Charles Taylor, the 54yearold president of Liberia, is a controversial figure. To his detractors, he is a ruthless warlord; to his supporters an inspired leader. For visitors to the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, whether delegations of local community groups with petitions or local journalists invited for a frank briefing once a month, he is intelligent, knowledgeable and engaged. To Elie Saleeby, the governor of Liberia's Central Bank, who advised President Gerry Rawlings on economic reforms in Ghana and has worked with other leaders in the region, Taylor is "head and shoulders" above them in his leadership capabilities.
Educated at Bentley College in Massachusetts and Jebson University in Philadelphia (masters in management), Taylor is the first Liberian president with mixed AmericoLiberian and indigenous Liberian blood. Having become the target of a vengeful president Samuel Doe in 1984, in whose government he then served, Taylor was arrested and jailed in Boston under an extradition order from the Doe government. He escaped from prison and went on to found the National Patriotic Front of Liberia. In December 1989, the NPFL began fighting the Doe regime, which by that time had committed a string of massacres of former officials and ordinary citizens, especially those of AmericoLiberian origin.
In less than a year Taylor's forces controlled most of Liberia, but fighting dragged on, in part because the regional peacekeeping force, Ecomog, took to looting the country it was supposed to protect. An interim government lead to elections in 1997, which Taylor won by some 75 percent. They were certified as free and fair by Jimmy Carter and 2,400 other international observers.
The ceiling of his office is decorated with murals showing angels grasping the Liberian flag. Above his desk are painted quotes from Psalm 27 and Isiah 54:17, while on his desk there rests an open Bible in front of a menorah. Although a protestant, he says he prefers the Old to the New Testament.
In a recent exclusive interview, Taylor spoke at length about his desire to improve relations with the United States and help his ruined country get on its feet. In a telling comment after the interview was over, he said he was committed to democracy because unlike many strongmen in Africa, who are eventually deposed by force, he wants to be able to live out his life in Liberia as an ordinary citizen. He said he would honor the constitution in holding elections next year and in accepting a twoterm limit.
What is the cause of the poor relations between Washington and Monrovia?
There was generally a lack of understanding of the NPFL (The National Patriotic Front of Liberia). Those who tried to analyze the reasons for launching the revolution in Liberia misread us and that started a whole avalanche of different interpretations. One key to that particular period was the problems between Washington and Libya and the interpretation that individuals were trained in Libya to launch this revolution as Libyan surrogates. And so all the flags went up right away: "If these guys got some help and training from Libya, let's go after them." They subsequently found out that we served as no surrogate for Libya and that we have our own independent minds. In fact the analysis went so far as to say we were up to destabilize West Africa.
Has your attitude to Washington changed?
My position has always been to get involved with Washington. Liberia was created with the assistance of the Congress of the United States. For Liberia, America is the big brother. I am the first president of Liberia to have both an American and Liberian background. I would say that I am 60 percent native African and 40 percent American. My grandmother came here as a little girl, on my father's side.
We realize that our historical ties with the United States, strategically and economically, have left us no choice but to be associated with the United States. We get upset, I get upset personally, when Liberia is asked to play second fiddle to any other African country. During World War II Liberia always stuck with the United States. Our students go to study there. We have family ties. I have children that are American citizens. I have a first cousin who is in the US army.
We want this cooperation because it is over 155 years old. I realize that there is absolutely nothing that I can do without the cooperation of Washington. When I became president the first question I asked all American officials was: "what do you want?" The basic things I am concerned about, the US is concerned about, such as the rule of law, respect for human rights, good governance. All of these things, we want them too.
But you have to know how to solve some of these problems here. America is a first world country, and we are probably a fourth world country!
During the Cold War, shared USLiberian strategic interests were built on national security. Before the advent of satellites we had the US Omega (communications) tower here. We had major US intelligence gathering here. This was a home away from home for the Americans. Now with the advent of satellites perhaps there is nothing strategic to chew on with Liberia.
There were times during the administration of two of my predecessors when we were being laughed at by our African colleagues as being the American puppet. We stood with America even against some on the continent of Africa. We stood by America. We will always stand by America.
The question now is what is America prepared to do for us? Especially for a government that is not hostile to America, and has no intention to be, a government that is clearly for this relationship. Someone has to turn around in Washington and say, "Wait a minute, let's engage this government." We see America as a big brother, and when a small brother is in trouble or makes a mistake, you call him in and say, "Look, this is the way you ought to go, this is the way you ought to understand this. If you do this, we're prepared to do that."
Other countries do it for their old colonies. The French do it. In the Sierra Leone crisis, for example, Liberia was not the only country involved. The others all got off the hook, because other major countries protected them. We had good reasons for our association with the RUF (Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone) at that particular period, purely for national security concerns.
