Arts, Culture & Media

Charles Taylor: Preacher, President, War Criminal


Liberia's Charles Taylor in 2003. (Photo: Juda Ngwenya/Reuters)

Charles Taylor was born in Liberia in 1948. In the 1970's, he earned a degree in economics from Bentley College just outside of Boston. After that, Taylor returned to Liberia and received a government appointment after a military coup in 1980.

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A few years later, Taylor fled to the United States after he was accused of embezzling close to $1 million. He was arrested and imprisoned in Massachusetts. In 1985, Taylor tied bed sheets together and escaped from the second-floor of a prison cell. Taylor claims that the CIA aided his escape.

Taylor made his way to Libya where he allegedly spent time training under Muammar (moh-uh-mar) Gaddafi. In 1989, Taylor led a rebel militia into Liberia to overthrow the government. A chaotic on-again, off-again civil war followed. It lasted 13 years.

During the fighting, Taylor regularly called into the BBC.

TAYLOR: We will be sending a delegation on tomorrow.
HOST: Do you have any hopes that peace might be negotiated there?
TAYLOR We are not there to negotiate anything. We were invited by ECOWAS, we are there to listen to what we have to say, Robin..
HOST: If they call for a ceasefire, will you abide by that?
TAYLOR: No, there will be no cease fire, Robin, no cease fire."

Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997. To many there, he was a hero, especially in the eyes of some of the child soldiers who fought for him. Mali Goo Goo Zawoo took up arms under Taylor when he was 15. I met Zawoo two years ago in Liberia.

Zawoo: "My thoughts of him at that time, was that he was such a wonderful and powerful man, yea, a man who was fearless."

Taylor was known for handing out bags of money and keeping the price of rice cheap. But he also displayed cruelty and greed. He controlled Liberia's diamond-rich regions, rubber plantations, and iron ore deposits.

Taylor supplied guns to rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone, in exchange for so-called "blood diamonds" mined by slave labor.

Many of soldiers loyal to Taylor terrorized people in Liberia and Sierra Leone, explains Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Cooke: "Rapes, killings and so forth, just the worst forms of brutality that warlords and the young men who fought for them could think up."

Rebels in Sierra Leone came up with new vocabulary for their atrocities. Applying "a smile" meant cutting off the upper and lower lips of a victim. They regularly hacked off arms of their victims. Brainwashed child soldiers were forced to kill parents and relatives.

Cooke says in the pantheon of bad guys, Taylor stands out.

Cooke: "I'd say he's up there with some of the worst, not only because of the brutality that he reaked on Liberians, but also because he was key in kind of fomenting a whole system of conflict within West Africa that was particularly brutal."

Six years after becoming president of Liberia, Taylor was indicted for war crimes. Here's Taylor speaking shortly after the indictment in 2003. He called the charges vindictive and racist.

Taylor: "I mean some little American prosecutor wants to disgrace an African president. This whole thing of using some little fellow to run around to disgrace African leaders and make a mess of us, because we are supposed to be monkeys in the trees, I think is something that African leaders have to look at very seriously. It is not just about Charles Taylor (clapping). This is not about Charles Taylor."

A few months later, under pressure from the Bush Administration, Taylor left office and was provided safe haven in Nigeria. Three years later, Nigeria told him he had to go. Taylor fled and was soon captured trying to cross into Cameroon.

When Taylor left Liberia in 2003, the Economist Magazine named the country the worst place in the world. Today, eight years later, the country is the second poorest on the planet.