Darkness, who lives as an exile in Sacramento, California. "He's charismatic, charming, and extravagant. He's an influence peddler who knows what it takes to build a close net of loyalty and a solid support base around himself."
Charles Taylor was born in 1948 to a family of Americo-Liberians, the elite minority that grew out of the former American slaves who emigrated to Liberia in the early 1800s.
His reputation as a troublemaker began early. According to George Kun, a Liberian refugee who is now a fellow at Refugees International in Washington, D.C., young Taylor used to beat his own father if his school fees were late, and threatened to burn down his school after he lost a student council election.
Like many Americo-Liberians, Taylor studied in the United States, though it's unclear if he ever graduated with an economics degree from Bentley College in Massachusetts, as has been reported.
He returned to Liberia shortly after Master Sergeant Samuel Doe mounted Liberia's first successful coup d'etat in 1980. The coup marked the end of the dominance by the Afro-American settlers.
Taylor, however, had his own ambition. One morning, while the director of the Government Agency Service, which controlled much of Liberia's budget, was out of the office, Taylor reportedly marched into the director's office and declared himself head of the agency.
Doe liked the brash Taylor. But the two fell out after Doe accused Taylor of embezzling almost one million dollars (U.S.). Taylor fled back to the United States, where he was detained under a Liberian extradition warrant and locked up at the Plymouth County House of Correction in Massachusetts.
What happened next is sketchy. Some say Taylor escaped from prison by sawing through the bars on his cell window. Others believe he received help to escape from influential Americans who wanted him to return to Liberia and overthrow Doe's regime, which had grown corrupt and violent.
Back in Liberia, Taylor quickly established himself as a rebel leader, forming the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, a cult-like army that soon overran much of the countryside and whose ranks swelled to 10,000 fighters, including many teenagers on drugs.
The movement, however, soon split. After rebel dissidents in 1990 captured and executed President Doe, the country fell into complete chaos. Rebels began fighting each other, remnants of the Army, and Nigerian peacekeepers who had been called in to restore stability.
"Taylor has a way of ingratiating himself with those in power," said Williams. "He built strong international links with businesses in America and Europe, particularly in France, and established connections at the highest levels with governments in Africa."
At one point, territory occupied by Taylor's rebels reportedly became France's third largest supplier of tropical timber.
From Rebel to President
Kun, the refugee, remembers all too well Taylor's "Operation Octopus," an all-out assault on the capital, Monrovia, in 1992, which drove Kun's family out of their suburban home.
"Not knowing where we were heading, I decided to go back to the house and pack some food," he said. "The rebels closed in on our house. On my way out, I was under intense gunfire. I was shot in the leg, and my life almost came to an abrupt end."
In 1995, a peace agreement was signed, eventually leading to a presidential election in 1997, which Taylor won in a landslide. Observers called the vote "free and fair," but experts argued that most Liberians simply voted for Taylor out of fear. As Taylor's campaign slogan said: "He killed my pa, he killed my ma. I'll vote for him."
Once in power, Taylor turned his government into an illegal money-making machine, according to analysts. He supported a brutal rebel movement in neighboring Sierra Leone, which was responsible for killing tens of thousands of people and hacking off the limbs of countless others.
The rebels supplied Taylor's regime with a steady stream of diamonds, looted from Sierra Leone's mines. In return, Taylor supplied the rebels with weapons, secured in Eastern Europe and shipped to Liberia. Trafficking experts said Liberia turned into a huge arms bazaar.
"Taylor has used Liberia to host one giant party for arms dealers and diamond smugglers with money and connections," said Alice Blondel, lead campaigner for Global Witness, a London-based human rights organization. "Anyone is welcome, as long as you play by Taylor's rules."
Global Witness even accuses Taylor of collaborating with al Qaeda, the terrorist network, a charge first reported by The Washington Post. A European investigation found evidence that Liberia hosted senior terrorist operatives who conducted a U.S. $20 million diamond-buying spree that effectively cornered the market on the region's diamond business.
