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American Warlord

All the advantages of being the president’s son yielded very little in the way of easy profits for Chucky. Even with the deck stacked entirely in his favor, he failed to distinguish himself in the field of hustlers, entrepreneurs, and monopolists in Taylor’s Liberia. In business, as with the [Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU)], Chucky seemed to be the biggest obstacle to his own success.

That’s from American Warlord, Johnny Dwyer’s new book about Charles Taylor’s son Chucky. It’s more than a book about Chucky, though. It’s among the best-researched books on Liberia, and probably the only page-turner. Dwyer offers new details and insight into countless topics of Liberia intrigue.

Chucky’s story starts in Massachusetts, where he was born to a Trinidadian woman named Bernice. Charles Taylor abandoned the family early on and started engaging with Liberian diaspora politics during the Tubman era.


Chucky had an unremarkable childhood in Florida. He made his first trip to Africa as a teenager in 1992 to reunite with his father, who was in Gbarnga. Chucky hung out with Taylor’s fighters and ventured around Bong. Apparently at one point he asked for permission to, and then did, kill a prisoner.

Chucky’s return to Florida did not go well. He tried to kill himself. He got into fights. He was arrested after pointing a gun at a man’s head following a robbery. Facing jail time, Bernice asked Taylor to take him. Taylor placed Chucky in school in Ghana, but he had trouble there. Taylor then moved him to Monrovia, where he was promptly suspended for slapping a classmate.

In 1996 Chucky requested his father’s permission to set up a private security force to protect Taylor and his men, a force that would come to be known as the Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU). Chucky set up a training base in Gbatala, but quickly realized he did not command the respect of the boys and men he was supposed to be training. They had battle experience and he did not. Nor did he compensate for this in exceptional leadership ability. It appears Chucky started committing violent acts to instill fear and respect for his leadership among ATU fighters, and this included horrifically violent hazing, sometimes result in death.

What Chucky did and told others to do is to list some of the most horrific abuses committed during the war. Chucky ordered his own people tortured for small accidents. His father was frequently cleaning up his messes and trying to keep his crimes out of the media; after all, the ATU was (for a while) a secret, unconstitutional militia.

Dwyer’s account of Chucky’s life is remarkable, but American Warlord is equally worth reading for insight into other aspects of modern Liberian events. Did the CIA help Charles Taylor break out of jail in Massachusetts? Based on new details Dwyer provides, my sense is no. Taylor appears to have broken out of prison – a prison that experienced several escapes previously – with a friend. In Ghana he found that people assumed the only way you escape jail in the US is with CIA help. When this narrative worked for him, he used it, when it didn’t, he didn’t.

Did the ATU knowingly support al Qaeda pre-9/11? Here again the answer seems to be no. The ATU seemed to think the two al Qaeda guys at Gbatala were no different from the ordinary sketchy foreign businessmen who found Liberia advantageous for a certain sort of business.

Did the US arm LURD rebels in Guinea? This was a question I always thought was interesting, but now it seems inconsequential. We provided military training to LURD and this training heavily influenced the balance of power between LURD and Taylor. Relatedly, I always used to think America overstated its role in getting Taylor to leave. I now see that our support of LURD and total unwillingness to help Taylor in any way was at least in large part responsible for Taylor stepping down.

There are also stories that I never even knew to be curious about. The only American official left at the US Embassy in Liberia after Tubman’s murder claims (not corroborated) that he simply showed up at the Executive Mansion to see what was going on, and appointed members of the military junta that followed, including Doe.

There’s so much more. Chucky had an American girlfriend who moved to Liberia during the war to be with him. Chucky’s post-war stint in Trinidad trying to record hip-hop is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction things. Dwyer recounts Chucky’s reaction to Lord of War, a film that based a character on him. Dwyer tells us about Chucky’s Florida trial, which is interesting on so many levels not least that the case against Chucky for torture was being prepared during the Bush administration by at least one Justice Department official who was herself allegedly tied up in a scandal related to Abu Ghraib. And just when you’ve finished the book and are feeling sad there’s no more (though of course happy there’s no more because Chucky is in prison) Dwyer offers a moving appendix on his sources.

American Warlord comes out April 7. Pre-order it here.


Governing Lagos

Diane de Gramont has a new report describing and explaining the remarkable reforms Lagos state has made over the past 15 years. These reforms include increasing tax revenue, reforming waste collection, introducing high-capacity buses, and containing area boys or thugs.

