Taylor Maintained Power through Western Assistance
by Jaclyn Jacobsen
for Africa Policy Watch
The election of Ellen SIrleaf-Johnson as President of Liberia has finally ended the official political power of Liberia's former ruthless dictator, Charles Taylor. With the support of the UN and other international agencies, as well as significant aid from Western countries, it appears that democracy has triumphed over two decades of inter-gang warfare and authoritarianism, in which 150,000 were killed and more than a million were displaced.
However, Charles Taylor, now indicted as a war criminal in the newly created Special Court for Sierra Leone, continues to wield considerable power behind the scenes. Although mandated by the UN to cease all contact to government ministers and key industry leaders, Taylor remains a potent force behind many transactions in West Africa, and is thought to be responsible for the attempted assassination of Guinean President Lansagna Conte in mid-January 2005. Policy analysts agree that Taylor represents a seriously destabilizing presence in western Africa, as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Cote d'Ivoire struggle to retain control over their territories.
While Western nations have been among the strongest advocates in calling Taylor to stand trial for war crimes, their complicity enabled Taylor's gang-land regime to subside and flourish in Liberia for years, while allowing Taylor to personally finance a range of brutalities that would erupt in neighboring Sierra Leone. "Conflict diamonds" from Sierra Leone and Liberia made their way largely unobstructed in the ports of the European Union and the United States, revenues from which would finance the rape and murder of thousands of Africans.
"Conflict diamonds" are thus named because of their critical role in financing guerrilla tactics and enabling rebel groups, such as those answering to Taylor, to receive arsenals of arms and other military materiel. Usually obtained outside legal channels, and therefore far from the reach of any government oversight, conflict diamonds are smuggled onto ships and dispersed throughout the world. These gems are secondary- source stones, in that they are not extracted like higher-quality jewels. Often, such stones are found among river beds and banks. Due to their availability, it is difficult for authorities to adequately track the locations of these stones, which makes it considerably easier for illegal diamond traders to create false documentation and sell their gems abroad. According to the US State Department, 10 to 15 percent of diamonds sold internationally are illegal conflict diamonds.
Taylor engaged extensively in this illegal diamond trading to provide the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone with weapons, logistical support, and shelter from Sierra Leonean authorities. Aware of Sierra Leone's vast diamond deposits, Taylor negotiated a deal with his good friend Foday Sankoh, head of the RUF, in which arms would be provided in return for diamonds. The RUF then used these arms to terrroize Sierra Leone, killing and brutishly maiming thousands, which included children. To illustrate the scope of these exchanges, Liberia exported $300 million worth of diamonds in 1999 alone. It must be noted that these diamonds were purchased without reservation from both diamond traders and consumers throughout the world. Belgian dealers are particularly noted for conducting diamond transactions in safehouses in Liberia, under the auspices and protection of Charles Taylor.
While Liberian government agencies assert their non-compliance with Taylor's underhanded tactics, the Liberian International Ship and Corporate Register, the second-largest shipping registry in the world with 1600 registered ships, personally accepted directions from Taylor to divert nearly $1 million to the coffers of arms dealers in Sierra Leone, and facilitated trades between the RUF and Al-Qaeda before September 11. The UN would not impose sanctions on Liberian diamonds until 2001, well after the start of armed conflict in the region. The World Diamond Congress, a blanket organization of diamond extractors, buyers, and traders, voted to impose severe restrictions on conflict diamonds in 2000
Taylor did not limit his illegal trading to diamonds. Timber, rubber, and gold reserves were similarly exploited to fund his armies of child warriors and RUF thugs. Taylor has devastated vast swathes of forest, on which the rural population depends for income, to propel further exchanges with the RUF, while no rubber and gold resources in Liberia have remained untouched by Taylor's heavy hand. The UN would not impose restrictions on Liberian lumber, despite its blatant connection to fueling armed conflict in Sierra Leone, until 2003.