According to the probe, Taylor himself received a U.S. $1 million payment for harboring the operatives after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But with international efforts to crack down on the trade in illicit diamonds, Taylor has turned much of his attention back to Liberia's largest natural resource: timber. Like diamonds, the business is based on trade. Ships arriving in Liberia offload arms and take timber in return, experts say.
Global Witness estimates that the Liberian logging industry generated U.S. $100 million in profits in 2000, a figure that may have gone up since then.
Most of the shipments go through the Malaysian-registered Oriental Timber Company, which has links to international arms traffickers.
Earlier this month, the United Nations imposed an embargo on Liberia's timber trade. But according to Global Witness, Taylor has evaded the embargo by smuggling the timber through neighboring Ivory Coast.
Getting Away With It
A lay preacher in the Baptist faith, Taylor, who has been married three times and has several children, has denied all charges of criminal wrongdoing. He has maintained that he is simply misunderstood.
Some experts say Taylor has been able to get away with murder for so long because he enjoyed the support of key African leaders, French business contacts, and prominent African Americans like Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Lately, that support has dissipated. Taylor now has an indictment for war crimes hanging over his head. The prosecutor for the United Nations Special War Crimes Tribunal for Sierra Leone alleges that Taylor led an international joint criminal enterprise that reaped millions of dollars in profits from the illicit sale of diamonds.
Nigeria has offered Taylor asylum. With rebel troops poised to take over Monrovia any day, most analysts believe Taylor has no choice but to once again flee Liberia. Others are not so quick to count him out. After all, Charles Taylor has made an art of evading the law.
Africa and Corruption: The Case of Liberia
Last year when I told my history professor that I wanted to write a piece about corruption in Liberia, she was quick to say “corruption is everywhere; even in the United States.” I respectfully agreed with the professor but countered that my concern was not its universality but its root, who are involved and how rampant it was in Africa especially my country. Liberia is perhaps the only country where presidents, vice presidents, ministers, deputy ministers and cadets compete in stealing with impunity as evidence by Economic Community West African States (ECOWAS) recent financial audit of Liberia showed.
The history of Liberia is one of political, social and economic struggle for survival shrouded in a long financial mismanagement. According to history, from the beginning the stated goal for the foundation of modern day Liberia in West Africa was to find a home for freed slaves from United States southern plantations and the Congo basin after slavery was abolished. But I would argue that the struggle for a black state was also born out of the desire for personal wealth at the expense of the indigenes.
Years after its arrival on the West Coast of Africa, agents of the imperialist American Colonization Society, later to be known as Americo-Liberians, engineered the birth of the sovereign state of Liberia in 1847. “Americo-Liberians also sought to keep control over national politics and keep out the local peoples. The settlers also concentrated on politics as the main road to success and wealth, and neglected business and commerce”, note historians J.B.Webster, Adu Albert Boahan and Michael Tidy in their book, The Growth of African Civilization: The Revolutionary years- West Africa since 1800 (1967). The above charge explains why every Tom and Dick wants either be a President or Speaker or Senator in Liberia. Subsequently abuses of public trust in Liberia over the years have become a way of life and very much encouraged from the top to the bottom. “The tendencies of intolerance of each other’s opinion rooted in parochial and selfish considerations- and greed – have driven us into our descent into recent tragedies and paralysis as a nation and as a people,” President also noted in her inaugural address.
It is fair to say that Liberia financial system had been a thoroughly corrupt one since the nation was birthed in 1847. I think this is an important point for people to understand especially for those who are not familiar with West African nation history. Liberia is Africa’s first black independent republic.
But corruption as we know it today in government has its genesis with the coming of the settlers that arrived on the continent in the 18th century. Representing about 5 percent of the then population of about a million, the settlers instituted an oligarchy from 1847 until 1980. “The Monrovia government was a settler government enforcing settler policies (p.131).” From these historical facts, it is safe to conclude that every political and social crisis including the just ended civil wars that killed over 300,000 - including three presidents, E.J. Roye, and William Richard Tolbert Jr., and Samuel Kanyon Doe was the climax of misrules. For 133 years, a very small group of people institutionalized theft and gross violation of human rights with impunity.