The figure below comes from the report. To give you a sense of this revenue in dollars, 200 billion Naira is a little over 1 billion dollars.




From Citizen by Claudia Rankine:

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.


On Immunity

I highly recommend Eula BissOn Immunity, one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of the Year.

Biss talks about immunization as a way to contribute to a public good, helping to protect the elderly or people who have compromised immune systems from diseases.

I learned a lot about Robert Sears (“Dr. Bob”), a doctor who wrote The Vaccine Book, which provides lots of fodder for the anti-vaccine crowd.

“This is an important vaccine from a public health standpoint,” [Dr. Bob] writes of the hep B vaccine, “but it’s not as critical from an individual point of view.”

In a section of The Vaccine Book titled “Is it your social responsibility to vaccinate your kids?” Dr. Bob asks, “Can we fault parents for putting their own child’s health ahead of that of the kids around him?” This is meant to be a rhetorical question, but Dr. Bob’s implied answer is not mine. In another section of the book, Dr. Bob writes of his advice to parents who fear the MMR vaccine, “I also warn them not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR, we’ll likely see the disease increase significantly.”


Crisis Group report on upcoming Nigerian elections

Last month’s International Crisis Group report is pessimistic about the prospect of free, fair, and peaceful elections for Nigeria in February. The report cites ominous statements from political and societal leaders who explicitly threaten violence in response to various possible outcomes.

I thought the part of the report on the politicization of the police and security services was the most interesting. I had not realized the extent to which the police and Department of State Services (aka SSS) have been systematically targeting pro-APC people. Here are some examples.

Recent police conduct, particularly in Rivers state, has raised concerns. Between May 2013 and early 2014, the federally-controlled police in the state (there is no state police) were criticised for alleged bias against the state governor, Amaechi, and his APC supporters. On 16 July 2013, police reportedly stood by as hundreds of anti-Amaechi thugs stoned the motorcade of four northern governors on a solidarity visit to the governor in Port Harcourt. The police were also accused of repeatedly turn- ing a blind eye when groups (including hired thugs and ex-militants) opposed to the governor and the APC paraded Port Harcourt, intimidated residents, while at the same time repeatedly providing protection to pro-PDP groups who attacked and disrupted APC events, including a 12 January 2014 rally in Port Harcourt, at which Senator Magnus Abe, a strong Amaechi ally, was reportedly hit with a rubber bullet.


Similarly, in January 2014, security operatives summoned and interrogated Nasir el-Rufai, an APC official who had warned that the 2015 elections may be followed by violence if the polls are not free and fair. In August, the DSS questioned Joseph Waku, an APC leader who had sharply criticised Jonathan. In contrast, when pro-Jonathan individuals similarly threaten mayhem if Jonathan is not re-elected or criticise opposition leaders provocatively, they are mostly ignored.


In Osun state, just hours before the polls, hooded security operatives arrested the APC’s national spokesman, Lai Mohammed; the media aide to the party’s national leader, Sunday Dare; the deputy chief of staff to Osun state Governor Afolabi Salisu; Osun state’s Agriculture Commissioner Wale Adedoyin; and 96 other party members. Most were freed without any charges once voting was concluded, but no PDP leaders or members were ever arrested.


Managing your Political Godfather

Managing your Political Godfather: Lessons in Conflict Dynamics from the Ngige-Uba Imbroglio by Chris Uwadoka is possibly the most interesting book I’ve read on Nigerian politics. (h/t to Jonathan.) Uwadoka tells the story of an infamous falling out between Dr. Chris Ngige (the godson) and Chief Chris Uba[h] (the godfather — godfather is the Nigerian word for patron) in Anambra state in the early 2000s, and then draws on analytical frameworks from a variety of disciplines to draw broader lessons about how future godsons and godfathers can best manage their relationship.


Uba selected Ngige as PDP nominee for governor of Anambra state. Uwadoka describes strategies Uba used to try to ensure Ngige would remain loyal once in office:

In picking [Ngige] forGovernor, Ubah considered his lack of charisma, political base and his perceived servile disposition to be a great advantage to him […]. Just to make assurance doubly sure, he arranged to have one of his elder sisters, Mrs. Eucharia Azodo, to emerge as the speaker of the Anambra State House of Assembly. This would make impeachment of Ngige easy if he became recalcitrant. Ubah also appointed another close loyalist […] who would take over from Ngige if the occasion arose. Then he reportedly took Ngige and other beneficiaries of his overnight political power base to the fearsome Okija Shrine and made them swear an oath of allegiance to him. He made Ngige sign a resignation letter in advance and to voice it into a recorder.