No one is going to accept Liberia as a godchild, or son, once they know it's America's child. The French took care of theirs, and the British theirs. I don't want to get personal here. I want to deal with how we move forward, the openness of this government and how eager we are.
Why is Washington against you?
Ah, that beats me, that really beats me. We thought we made all the right moves, for example elections. Former US president Jimmy Carter said to me, "I can assure you that these elections were free, fair and transparent, and I can see no reason why the United States government would not begin discussions with you. But there are some things that I think you ought to begin looking at urgently." And some of the things we talked about had to do with the creation of a human rights commission, or the issue of the rule of law in respect to human rights. We sought out immediately discussions with the United States government. Also, I formed a government with over half the ministers from opposition parties. Most of the former factional leaders are still here, some are in government.
We can go on and on and on. We repealed legislation that limited free speech. We created a human rights commission and because of the fractional war we appointed a broadbased national commission to come up with a proposal for the restructuring of the armed forces. We had no assistance for the retraining of the army, police. Nothing. Some recommendations came for us to let our African brothers assist us in this retraining process. Well, I said if you have an issue with the landlord, you don't discuss it with the janitor. America has trained our army for over a hundred years. I'm going to no other place to train this army than to America. Because some of the countries that want to train our army, they go to America themselves, and I don't want to be second fiddle to them. So don't ask me to get the training from anyone else, I'm not going to do it because all I'm going to get is secondrate training. America has always trained our army. America has always trained our police. America has always trained our security intelligence personnel. So don't ask me to go to some thirdrate area and get thirdrate training. I don't want that.
I said to Washington, bring back the US military mission to Liberia. It has always served here. Always. I said help us. Bring back Peace Corps volunteers.
You meet one condition, then there is another. There has been not one senior or midlevel United States government official that has visited this country to engage in any type of discussion political, economic or what have you.
In 2000 I received a visit from UnderSecretary Thomas Pickering to tell me what was about to happen. It's not about bilateral discussions, not about how to rebuild the relationship. He came with a message: "Hey, this is what is going to happen. See you later."
Are you optimistic now that a new US ambassador has arrived?
I leave it up to God. I think over the last five years, even through thick and thin we still stood by America. After the terrible events of September 11, we made the commitment to stand by the people of America. I think maybe God is touching some hearts in Washington because we have been trying to knock on some doors and saying, "Look we're not the bad guys. We've had reasons for doing certain things. We want you to listen to us now".
Even with the war, Liberia is still safe when you walk around the streets. Like you we have our own share of terrorism. There are no big terrorists or small terrorists. A terrorist is a terrorist. The new US ambassador came in with a very open mind, so there is hope in the end. We want to make sure we do everything to keep this fire burning. My administration is not going to be judged kindly by posterity if there is not an improvement in relations with the US.
George Bush senior called for a kinder, gentler America. We would like a kinder, gentler policy on Liberia from Washington.
Liberia is showing one of the largest reserves of oil in West Africa. Of course we want the United States to come and exploit it. Who's going to protect it for us? We don't have any allies other than the United States. Liberia still has one of the largest reserves of gold, still untouched. A Canadian company has found no less than twelve major sites for diamonds in Liberia. Liberia has massive natural resources, as well as the rain forest. Anything there is to know about Liberia, US geologists know. We have strategic importance to America we want them to look at.
Is that because of your location?
Well, location is one reason. But also the government of this country cannot resist the will of the Liberian people, which is completely proAmerican. There is this blood relationship with America, which sets us aside from other countries. If asked to help America, we will act first and ask for reasons later. That's why we don't understand a policy to go after Liberia with a big stick, and with the help of other countries.
As far as a Liberian is concerned, if he's not in Liberia, he's in the United States. He does not want to know about another country. There are some 250,000 Liberians in the United States.
During the war, I told negotiators that the United States could stop this war in no time. If one US marine called for a ceasefire, everybody would stop fighting. If America said we want this war to stop, we want to see peace in Liberia, we want to make sure that any country in that subregion that continues to supply arms to destabilize Liberia will have consequences Ð the war would be over. This is the type of step I think they need to take, and it will be all over.
Are US economic interests more important than historical ties?
Unless the green light comes from Washington, it's not happening. No matter what happens we want for once the job to start from Washington. Let's face it, that's how the world works. All the information is there. Economic ties are important but historical ties are important too. President George W. Bush is saying there is a new kind of war now. It's not the kind of war where aircraft carriers are attacked by aircraft carriers. You've got one person who is prepared to blow himself up. The new war situation calls for friendship too. Because you are my friend and my brother I act naturally. That is important right now. If you consider those little countries that might be considered insignificant, they are important now in different ways, because the enemy now is not a jet fighter. The enemy is dangerous, so you need friends. A lot of friends. Different kinds of friends. The new war means there must be new approaches to friendship.