These are hard facts we must understand as Liberians. They are not laurels that a nation can boast about but they cannot be ignored or down play if we are to build a better society. This knowledge and understanding of how the past governments have abused public trust thereby visiting tragedies upon tragedies upon the people must not be brought to an end but it must be used to guard the present generation in charting a better path to a new political order devoid of corruption. As the saying goes, it is good to threat a disease but it is best to know and destroy the pathogens that cause it.
As already mentioned corruption in Liberia started shortly before and after independence. It began with the creation by few noted settlers of what was then known as the ‘commercial group’ of Monrovia and the ‘agriculture group’ in the other settlements along coastal areas like Grand Bassa - that had opposed a total break with the imperialist American Colonization Society at independence. Thus began the small but very wealthy class of settlers in Liberia. After independence in 1847 these groups merged to become republicans. Headed by Joseph Jenkins Roberts they assumed control of Liberia and dominated national politics until 1877 - when the True Whig Party came to power and effectively instituted a one-party political system. Like their cousins, participation in the True Whig Party government was based on lineage (by natural birth or adoption) to the settlers.
While history shows Joseph Jenkins Roberts as an able statesman and administrator in every respect the same history records that Liberia’s first President was essentially a racist and created unnecessary government civil services that favored his kin. In their book Prof. Adu Albert Boahan et al note that “Roberts, a light-skinned mulatto, fostered a caste system based on skin color. The light-complexioned mulatto governing class kept socially apart (p.128).” This is another historical reference to the root of corruption, and human rights violation by top government officials in Liberia.
The question then is how can Liberia as nation get rid of corruption given its historical nature? First, I propose that we make corruption a capital offense. Second, prosecute those economic saboteurs without regards to class or social standing. I believe that the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last year presented Liberia the lifetime opportunity to breakaway with corruption.
This brings me to the subject of recent Financial Report of ECOWAS Team of Investigators into the economic crime in Liberia. According to the report, the Ecowas team of investigators found that the former president of the transitional government of Liberia Mr. Gyude Bryant presided over a financial administration system and national fiscal policy that left “little or no trail in Government transactions,” and “recklessly sacrificed financial probity on the altar of appeasement to defunct warring factions and ex-combatants.” The report further described the transitional government financial dealings as “severely flawed and provides an enabling environment for corruption to flourish (page 17).”
To substantiate these assertions, the investigators found that Mr. Gyude Bryant is personally liable to pay Liberia the sum of $667,000.00. Then Mr. Bryant and former Deputy Minister of Finance Mr. Tugbeh Doe are jointly liable to pay Liberia back $375,000.00. Apart from jointly paying $375,000.00 with Bryant, Mr. Doe must pay additional $ 110,000.00 to the state. Next in line to restitute the people money is the former Commerce Minister Samuel Wlue who the Ecowas team found he single handedly defrauded the government in the amount of $432,502.67 and must be held liable for said amount. Also making it to this list of alleged fraudsters is the former Finance Minister, Mr. Lusinee Kamara, who the team found owes and must be held jointly liable for 200,000.00 with his Deputy, Doe. Additionally, the former Finance boss is also personally liable for the amount of $36,700.00, the investigators wrote. Then former vice chairman and now ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Wesley Johnson pocketed $34,050.00 from state funds is liable to pay same back into government account. An aide to Doe, named Albert Quaye allegedly stole $16,000.00 and L$50,000.00 which ECOWAS team of investigators said he is liable.
Reading this report I found it hard that these potential criminal are still walking the streets of Monrovia. This was an opportunity for the Liberian authorities to begin instituting measures to rid the public of economic criminal activities. The time has come for Liberians to learn that corruption is a criminal act and that those who participate in it must not be protected by law. It is time for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to prove the declared principle of the Unity Party administration that “corruption is public enemy number one”. I dare say that how she handles the findings by the team of financial investigators will convene many that she is not just merely been rhetorical. Bringing these fraudsters to justice is an opportunity Liberia cannot afford to slip by. The stakes are too high. Reminiscence of the 1980s will help.
