Tag Archives: Liberia

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.

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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.

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.

On Ebola

Susan Shepler on Ebola:

In Monrovia, I was told that there have been real impacts on the health system. People are afraid to go to the hospital and health workers are refusing to treat people. So, I was told, even a small sickness can kill you because there is no one to treat you. [...]

I feel like a lot of the coverage of the Ebola crisis has been about the heroic health workers and the ignorant locals. I don’t dispute the heroism of the health workers, but I do want to dispute the ignorance of the locals. People on radio call in shows have asked: Why can’t they understand what needs to be done? Why they need to submit themselves and their loved ones to quarantine? When someone has the symptoms—fever, vomiting, diarrhea—they are supposed to report to the health center, where they will be taken away from family, and if they die, be buried by men in protective gear with no family present. You can see why people might be loath to turn over their loved ones. Really who among us would want to turn a sick loved one over to a hospital staffed with foreigners, knowing we might never see them again? [...]

Some folks standing outside JFK Hospital in Monrovia told me that there is a spray, a chemical spray, that if they say you have Ebola, they spray it on you and that’s what actually kills you. They explained that the health ministry is using it so they can report more deaths from Ebola and get more money. They said the government already got $1.8 million in March so they know there is money in it.

Africa Confidential on Liberian presidential contenders for 2017

Gated.

[Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf] has said she wants the dour Joseph Boakai, 69, to be the candidate of the governing Unity Party in 2017. Many think he lacks charisma but Johnson-Sirleaf has said she will do her best to make sure he wins.

George Weah, the former football star who nearly defeated Johnson-Sirleaf in 2006, has announced that he will stand for the Congress for Democratic Change. [...] Although still popular on the streets of Monrovia, Weah is not adept at making political deals and that has let him down in the past. Money could also be a problem.

No such issues afflict Benoni Urey, who until December was subject to a United Nations’ travel ban and assets freeze because of his past relationship with former President and now convicted war criminal Charles Taylor. Urey has promised to run as an independent. He is a millionaire with a large media empire in Monrovia, including newspapers, and television and radio stations, and is generous with his funds. Everyone knows his name and his past connection with Taylor probably won’t hurt him because the gaoled warlord has wide residual popularity across the country.

Urey is said to possess Taylor’s charisma without his sanguinary ruthlessness and has already attracted huge crowds in the capital and other towns.

Ouattara paying Liberians to stop cross-border attacks

Africa Confidential has a gated article on Liberian mercenaries who fought in Cote d’Ivoire:

Although groups of Liberian mercenaries and Ivorian militia loyal to Gbagbo remain active in the lush forests of the Great West, the area has been quiet since the last series of cross-border attacks from Liberia in March 2013. A December report by the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia concluded that the Ivorian authorities have been paying Liberian mercenaries and FLGO members to stop their attacks.

In May 2013 Liberian forces detained an Ivorian government delegation in Grand Gedeh which was carrying funds for the pay-off. The Ouattara government denounced the report as a fabrication but sources consulted by Africa Confidential confirmed that regular payments have been made.

Also, apparently some of the mercenaries are on trial in Monrovia:

They are defended by a prominent Krahn lawyer Tiawon Gongloe, who was Johnson-Sirleaf’s Solicitor General and is now a fierce critic of the President.

Site to search Charles Taylor trial transcripts

SayIt (a website that I’m not completely sure I understand) has a page where you can easily search the entirety of transcripts from the Charles Taylor trial. H/t to Matt.

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From the “About” section of the site:

Warning – the transcripts contain large volumes of graphic, harrowing testimony about war crimes. We encourage readers looking for a casual browse to try the Leveson Inquiry or Shakespeare Plays instead.

 

Canadian investor goes public on frustration with Liberian Ministry of Lands, Mines, and Energy

FrontPageAfrican has an article on Len Lindstrom, CEO of a Canadian mineral corporation with subsidiaries in Liberia. Lindstrom got so fed up with interactions with the Liberian Ministry of Lands, Mines, and Energy that he wrote a book documenting all of the ways in which he says he was wronged. H/t to Matt.

Lindstrom: “What is the difference when the name of the game is to keep reselling the same properties and licenses over and over to the next gullible international investor who thinks he can beat the system because he has good connections to someone in government[.]“

Cyril Allen: “If [the British] try to make Taylor uncomfortable [...] we can make Liberia very uncomfortable for [them] through our traditional values.”

Below is an excerpt from an AFP article on Charles Taylor. Taylor’s wife says he is upset both about daily strip searches and being treated the same as everyone else at a British maximum security prison. (h/t to Johnny Dwyer)

But the leader of [Taylor's] NPP party in Liberia this week threatened Britons living in the west African nation with reprisals over his treatment.

“If they try to make Taylor uncomfortable where he is, we can make Liberia very uncomfortable for some of their citizens through our traditional values,” NPP chairman Cyril Allen told journalists in the capital Monrovia.

“They are roaming around our interiors, they are roaming around our country, and this government cannot protect them.

“You cannot take our traditional leader and treat him like a common British criminal. If they don’t stop treating our (leader) in a manner that is unacceptable to us, we are going to fight back.”