Does America have a historical obligation to Liberia?
Yes. You free some slaves and you put them on some boats and a nongovernmental organization called the American Colonization Society sends them over here. And you leave them for 155 years, They're here. They're never given a jump start at anything. They have to struggle all the years to make ends meet. We applaud the United States for doing the right thing in not colonizing countries. But when the British came and colonized, they left behind some kind of infrastructure and structures of governance. The French too. And we were just left here. With some people who came in on a ship.
In fact, when they came in, because they had no experience in governance, they declared independence and fought civil wars with the natives here, who were their brothers. I don't think they understood the mechanics of having to deal with the brothers they left here, that their greatgreat grandparents left here. From independence to 1980, direct US aid to Liberia was negligible. During the Doe administration, from 1980 to 1990, there was $500 million sent. I don't know if my predecessor knew what to do with the money.
It is in America's interest on the big continent of Africa to show goodwill towards Liberia as a demonstration to other countries here. Doing something for Liberia would serve as a model for other African countries: "We did it in Liberia. Now we can do it in your country." Some countries say about America: "Well, let's see what Liberia is going to get first."
In the United States years ago you called this affirmative action, trying to correct some of the wrongs of the past. The way you started this country off and your failure to put this country on the right track is a shame. We need some Liberian action. We need something that will be a source of pride in the eyes of the rest of Africa. The United States is our oldest, closest ally. We know you are making new friends, but keep the old ones. One is silver, the other is gold.
Your sale of diamonds is sanctioned because of your support for the RUF. Do you see an end to the UN sanctions?
Liberia, like major countries, engaged in Cold War activities for reasons of national security: whether it was Charles Taylor or Ronald Reagan. Following the civil war in Liberia, three to five thousand of the combatants here who did not disarm moved into Sierra Leone. We saw this as an immediate threat for this new government. We were forced to cooperate with the RUF to serve as a buffer on the Sierra Leone border, to protect this new government. We said it to everybody. We never denied this. We condemn the RUF for the atrocities. We believe that those were terrible crimes that they committed. As a leader of a warring faction in Liberia, that never happened in Liberia.
If you look at the Liberian war, something interesting happened. There were no land mines placed in Liberia. There were no diamonds that were smuggled into Liberia from Sierra Leone because Liberia did not need them. I believe the evidence shows the RUF sold diamonds to Brussels. They had their own contacts. There were small aircraft flying in to Sierra Leone. They did not come here. To say that Liberia was involved in Sierra Leone because of diamonds is more than a blatant black lie. Liberia was involved in Sierra Leone, we admitted, for reasons of national security, to stop those more than three thousand excombatants that were there and were bent on coming and removing this government from office; that's the only reason we were there. And guess what happened? That's the LURD you see right now.
But I guess to get the publicity it needed they had to bring the diamond story and I was worth billions. If I was worth billions, the war would have finished a long time ago. I would have financed the war and charged the government later. The RUF cannot come back. They are participating in the government. They had a few people elected to parliament. So what's the problem? So what is Liberia getting out of Sierra Leone now? Now it is no longer diamonds. It's all harping on fear. The British are concerned about the massive amounts they invested in Sierra Leone. Unless it holds, they would look bad. We have an interest in a peaceful Sierra Leone. If they have problems, we have problems. Nothing is going to happen in Guinea or Sierra Leone or Liberia as long as we have problems.
Does the fighting in Ivory Coast pose a danger to you?
A big danger. Big, big, big problems. There are some 10,00015,000 Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast. Some of them have been recruited to fight as LURD terrorists, some of them are involved in Ivorian battles. Some have turned into nonstate actors, they are mercenaries running around in the sub region. Our first difficulty there is that any Liberian seen in Ivory Coast will be construed as being sent by the Liberian government. On top of that, we have information that Sam Bokari (the military leader of the RUF), who they have said they did not know where he was, but we understand that he could be in Burkino Faso, is thought to be involved. Because everyone has said that Sam Bokari is staying in Liberia, if he shows up in Ivory Coast, everyone is going to say he came straight from Liberia.
The third problem is that Ivory Coast served as a major economic gateway to most of West Africa, specifically the Mano Union countries (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia). With a population of 18 million, a major civil war could cause a major influx of refugees to Liberia. We wouldn't be able to cope. We can't stand this: suppose an influx of a million people. We'd be finished.
What will happen in Liberia if America does not intervene in the civil war?
You know failure on the part of the United States to get involved in the Liberian crisis is considered acquiescence. LURD looks at America's inaction as acquiescence. America has to be clear and unequivocal about this particular issue.