The first time this opportunity came by was in 1980 when the hegemonic regime of the ‘Congo people’ was toppled by an unknown proxy, then 26 years old AFL Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. When that military regime executed the 13 former officials including the head of State, without the due process of law that could have helped to determine the whereabouts of the nation’s stolen monies, the country suffered its second loss and drastically diminished its chances for meaningful economic and political change. As corrupt as the accused 13 advisors to Tolbert might have been, they were innocent until proven guilty. Also they were amongst the very best educated, enlightened, our nation Liberia had produced.
Today, no one will deny that had the due process of law taken place the scale of Liberia’s tragedies for the last 26 years would have been far less. The unlawful execution of the president and his advisors had not done our nation any good nor minimize corruption. If anything had been learned, it is that murder begets murders.
The result of the military take over in 1980 was the institution of a system that had no political experience, no expertise in dealing with both the complexities of governance and the intricacies of evolving modern society. Subsequently, the very evils that the military regime of Master Sergeant Doe publicly said it came to remove were encouraged at all levels of the Liberian society.
This led to the departure from the military government of few technocrats like Dr. H. Boima Fahbulleh Jr., Dr. Tokpa Nah-Tipoteh, Dr. Amos Sawyer, Mr. Gabriel Baccus Matthews, among others.
Consequently the exit of these respected ‘progressive elements’ from the military regime still in its infancy naturally gave birth to a confrontational continuum. The military soon began using excessive force against its perceived ‘enemies of the state and their collaborators’. The University of Liberia were Dr. Amos Sawyer, Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh Jr., and Prof. Togba Nah-Tipoteh served as professors became the focus point, because Sergeant Doe and his military regime believed that ‘saboteurs’ were hatched and trained by these classroom teachers on the University of Liberia campus. Ironically two of these professors, Sawyer and Fahnbulleh Jr. are back in the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government.
Today, President Ellen Sirleaf is on record for publicly declaring corruption “public enemy number one”. To this end the government and the donors have put some mechanisms in place to protect the economic interest of the Liberian people thereby preventing civil war recurring. But the challenge is to make Liberians live by rule of law. Example would the law be applied to correct the alleged economic wrongs committed by individuals involved alleged corruption during the country transitional period?
Liberians agree that the eruption of civil war in 1989 was the climax of economic, social, and political abuses that had characterized the nation for nearly century and a half. As a student of journalism and native of Liberia I think that the time has come to end corruption and other abuses in m Liberia.
Like many socially conscious Liberians I have followed Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with interest ever since, not the least since she assumed responsibility for the country on January 16, 2006. With her background and expertise, I think that Liberia will rise from the ashes of hopelessness and miseries due to years of misrule and constant financial mismanagement.
In both her inaugural address in January and the historic address to the US congress, corruption was declared ‘public enemy number one’ to which, understandably, the 67 years old Harvard trained economist received due applauses. But can these words be transformed into action?
Bryant, Wlue, Kamara, Doe and others implicated in economic crimes in Liberia are currently on trial. This is unprecedented in the history of Liberia.
By Tom Kamara
Sept 19, 2000
A man called Sam Jackson heads the group. Sam Jackson was one of the young recruits of Samuel Doe's 1980 military junta that violently toppled the oligarchy of the Americo-Liberians, descendents of freed slaves who ruled the country from 1822 to 1980. Sam Jackson served as the junta's Deputy Minister of Commerce, but was sacked for alleged misappropriation, just as Taylor was and arrested and jailed in the US on similar charges, although he escaped to wage the Liberian civil war, which made him president. Both men deny the theft charges levied against them by the junta. Like many Liberians, Jackson fled to the US after his dismissal, later admitting having problems with drugs from which he said he has now recovered. Since Taylor's election, Jackson has been shuttling between Liberia and the US, purportedly advising the Government on policy and strategy.
