Map of Africa showing the location of Liberia

Map of Africa showing the location of Liberia

Note: A few months ago in this blog I published an article entitled “From the Other Side of Freedom: The Remarkable, True Story of Jay Yarsiah.” [1] The article was written by Jay Yarsiah himself and is an autobiographical account of his experiences during the civil wars that took place in the West African nation of Liberia from 1989 to 2003. Chronicling as it does, how one Liberian child grew to manhood across the years of strife and the unbelievable cruelties and abuses he witnessed and endured, Jay’s story is both eye opening and inspiring. I realized as I was reading it that to truly understand what happened in Liberia during those years I needed to know a lot more about the past of that West African nation. So into research mode I went and across the last 3 months most of my spare time has been devoted to this project. The product of this effort is the 11,000 word history presented here in two parts. A great deal of work has gone into this article with much cross checking of facts, dates, names and organizations; and I don’t mind telling you that for someone who had almost no prior knowledge of Liberia or its history, this has not been an easy task. That said, it has been an incredibly enlightening one, and I hope that on reading this history you find it so as well. Throughout I have tried to keep things as simple as possible while ensuring that key facts, incidents and people are given their due. Nevertheless there is still the possibility of an error here or there and should you encounter any please excuse it and let me know and I will do my best to fix it. I have footnoted the article to add additional information where I thought it would help and have described all of the abbreviations used, usually at the point of first mention in the article. There is much to be gained by understanding what happened in Liberia and what caused these things, particularly from a human rights perspective; and I hope with what I present here I have assisted that process. With all of that understood here is “Human Rights at the Crossroads: A Short History of Liberia-Part I…please read on…MA

Jay Yarsiah

Jay Yarsiah

To understand Jay Yarsiah’s story well, it is important to have some grasp of the history of his country, Liberia: a nation that very much has its roots enmeshed in the history of our own United States. By the early 1800s there was a large slave population in the United States, particularly in the southern states, where crops like tobacco and cotton were dependent upon the cheap labor they provided. Slavery had been in practice in the American colonies for over 150 years, with both an active trade in importing new Blacks abducted from Africa, as well as using generations of American Blacks who were born into bondage and grew up here. Inevitably this resulted in a growing population of free Blacks, particularly in the northern states, where slavery had fallen into disfavor. While these Black people were technically free, they did not also share in all the rights and benefits their White neighbors enjoyed; and this, and the fact of slavery itself, became the moral concern of a growing abolitionist movement in the United States. Simultaneous to this southern planters were concerned about the juxtaposition of a population of free Blacks with their group of Black slaves, as the success of Blacks in business or other ways, it was feared, would invalidate one of their central justifications for slavery: the idea that Blacks were naturally inferior.

The situation was exacerbated in 1787 when a slave rebellion took place on the island of Haiti. Southern slave holders, fearing the influence free Blacks might have on their own slaves and wanting to avoid a slave rebellion of their own, made common cause with some of these abolitionists around the idea of establishing an area elsewhere in the world for American Blacks to colonize. Great Britain was the first nation to attempt this when, in that same year of 1787, it established a free Black colony in the African country of Sierra Leone, just north of where Liberia is today. It took another generation for the idea to develop to the point of action in the United States, with the first effort at free African American colonization finally taking place in December of 1815. At that time a Black, Quaker sea captain and merchant named Paul Cuffee, at his own expense ($4,000), sailed 38 free American Blacks to Freetown in Sierra Leone to set up a colony. Cuffee’s colony had a difficult time, but the idea behind his efforts took hold back in the States.  A year later in 1816 this resulted in the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) by a coalition of southern slave owners, abolitionists and influential businessmen, including the famous Star Bangled Banner author Francis Scott Key.

Paul Cuffee

Paul Cuffee

Part of Cuffee’s problem with his colony, and that faced by the ACS, was they had procured no land on which a colony of free Blacks could be established. To remedy this the ACS petitioned first Congress and then President James Monroe for assistance, but made no real headway on solving the problem until 1819 when the Slave Trade Act was passed, which made trafficking in Africans for the slave trade illegal. Because of that law funds were appropriated to send the U.S. Navy to apprehend slave traders off the coast of Africa and to return their human cargo to their African homeland.  The U.S. needed a controlled port in Africa with which to accomplish this and the ACS saw an opportunity in this situation. They again approached President Monroe for assistance in solving their problem and the government’s. As a result Monroe authorized the formation of an African Agency and appointed an officer for it charged with responsibility for arranging transport, supplies and free Blacks to establish a safe colony in Africa on land to be procured by the ACS. The colony could then be used as a point of return for the African Blacks rescued from the slave trade.

