This one is dedicated to Peter Jagger Glover, who brought to my attention to the revelation, published by the Boston Globe in early January, that Charles Taylor, the former despot of Liberia who is now standing trial in the Hague for war crimes, worked for the CIA as a “source of information.” Some time has passed since that story, and the Globe has subsequently distanced itself from its original assertion, claiming that it “overstepped available evidence.” In truth, the Pentagon’s spy division admits that it has almost 50 documents relating to Taylor in its possession, but refuses to disclose the content of those documents. While the Globe is correct to state that it lacks the evidence to back up its claim, if you are one of the people who believes that Taylor has had no links to the U.S. intelligence community at all in his long and bloody political career, you’re probably also one of those people who is skeptical that either the U.S. or Israel has been assassinating Iranian nuclear technicians recently.
In 1983, Charles Taylor was an official in the Liberian government, charged with procurement. He fled the country after being charged with plundering the state bank, and in 1984 he was arrested in the United States and imprisoned until he could be extradited back to Liberia. Yet, strangely, Taylor managed to escape from jail on September 15, 1985, and returned to Liberia on his own terms, leading a successful revolution against the dictator at the time, Samuel Doe. Considering that international fugitives do not generally break out of the big house on a regular basis, it is easy to see how many believe that the U.S. government enabled Taylor’s emancipation. Indeed, Taylor confirmed this theory in 2009. Granted, Taylor is not the most credible source, but he has not always been willing to accept the view that he and Washington worked together. In fact, before the Globe retracted its claim that he worked for the CIA, Taylor threatened to sue the newspaper.
If the U.S. did grant Taylor a “get out of jail free” card, what was the reasoning behind it? To understand that, one must know the history of Liberia. In 1847, Liberia was born, a slice of Sierra Leone bought by U.S. citizens so African slaves could “go home” rather than be forcibly assimilated into a society that would, at best, treat them as a separate class but never as equals. In a tragic twist, those American-born blacks who emigrated to Liberia became a privileged elite, and aped their former white masters by essentially enslaving native Africans as an underclass. The Americo-Liberian elites were in turn supported by U.S. companies like Firestone and Goodrich, who were granted license to plunder Liberia of its rubber. With the onset of the Cold War, Liberia also became an important Western satellite in West Africa, serving as stage of operations to prevent the spread of communism in the region.
In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union was on the ropes, but the new Reagan administration wasn’t taking any chances. In addition to worrying about the communist “threat” taking advantage of instability in Central America, it was also anxious about the destabilization of pro-Western dictatorships like those of Samuel Doe, whose cruel and merciless repression of trade unions agitating against pseudo-colonial extraction naturally led the local population into insurrection. Given what we know about U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, it is certainly not difficult to believe that Washington permitted Taylor to return to Liberia to lead a rebellion against the unpopular and isolated Doe so that a pro-Western regime could be reestablished, order restored and economic interests safeguarded. The fact that Taylor took funds from Libya during his revolt might indicate otherwise, but it could very well be that Taylor played both sides in his pursuit of power.
For most of the 1990s, Taylor was a successful warlord who use child soldiers and blood diamonds to attain the most dominant position in Liberia. When elections were held in 1997, he stunned the world by winning a presidential election observers considered to be free and fair. Liberians, fearful that a defeated Taylor would simply resume his war if he lost, marked their ballots for a man who had killed their loved ones. At the time, other than the usual rhetoric, Washington did nothing meaningful about Taylor’s ascent to authority. Uncle Sam was prepared to look past the massacres and the exploitation if Taylor was willing to fall in line and play ball.
Taylor, however, had other ideas. In defiance of the West, he continued to support the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group terrorizing neighboring Sierra Leone. The RUF had supplied Taylor with blood diamonds, and he in turn paid for the jewels with weapons. When Taylor refused to end this relationship, the U.S. moved to bring him down. A 2000 diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks revealed the U.S. was planning a “long-term campaign” designed “to convince other UN members … that Charles Taylor is instigating cross-border conflict, trafficking arms, looting resources (Liberia’s and neighboring nations’) and, in general, sowing instability throughout West Africa.” His previous sins of embezzlement while a government minister and his amoral methods during his struggle for power are not mentioned. It was only after Taylor disobeyed Washington on Sierra Leone that American aid to Liberia gradually fell from $37 million in 1997 to a paltry $6 million in 2003. It is also interesting to note that the Special Court for Sierra Leone, set up just to try Taylor, owes its existence to the U.S., which has provided it with more than $76 million in funding.
Taylor has since been replaced by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former World Bank official and Citibank director more in touch with the global economic elite than she does with her own people. She writes and speaks with enthusiasm about the economic growth achieved throughout the continent, but her words — and her Nobel Peace Prize last year — mean absolutely nothing to the average Liberian still aspiring for even a basic level of human development.
Taylor deserves to be tried and punished for his crimes, but his current trial rings hollow as a righteous accounting for his transgressions. In reality, he is being hung out to dry for refusing to be a good puppet and do as he was told, to limit himself only to the abuses he was permitted. Liberia is undoubtedly better off without him, but Liberia — and the rest of Africa — will never truly know true progress until it is liberated from the present exploitative world capitalist system, not just the dictators it supports.