Prior to the formation of the lobby group, President Taylor asked US-based Liberians to initiate legal actions against the American Government for allegedly demonizing him through accusations of stealing Sierra Leone's diamonds and backing that country's ruthless rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Another case Taylor has filed in London against Dr. Stephen Ellis, author of The Mask of Anarchy, in which the writer detailed Taylor's alleged cannibalism, still hangs. Sources say prosecution of the case would require Taylor's presence in a British court. He was deported from London in the 1980s. With Britain's campaign against him for allegedly acerbating the Sierra Leone war, along with London's successful campaign that suspended $48m of aid to Liberia, the likelihood of Taylor's presence in a British court is slim, particularly with the Pinochet factor still looming. Taylor's failure to attend the OAU conference in Lome, Togo this year, it has been hinted, was due to fears of possible arrest in connection with the Sierra Leone war. The former warlord has unsuccessfully tried to visit the US since his election, but mass protests by human rights groups and Liberian community organizations, including a letter reminding US authorities of the 5 American Catholic nuns Taylor's rebels killed in 1991, canceled the visit despite sustained efforts by his PR teams. But their PR campaign led to the dropping of charges against the Liberian President for breaking jail in Boston, Massachusetts.
Many Liberians, now facing mass deportation and scrambling for political asylum since their Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) will expire this year, laughed off Taylor's request for their collective legal action against America on his behalf. "If anything, we would like to take him to court a million times over, skin him alive, for the humiliation, suffering, bondage he has subjected us to for almost a decade with no indication of an end. Sue America? If visas were available, the whole of Liberia would migrate to America, leaving, Taylor and his hoodlums to roam around in the forests eating one another," said a former University professor now in exile in New Jersey.
However, the task before Jackson's lobby group, believed to be financed by Taylor, is to change minds where other giants in the American political arena have virtually failed. Their challenge is to convince the world that Taylor has been unnecessarily and unfairly maligned in the Sierra Leone war and the resulting orgy of child amputations which have hit world TV screens. More than that, the group faces an uphill battle in presenting convincing evidence that their President, now dubbed by the British as "the Milosevic of Africa", is serious about regional peace, human rights, democratization, and therefore development," said a former politician who now lives in Germany.
But Taylor's problem is far from a shortage of fans and promoters in America. To the contrary, it is the catalogue of crimes hanging over him that has overshadowed whatever goodwill there is amongst his many influential admirers. Their job is made more tedious by the fact that there are no indications of a letup in the deterioration of human rights conditions. From the beginning and perhaps now, he benefited immensely from the backing of some leading figures in the Democratic Party and American politics. Says Jon Lee Anderson, who lived in Liberia in his youth, in an earlier article in The New Yorker, "The Devil They Know": "Despite the fact that during the civil war Charles Taylor commanded one of the most vicious armies of modern times, and is widely believed to have abused his power for personal enrichment on a grand scale, he has an impressive roster of liberal American friends and acquaintances that includes the Reverend Jesse Jackson and former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Taylor enjoys an especially close relationship with former President Jimmy Carter, a fellow-Baptist, who travels frequently to Liberia to oversee 'democracy building' and human rights programs that the Carter Center foundation operates there. Taylor's lawyer and PR man in Washington, D.C., is Lester Hyman, a Kennedy protege and the former chairman of the Democratic Party of Massachusetts. Hyman says that when President Clinton was in Africa this spring he telephoned Taylor from Air Force One and gave him a "pep talk that was very encouraging"
As can be seen, outcries against horrendous abuses, along with detailed, factual reports by the US State Department, have not dented the enthusiasm of some leading Americans from seeing him as a man with redeeming values. Key among his friends is African-American Congressman Donald Payne with whom he has cultivated strong ties. Ryan Lizza writes in The New Republic:
"Indeed, Payne's relationship with Taylor goes back to the early '80s, when Taylor was in jail in Massachusetts and Payne, then a member of the Newark municipal council, spoke out against his extradition to Liberia. Payne says he was simply helping Taylor at the behest of a friend and didn't actually meet the Liberian until 1997, when he attended Taylor's presidential inauguration in Monrovia.