I do not see military victory on the part of the government as a solution to the problem. We intend to speak to LURD. There is no doubt about it. And we want to make sure that that will coincide with a diplomatic approach on the part of the United States and international community.
We cannot continue to encourage these nonstate actors in the region. There are a lot of them. Some are combatants from Liberia, some are combatants from Sierra Leone, some are combatants from Guinea, and now you're going to have some combatants from Cote d'Ivoire. Governments have to get together and put a stop to the activities of these nonstate actors. If not they're going to destabilize. There is a whole pool of mercenaries in West Africa.
We must ask America to come in. For two reasons: inaction being considered acquiescence on the part of those who want to continue the conflict, and inaction being considered by the government of Liberia as: "Whoa! What do they want?" They leave us wondering. So they have to come.
The course that I see would be discussions. After that, LURD should participate in a democratic government in Liberia. One year from now we have elections. They should be able to come up with what reasons they can see that would give them the kind of security that they need, lay down their arms.
I see a process of peacebuilding in Liberia. We have tried to talk about a contact group on Liberia. A lot of the initial stage of the peacebuilding process will be training. I think training is essential for the integration of all excombatants into a national army, and discussions. I see these as being very important for the peace process and making sure that those Liberians fighting on the other side also have a stake on what is happening in this country.
What is your vision for your country?
It is important for Liberia to be at peace. One principal thing I would like to see: I would like to see peace prevailing in this country. I would like to see all Liberians, no matter where they are, participating actively in those issues that have to do with their own livelihood. I would like to see peace enhancing the rule of law, human rights, good governance. And see Liberia coming back as a respectable, responsible member of the community of nations.
In short, that's it. And to get that peace, we're prepared to meet all Liberians halfway Ð political parties, interest groups, everyone, nongovernmental organizations, to build a Liberia that we can all be proud of, and for posterity.
I'd like to see us stand up again, be proud, at peace, with the rule of law and dignity. You need peace and this national canopy of all tribal groups, different points of views.
The statistics that we have show that those under 21 form 70 percent of the population. We need a future for them. No future is going to be built in Liberia without peace. I'm talking about the peace in which every Liberian will see he has a stake, and that he can participate in the process.
Do you have a message for Washington?
I think there is a need for confidencebuilding and trust. There are a lot of things that really shattered our confidence: some inaction or promises that were made but never kept. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Washington complains about some things to us, but we have our own complaints. For example, when we came to Monrovia during the civil war, we had taken the entire country, we worked very closely with the United States government for the protection of American citizens, and we were asked by the US government not to take Monrovia. The US said it would ask Doe to leave, which it did.
But following this, ECOMOG (the West African peacekeeping force) launched a major offensive, which prolonged the war.
At a later meeting in Dakar, Senegal, State Department officials asked me why I did not take Monrovia! I told them because you asked me not to. They said, you should not have listened to us. (Taylor gave the names of the officials, but asked that they not be used here.) And that threw me into space. The question in my mind was what to accept as official and what not to accept as official. So we need this confidencebuilding. It is not all our fault, but we must put it behind us. I'm not mentioning this as bringing up old wounds. I'm just saying that we all need to realize that, as the Bible says, "All have sinned." But we are the small brother, so we are prepared to come and say, "If we have done anything wrong, we are sorry, but we want to work with America. Our future depends on you and that is why we need a kinder, gentler America in regard to Liberia.
And we want to say to the American people, "We know that the American people are a great and generous people, but It's tough on little countries."
Will next year's elections be fair and free?
Regarding the elections, I do not have a choice in this. The constitution mandates that we have these elections. Of their freeness and fairness the government is going to make absolutely sure. We are not into banning groups from coming here. The Election Commission has to conduct the elections. No government or nonLiberian can contribute money to any political party in the electoral process.
But to the extent that assistance can come in and enhance the political process I think it's very important that we do this. We want this because the freeness the fairness of the election will spell out what happens after the elections. If it is deemed that the elections were not free and fair there will be no assistance. I am anxious to make sure that they're fair.
One of the problems we face is constituencies. With all the internal displacements, we have to figure out how to apportion votes. We haven't had a census in Liberia for 29 years, which is also a problem. If we got international assistance now in conducting a census in Liberia, this would contribute significantly to this process one year from now. These are all legal, rather than political questions that need to be answered. The government is prepared to do everything to aid the election commission to make sure these elections are held. There will be 18 political parties. The Carter Center would be very welcome to come and help again.
Will you honor the term limits of the constitution?
There are two sixyear terms for the president in the constitution. He cannot succeed himself after those terms. I am in no position to violate the constitution.