Political leaders in the West have also had some degree of collaboration with the former dictator. Pat Robertson, a noted televangelist, has strong links with Taylor, as Taylor owned 10% of Richardson's Freedom Gold company. When asked to comment, the vice president of Freedom Gold Joseph Matthews responded, "Dr. Robertson remains a friend of Liberia and is working to alleviate the suffering of the Liberian people." (Washington Post).
Far more damning is the involvement of U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson with the notorious leader. Working as a special envoy for the Clinton administration, it was largely Jackson's insistence that Taylor be personally contacted by Clinton, who heretofore had distanced himself due to Taylor's notorious war activities. Jackson would maintain close contact with Taylor, even visiting him several times. According to a April 29, 1998 memo from the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia: "During his 24 hours in Liberia, the Rev. Jackson met several times privately with President Taylor and appeared to establish a strong personal bond with him. After Jesse Jackson's visit, President Taylor went out of his way to stress that Liberia is America's best friend in Africa, and that it was time to improve the bilateral relationship - a 180-degree change in direction" of Taylor's stance.
In an effort to encourage reconciliation within the warring groups of Liberia, Jackson would host a conference at his PUSH headquarters in Chicago, where he immediately curtailed any criticism of Charles Taylor or his tactics. Jackson insisted that those who opposed Taylor's policies leave the room, and discouraged participants from posting any information on Taylor's war atrocities on the Internet. Harry A. Greaves, an opponent of Taylor and founder of the Liberia Action party, called the conference "a PR exercise by Charles Taylor."
Jackson would continue to shield Taylor from diplomatic isolation despite his brutal attacks on opponents and open disregard for international law. He even went so far as to extend his diplomacy to Taylor's friend Sankoh, who was in the midst of liquidating any obstacles in their quest to dominate Sierra Leone. After Sankoh had captured Sierra Leone's diamond mines, Jackson forced a meeting between the legitimate leader, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and Sankoh, in Togo, where he forced the elected ruler to sign a cease-fire with the bloody warlord, and ensured Sankoh's control over the lucrative mines and access to Taylor's arms arsenal.
Perhaps Jackson's most egregious gaffe occurred in mid-May 2000, as Sankoh's RUF murdered several UN peacekeepers, taking 500 more hostage. In the midst of negotiating an end to the hostage crisis, Jackson went so far as to compare the warlord Sankoh with Nelson Mandela. Immediate warnings were sent to Jackson by irate Africans, who threatened to assault him should he descend from the plane. After Jackson publicly commended Taylor for his role in securing the safety of the hostages, whose capture he had orchestrated, he was fired as special counsel to President Clinton.(Kenneth R. Timmerman).
Although slow to respond to the ravages in west Africa, the international community has made an effort to contain the violence. Following the 2001 and 2003 sanctions on Liberian diamonds and timber, and the World Diamond Congress' restriction on importing conflict diamonds, the Kimberley Process has also sought to address the conflict diamond issue. In November 2002, NGOs and the international diamond industry met in Kimberley, South Africa to create the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, and introduced measures to regulate the previously unregulated rough diamond trade. These new procedures are designed to ensure that gang leaders and illegitimate dictators will not be the beneficiaries of any profits received from these rough diamonds.
Now that Taylor is awaiting trial for war crimes at the Special Court, analysts hope that conflict exports will no longer be used for arms purchases. However, statistics claim otherwise. According to Global Witness, an international watchdog group, between US $75,000 and $100,000 are made each month from Liberia's timber industry; in diamonds, profits are estimated at $350,000 a month. Democratization is slow, and renegade rebels still have a significant foothold in these lucrative industries. In addition, the DDRR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reconciliation, and Reintegration) programme has not been able to adequately provide the numbers of former soldiers with stable employment, thus encouraging yet another wave of illicit global trading. Continuing conflict in Cote d'Ivoire, as well as the precarious stability of other neighboring states, impels the current leaders of Liberia to retain control of these natural resource reserves, and prevent the rise of another warlord or gang. Talk of repealing the sanctions is therefore too soon. "Lifting timber and diamond sanctions now would make matters significantly worse, opening up the region to a flood of illegal Liberian diamond and timber exports exported by armed ex-fighters that could ignite a regional war," says Natalie Ashworth of Global Witness.