But since then the two men have clearly become friends. One visitor to Payne's office tells of watching the congressman hang up the phone with Taylor and remark that the Liberian president had just told him he was tired of dealing with Jeter, the U.S. envoy for Liberia. (Taylor is known to dislike Jeter, once referring to him as a "burnt-out" diplomat.) Taylor suggested that Payne become the U.S. envoy instead. 'What surprised me was that Payne didn't say anything,' says the visitor. 'He seemed flattered.' Payne says he does not remember any such conversation. At one point, according to an associate of Payne's, the New Jersey congressman jokingly complained that he was getting so many calls from Taylor that he was tired of talking to him. Payne insists he has talked on the phone to Taylor no more than half a dozen times"
Similarly, Lizza tells us that the relationship between Taylor and the Rev. Jackson actually solidified after Taylor's 1997 presidential victory:
"[Jesse] Jackson first met the Liberian dictator on an official trip to West Africa in February 1998. Taylor, worried that Jackson, like prior American diplomats, would hector him about human rights, invited an old Liberian friend of Jackson's named Romeo Horton to brief him on America's new envoy. Horton says Jackson and Taylor's meeting went extremely well. 'Instead of meeting an adversary,' says Horton, Taylor 'met a friend.' The following month, when Clinton toured Africa, Jackson arranged a 30-minute phone call between the two leaders from Air Force One. Upon returning home, Jackson organized a conference on 'reconciliation' for Liberians at his PUSH headquarters in Chicago. According to Harry Greaves Jr., co-founder of a Liberian opposition party, who attended the Chicago conference, 'The message was, `[Taylor's] been elected, and let's give him a chance.' It's all about p.r., and Jackson is part of that campaign.' As Leslie Cole, an old friend of Taylor's, wrote to the new president soon after Jackson's conference, 'Getting Jesse on the bandwagon was a good and smart idea'"
Other contacts include Black Congressional leaders, and the goodwill Taylor has enjoyed amongst them has filtered down to his RUF allies. The rebel's former spokesman, Omrie Golley, was often presented on CNN as a suave and polished politician determined to end the war. Lizza's findings throws light on the forces that influenced the now collapsed Lome Agreement, one of Rev. Jackson's achievements in Africa. Writes Lizza:
"Within three months of Golley's February 1999 visit to the State Department and the congressional offices of Donald Payne, the phone call initiated by Howard Jeter had led to a government/RUF cease-fire. With striking unanimity, Sierra Leonean intellectuals believe that Kabbah, a rather weak president, agreed to the cease-fire under pressure from Jackson and against the advice of some of his ministers and prominent members of civil society. Days before the cease-fire, Jackson and Kabbah met up in Ghana, where both were attending a conference. From Ghana, Jackson abruptly flew Kabbah to the talks in Lomé, Togo, where the cease-fire agreement was signed. One Freetown newspaper even reported that Kabbah was "kidnapped" by Jackson. 'The story was,' explains Zainab Bangura, "that he was kidnapped, because [Kabbah] went [to the conference in Ghana] with his finance minister and information minister"--at the time both men were thought to be against signing the agreement--"and they all went to the airport to go to fly to Lomé, and Jesse Jackson said there were no seats for them. So they didn't go"
The difficulty of Taylor's PR men no matter how much they get paid is polishing a rugged image that from all indications cannot absorb polish no matter how hard they rub. Years of continuing atrocities have left their indelible marks on the minds of many that the man is simply irredeemable. Anderson:
"More Western diplomats, relief workers, and businessmen in Liberia say that the pattern of 'pillage and plunder' instituted by Taylor during the war years has continued during his tenure in office. 'He is very corrupt", said one diplomat, who charges Taylor with operating a 'dual system': the official one and the private system based on profits from illegal extraction of timber, gold and diamonds. Taylor is also believed to be receiving a cut of rice and other necessities. The diplomat calculates Taylor private revenues to be 'possibly equal..."
