On May 30th, in a courtroom in Leidschendam, Netherlands, former Liberian President Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison. His sentence was based on his role in funneling guns to West African rebels in exchange for diamonds that were produced through slave labour. A small dose of justice has been meted out for the living victims of his crimes in the West African countries of Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and most importantly Sierra Leone. The 64 year old was prosecuted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
Liberia is an African country like no other. Along with Ethiopia, it was indomitable in the scramble for Africa, and was never the possession of a vying European power. But unlike Ethiopia, it was not a front in World War II; is not the home of God incarnate, as Selassie is claimed to be; and in that vein, did not have imposed upon it a quasi-monarchical system. Ethiopia, unlike Liberia, was the partial influence for Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious Black Mischief, a book that would be racist tripe, if Waugh wasn’t such a misanthrope to all humans in equal measure. (His disdain for the culture of the American and British legations are the most hard-hitting.)
No, Liberia was conceived of as a nation where free slave could migrate and find individual expression. Liberia was colonized by Africans, stolen as they were in the fledgling days of the Atlantic Slave Triangle, only to return in 1820, and named the new-found country after the American conception of Liberty. Its capital, Monrovia, is borrowed from the namesake James Monroe, for whom repatriation was the only deliverance for American slaves (as opposed to emancipation). Borrowing heavily from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—Jefferson advocated in his 1791 Notes on the States of Virginia that emancipated slaves be sent back to Africa—Liberia was made formally independent in 1827. The moors and details of Liberian life are synthesized in Bai T Moore’s Murder at the Cassava Patch, a murder mystery that fictionalizes themes of slavery, incest relations, the firestone plantation, and gender relationships in modern day Liberia.
The fate of former head of state in Liberia, Samuel Doe, is instructive here (to the left of US Sec. of Defense Cap Weinberger). Months after the Berlin Wall was turned to dust, President Reagan’s policy of supporting any dictator or warped misfit as long as they were anti-communist began to relax. Many former friends became enemies or cut loose from their stipend at the expense of US taxpayers. Samuel Doe is such an example. Doe may be the first casualty of the post-cold war era, on December 1989, he was captured by Charles Taylor’s forces and tortured on videotape, which was summarily made public.
Some regard this as hypocrisy, but dissolving ties with torture squads and ‘presidents for life’ seems to me a proper thing to do. Maybe it’s just me? The change in policy is of course most usually a function of heavy domestic resistance and the work of scrupulous political journalists who heed the call of letting their readers know what their governments are doing in there name.
Liberia was subsequently plunged into two decade of civil war, the details of which are far too complex for my damaged brain. It is moreover a shame that such an interesting country has fallen off the radar of serious investigation. There are however a few good sources that are worthy of inspection, which, after a cursory glance by me, do not repeat the tripe of African tribalism or Liberia’s primitive social formation as the root and source of the problem. The problem is political and modern.
The terror of 150,000 murders, numberless mutilation, and 25,000 rapes was made orders of magnitude more intense by the fact that it was committed by the Patriotic Front of Liberia for whose chief psychological strategy was to conduct all these atrocities in wedding gowns, wigs, prom dresses and other stupid accessories and regalia. There are also ‘butt naked battalions’ and nude killings orchestrated by confessed killer Milton Blayee, whose nom de guerre was General Butt Naked.
Taylor’s conviction is remarkable for many reasons. First, we now have an established precedent in international law for arraigning and prosecuting heads of state in Africa and beyond that keep their domestic populations in humiliated subjection (like mandatory attendance at the endless fanfare for these heads of states) or use rape as a toy of war. Taylor’s war crimes were designed to prolong the crime of war, and to enrich himself through arms trafficking. Lets not be unserious about this: Taylor, like many brutalized Africans are rendered into killing machines for foreign backers and governments. But why then was he so money-grubbing and thieving? Taylor robbed Liberia of hundreds of millions of dollars; turned the only state never to be under European colonization into the poorest in the world; and exported his ultra-violent racket to Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast. Charles Taylor is not a victim of the worst of capitalist globalization but a perpetrator of it. Yes, he was a CIA asset at one point, which came to light only by his capture and subsequent arraignment. Why downplay the achievement that is his sentencing? The true racism is that some journalists, some I’ve interviewed, think Africans are just mere puppets, voided of agency of their own, who ventriloquize the commands of the US State Department, the British Foreign Office, or the Quai D’Orsay in France.
The former Liberian President’s conviction is also a triumph for the women’s movement in Liberia, whose anti-war demonstrations helped end the immediate conflict in that country and get elected the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who summarily brought Taylor and his goon squads into custody. The clownish element of the gender-bending uniforms was only a less psychologically destructive form of systematized sexual violence that racked the female population. The non-fiction film Pray the Devil Back to Hell documents the formation of a movement to end Taylor’s war-economy that include people of multiple faiths and heritages. And if for nothing else, it is the power of the women’s movement in Liberia that should earn our respect, for it is they who brought down the arms baron at the apex of a genocidal power structure.