Uwadoka describes a strategy Uba used when trying to convince a reluctant Ngige to run for governor:

By putting Ngige away from other prospective and pretending godfathers, Uba may have been attempting to ensure that Ngige was left with no doubt as to who was buttering his bread. This is important because in the game of political jobbing, it is common for pretending godfathers to rush to a man whom they hear has been tipped for a political appointment and give him the impression that they are in the process of sponsoring him for that very position, whereas, in truth, they had no idea how the appointment came about.

In mid-2003, only one month into his term, Ngige’s relationship with Uba soured. I don’t completely understand what happened, but Uba attempted to formally remove him from office, and there was also a failed abduction attempt. Ngige hired his own security. In 2006 courts overturned his 2003 victory, and Ngige was replaced.

Uwadoka offers some “knockout questions for screening” for prospective godsons and godfathers. Here are my favorites

Knockout Questions for Screening Potential Godsons

  • Is he reasonably powerless without me?
  • Does he look like one that can live with the loss of some of his due privileges?

Knockout Questions for Screening Potential Godfathers

  • Can he muster the funds to bankroll me? (Should you be headhunted by a godfather and asked to be fielded for an elective position, ask for sufficient funds to be made available to you up-front. Many have been enticed out of employments and left to their own means.)
  • Can he offer protection? (If, for instance, my opponent hangs a murder accusation on my neck, how long will it take him to resolve the case by employing pressures from ‘above’?)

To further analyze godfather-godson relationships, Uwodoka brings in discussions of audience costs, the prisoner’s dilemma game, and credible commitments. It’s a really fun read, though I have no idea where one can find this book in the US.




Charles Taylor and Firestone

The part of the PBS/ProPublic documentary Charles Taylor and Firestone that was really shocking was the extent to which Firestone supported Taylor in the early 1990s. They could not operate without his permission, so (in hindsight, I guess, though the decision seemed pretty black and white at the time too) they really should have just not operated until things stabilized. Instead, they chose to cooperate with Taylor, who was of course at the time a warlord and not president. From the accompanying article:

The company signed a deal in 1992 to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel government. Over the next year, the company doled out more than $2.3 million in cash, checks and food to Taylor[…].

While Firestone was operating:

Taylor used [Firestone] for the business of war. Taylor turned storage centers and factories on Firestone’s sprawling rubber farm into depots for weapons and ammunition. He housed himself and his top ministers in Firestone homes. He also used communications equipment on the plantation to broadcast messages to his supporters, propaganda to the masses and instructions to his troops. […]

For Taylor, the relationship with Firestone was about more than money. It helped provide him with the political capital and recognition he needed as he sought to establish his credentials as Liberia’s future leader.

The effect of Firestone’s cooperation with Taylor on the war is unknowable. After all, Firestone needed to cooperate with him precisely because he already controlled so much of the country in 1991. In the short term, though, it seems clear things would have been more difficult for Taylor had they just stayed out of the country for a few more years.


Africa Confidential on Ebola

From a gated Africa Confidential article on Ebola, h/t to Nicholai:

So, early this year, [Samantha] Power drew up a list of about 60 senior Liberians, including the Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, Lewis Brown, who will not be granted US visas because of their wartime ties to warlords. Although this issue was so dear to the Ambassador, it has been overshadowed by Ebola, which has now killed close to 2,500 Liberians and infected thousands more. […]

While in New York in September, [Defense Minister Brownie] Samukai, a former UN humanitarian worker, was warned by Power’s office to prevent his soldiers from misusing the emergency measures any further [after the West Point incident]. He was also reminded that the 5,000 UN forces in Liberia had a Chapter VII ‘protection of civilians’ mandate, which meant that if the situation got bad enough, they could engage the Liberian army. Few outside the country know how nearly this came to pass. The harassment of civilians all over the country continued but no further army shootings were reported. Yet in early October, the government imposed strict censorship on the media regarding all Ebola-related incidents. […]

Johnson-Sirleaf’s supporters continue to boast that the US response dwarfs anything that Guinea or Sierra Leone have been able to muster and that only she can attract such a gesture in Africa. Indeed, the intervention has helped to stabilise her regime as well as the Ebola situation. This is an established pattern. She has always been more popular abroad than at home, yet her legitimacy in Liberia is tied to her international clout.