But Taylor's drive to woo American politicians and influentials has been unrelenting because of his belief that Washington holds the key to funding his corrupt regime. Not satisfied with the performance of Rev. Jackson and others of the Black Caucus, he hired former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen as his PR, hoping that Cohen's influence would lead to much needed US aid with the opening of doors in Washington for the type of massive aid Doe received. Frustrated over US snub, he complained on Dutch TV that while his predecessor operated with US$500m budget, he was stuck with $50m. But according to reports, Taylor was earning about US$500m from Sierra Leone diamonds alone by 1995, two years before he became President.
His ambition to enter the US as a conqueror (since he was imprisoned here for alleged theft) and make a grandstanding at the UN faltered due to the mass protests from many human rights groups and individuals. But he has been successful in wooing the Congressional Black Caucus and Civil Rights leaders. Ties between him and the Rev. Jackson remain strong, evidenced by Rev. Jackson's defense of, "He [Taylor] is not encouraging the [Sierra Leone] war." Rev. Jackson and Taylor's household maintain close ties. For example, the reverend's goddaughter was seriously wounded, and the former Executive Director of the NAACP, Earl Shinhoster, killed in a car accident as Alabama State Police were providing VIP courtesy to Mrs. Jewel Taylor, then on a tour of Alabama, Montgomery, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Dallas. According to Donna Muhammad, "Mr. Shinhoster was serving as one of the Atlanta hosts to the Reconstruction & Revitalization Tour for Liberia. The tour, designed to raise international awareness of Liberia's internal reconstruction and economic revitalization, included Her Excellency Madame Jewel Howard Taylor, the First Lady of the Republic of Liberia; Honorable Dunbar Jenkins, minister of Lands, Mines and Energy; Mrs. Sandra Howard, advisor to the President on Economic Affairs; and Mr. Sam Ricks, consultant to the minister of Energy."
Mrs. Taylor's "Reconstruction & Revitalization Tour" was to be followed by the "goodwill tour," arranged by Rev. John Gimenez, bishop of Virginia Beach-based Rock Church, with eight congregations in Liberia. The "goodwill tour" bungled when reports emerged of her husband's implications in the death of his vice president. The scandal led to the cancellation of the tour and her immediate return home, according to the Virginia Pilot.
But like many Americans, Rev. Gimenez seems not to have been informed about Taylor's horrible human rights abuses. He told the Virginia Pilot, after hearing of the execution and mutilation of some of his Liberian flock, opposition politician Samuel Dokie and his wife and two others:
"It was terrible what happened to Dokie,'' Gimenez said. ``His wife, who was a wonderful lady -- they just chopped her up in pieces. Even Dokie's children believe Taylor did it. I don't know one way or the otherIt could have been him. I'm not saying he didn't do it. Dokie was very vocal against Taylor in the elections. If Taylor was behind it, nobody knows.''
But in spite of this, the cleric has been so impressed with Liberia's current political setup that he has initiated plans to build a TV and radio station in the country (among his many projects) regardless of abundant evidence of clampdown on independent media and journalists.
According to Liz Szabo of the Virginia Pilot, the genesis of Rev. Gimenez's links to Liberia's corrupt and callous warlords turned born again Christians in search of money began at the time when they were storming the world in search of funding for their holocaust. It was then that one of their fundraisers, Gene Cox, met Rev. Gimenez. The story is one of a web of con artists capitalizing on what seems to be the sincere zeal of a man (Gimenez) determined to spread the "Word". It is evident that with little more information such as the bogus New Jersey-based business which "Church Elder" Woewiyu and Taylor ran during Doe's reign that siphoned hundreds of thousands of dollars from Liberia, Rev. Gimenez would have "saved" this "Church elder" from coming any where near money. From indications, Woewiyu's prime objective in establishing Gimenez's Liberian "congregations" in multiplying numbers was money before God. The tale of Woewiyu, Cox, and their clans encounter with Gimenez is wrapped in greed and graft. Liz Szabo writes:
"Gimenez said he had never even heard of the West African country before 1996. Then, a man named Gene Cox approached him about donating money to Taylor's rebel army. Gimenez said he wasn't interested. 'I told him, `What you need is Jesus, not guns," Gimenez recollected:
"Cox came to Rock Church and was saved, Gimenez said. Cox then called Taylor's defense minister, Thomas Woewiyu, who was in the United States raising funds, and invited him to the Kempsville church. Woewiyu received the Lord and was baptized, Gimenez said.
"Woewiyu told Gimenez he should start a church in Liberia. Cox's sister, the Rev. Rosetta Cox, agreed to go. But she had only been in Africa a short time when fighting became so intense that she and other Americans had to be evacuated to safety.
"Months later, Cox and Gimenez returned to Liberia, meeting transitional leaders and eventually Taylor, who was elected president in 1997. Although the State Department says the elections were free, officials add that they were conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation.
"Woewiyu, an elder in a Liberian Rock Church, was promoted to labor minister in Taylor's government and has since been elected senator, Gimenez said. The wife of the country's new vice president is a member, too, he said.
"It was Woewiyu who suggested that Rock Church play host to Taylor and the first lady during their trips here, said Gimenez, who added that he had little to do with arranging the visits. ' I'm not close with him,'' Gimenez said of Taylor. ``I'm not his buddy. He's got to answer to God one day.''
The paper said although Rev. Gimenez acknowledged that Taylor is a former warlord, he concluded with available information that: "Taylor also is a huge improvement over Liberia's previous president, Samuel Doe, who was widely known to be corrupt and vicious".
Here lies the power and evil of misinformation. Had the Rev. Gimenez known the real difference between Doe's and Taylor's Liberia, and that Taylor and Doe were partners who fell off over sharing of the booty, he would have been more careful in reaching such clearly erroneous conclusions. What would have happened if Rev. Gimenez knew the real stories behind the death of 250,000 people, 45,000 of them children from the war and its related causes is now guesswork. It is highly unlikely that Rev. Gimenez knew of Taylor's active participation in the coup that brought Doe to power and that he was one of the most corrupt officials in the junta. Nor was he told that according to Church figures, over 10,000 women were raped by competing rebel factions, including Taylor's NPFL which murdered 5 Catholic nuns. But Rev. Gimenez admits that: "You hear a lot of things about Charles Taylor", adding to the amazement of many Liberians and others familiar with the country, "But he has done a marvelous job. If you had seen the country after the civil war, you'd see. He's brought in a lot of business.'' Other American Church figures more informed on the country find such statements baffling.
Says Rev. Jeri Bishop of the Methodist Church, one of Liberia's mainstream churches. "The people there, they're scared to death of him,'' Bishop said of Taylor. "I find it difficult that the (Rock) church is going to hail this man who began such a brutal war in Liberia,'' The Virginian Pilot reported. It added that:
"Binaifer Nowrojee of Human Rights Watch returned from Liberia in May. Her research found many cases of civil rights abuses, including the silencing of media outlets such as Star Radio and The New Democrat newspaper. Nowrojee recommended that Norfolk limit its involvement with Liberia to humanitarian aid such as food, books or medicine". It quoted human rights worker as saying, "A church that would really have the welfare of Liberians at heart would not support this government, or Taylor He charted the course of modern warfare.''
Thus, the rhetoric of human rights, transparency in government and adherence to moral values led many to conclude that Taylor, perhaps the worst warlord West Africa has produced in recent times, would have been denied legitimacy by world opinion. To the contrary, he became and remains a darling of many within America.
"Every society indeed has its disciples that preach, promote and protect its lunatic fringes", says a Liberian political activist in Europe. President Taylor's best PR is to do the right thing in Liberia. Perceptions about the country will not change by pouring money on American politicians. It only exposes the naiveté of the Government. Good luck to the Liberia Support Network. The country needs all the support it can get, something difficult in view of prevailing conditions fostered and encouraged by President Taylor.