Human Rights Watch report on Boko Haram violence

The new Human Rights Watch report on Boko Haram violence against civilians is devastating. Some excerpts:

On the increased abduction of women:

The increase in the number of abductions since mid-2013 appears to mark a change of strategy by Boko Haram. From 2009 through early 2013, the group did not appear to target women and girls specifically. Instead, it primarily launched assaults against those it considered part of an unjust and corrupt system: members of the security services, politicians, civil servants, and other symbols of authority. By early 2012 schools and students became increasingly targeted for attacks […] From 2009 to early 2013, according to Human Rights Watch’s research and monitoring of abuses, Boko Haram abducted individual women and girls from their homes or from the street during attacks on their communities. In most of the documented cases, married women were abducted as punishment for not supporting the group’s ideology, while unmarried women and girls were taken as brides after insurgents hastily offered a dowry to the families, who feared to resist. […]

Videos released by Boko Haram’s leaders in January and May 2013 suggest three key motives for the initial abductions: to retaliate against the government for its alleged detention of family members, including the wives of the group’s leaders; to punish students for attending Western schools; and to forcefully convert Christian women and girls to Islam. Some of the victims and analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch have suggested women and girls are also being used for tactical reasons, such as to lure security forces to an ambush, force payment of a ransom, or for a prisoner exchange.

[…] Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has [said] “Since you are now holding our women, (laughs) just wait and see what will happen to your own women … to your own wives according to Sharia law.”

Post-Chibok support seems to benefitting only former Chibok abductees, and even them not that much:

The federal and state funds, set up with support from international agencies and foreign governments in the wake of the high-profile Chibok abductions, have targeted the escaped Chibok girls but appear not to have widely benefitted the many other victims of Boko Haram abuses. […]

However, the young women and girls interviewed described the counseling received as religion-based; they said the Borno State government had arranged for pastors and Muslim clerics to speak with about 30 of them in a group at the Governor’s office. One girl described the counseling she received:

“We were all in a big hall, with many people that we did not know. It was when one of the speakers quoted from the Bible that I knew he was a pastor but I cannot remember what he said. As he finished his talk, the microphone was handed to a man dressed like a Muslim preacher, who also recited some Islamic words. Some other people also spoke. No one asked us any questions. I don’t think any of my school mates realized either that we were being counseled.”

I didn’t know all schools in Borno have been closed:

In March, federal government-run secondary schools in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states closed and their students were transferred to schools in other northern states, while all schools in Borno, the worst-hit of the states under emergency rule, have been closed since then.

On Chibok:

[…] the lack of security [at the Chibok school] made it easy for the fighters to overrun the compound, seize the young women and girls from their dormitory, and organize their transport. Boko Haram did not arrive with a sufficient number of vehicles, and tried to arrange for more. The students said they believed the primary objective of Boko Haram’s attack was the theft of a brick-making machine as well as food and other supplies. However, this apparently changed once the men realized they had access to the young women and girls and faced little resistance.

The relative ease with which it carried out the Chibok abductions appears to have emboldened Boko Haram to step up abductions elsewhere.

On motivations for abductions:

Other men appeared to have been targeted for abduction because of their specific skills or occupation, which filled a need in the insurgents’ camp. This was the case of a 46-year-old pharmaceutical salesman abducted from Buni Yadi in March 2014 while he sitting outside his shop with a group of friends. […]

A 19-year-old girl who was held in a Boko Haram camp in Gwoza told Human Rights Watch that she was offered thousands of naira as dowry to marry one of the insurgents:

“I refused the dowry, asking them to go pay to my father if they wanted to marry me. An insurgent who knows my family accepted it on my behalf. He told me he was afraid I would be killed if I continued to refuse. I became confused at the implication of being married to a Boko Haram member, so I pretended to be very ill, and the wedding was postponed until the return of the camp leader, who was travelling to meet the group’s overall leader in the Sambisa camp. He ordered that I should be taken to the hospital [in the local town] for tests before his return. It was the break I’d been praying for. I threatened the woman sent to take me to a hospital in town that I would scream and expose her to Civilian JTF. She quickly walked away as I made my escape.”

Insurgents later took revenge on her family for her escape, arresting her brother and burning her family home and the churches in her village.

On accountability:

[A 22 year old woman said] “I did not bother to report to security or police after my escape because they are aware that these abductions have been happening. And even when others had reported to them in the past, they did nothing.”