After a failed attempt to establish their colony on Sherbro Island off the coast of Sierra Leone, the ACS made an arrangement with the King of one of the predominant indigenous tribes to “purchase” land for the colony on the mainland. In actual fact the King (known to the Europeans and Americans as King Peter) was forced to sign over the land with a gun to his head in an agreement that meant nothing to him and his people. Much like the natives encountered by the Europeans in America, the Africans had no concept of land ownership and the idea that someone could buy land was foreign to them. In addition the King could neither read nor write and had no idea what he was agreeing to. So, upon seeing a strange, new bunch of Black settlers in Western garb with a different religion (Christianity) and advanced weapons squat on what had been their tribal area, King Peter and his people formed alliances with other indigenous African tribes and tried to forcibly evict the colonists. The seeds of what would become the Liberian Civil War a century and a half later were originally sown in this conflict between the indigenous African people of what is now called Liberia, and the free American Black former slaves who settled there.

Ironically, in a scenario not unlike that played out between the Europeans and the native people they encountered in America, the American free Blacks, with their weapons (guns and cannon) and their support from the ACS in the United States, prevailed, and by 1824 had secured their colonial area and were setting up a constitution and government based on the model of the United States. Another irony of this scene was that King Peter’s people and other tribes of the area, who had used slavery for centuries, were actively involved in providing captured Africans to the European slave trade, and so were benefiting from the very system the American Blacks were trying to escape from and destroy. This situation was anathema to these American Blacks and was another source of conflict between these peoples, who may have looked similar as to their skin and features, but who were, by the 1820’s, culturally disparate.

The colonists presented their plans for a government and constitution to the ACS, which approved them. At the same time a retired military officer and politician named Robert Goodloe Harper proposed and got accepted the name of “Liberia” for the new colony, in honor of the liberated status of the transplanted Americans who were establishing it. (The town of “Harper” in Liberia was named in honor of Robert Harper) The name of the new colony also reflected one of the prime purposes of the endeavor, at least as far as the abolitionists were concerned: to demonstrate to the world that a group of freed Blacks was capable of independent, self, democratic government in the republican style. In a further acknowledgement of its U.S. roots, in 1824 the colonist’s gave their initial settlement and town the name Monrovia in honor of U.S. President James Monroe, who had authorized the funding and the ship for the first colonists.

Robert Goodloe Harper

Robert Goodloe Harper

The indigenous natives of the new nation, who comprised the bulk of the population, had no idea what a “republic” and/or a “democracy” were, however. They had always been ruled by their Kings in a loose form of socialism in which the King used the land and resources of the whole tribe to provide and care for his people. Not understanding this and the other cultural differences between themselves and their new neighbors, and also stemming from their victorious effort at claiming their land, the American Blacks considered themselves superior to the Africans in nearly every way. As Liberia moved forward through its history this attitude of superiority would manifest in many ways that led to conflict.

Throughout the 1820’s and 1830’s the Black Americans continued to add and conquer more land, and freed Blacks continued to arrive from the United States. The destruction of a major slave trading outpost near the colony’s territory at a place called “Trade Town” by the U.S. Navy contributed greatly to the suppression of the slave trade in the area and a legitimate economy began to develop around the trade of indigenous crops and products such as palm oil and the melegueta pepper [2]. A problem was being encountered in this trade however—the colony was not recognized as a sovereign nation by other countries; and lacking this sovereignty it could not collect duties and taxes. The United States had no intention of adding Liberia as a state and so, as time went on, this was a problem that had to be solved. In addition Britain was intent on claiming some of the hard won Liberian land as their own and the colonists were increasingly frustrated by the lack of resources provided to them by the ACS. As a result of all this, in 1841 Liberia declared itself to be self governing and  a constitutional convention was held in Monrovia in 1845 to ratify their constitution.  In 1847 Liberia declared its independence from the ACS and, in an election in which only American Blacks voted, elected its first President, a man named Joseph Roberts.

Because of the technical dominance of the numerically inferior American Blacks, which primarily meant the fact that they could enforce their governmental control by superior force of arms, the indigenous Africans, at about the same time that a very similar thing was happening to the native peoples in America, were being forced to abandon their traditional ways in favor of the western Christian culture brought by the freed Blacks. Much bitterness resulted. These Americo Liberians, as they and their descendants came to be called, as the dominant force culturally and politically, tended to exclude the Africans from their political and cultural processes. By 1869 they had coalesced their power in a political party called the “True Whig” party[3] through which the Americo-Liberian minority dominated Liberian politics for the next 100 plus years, in effect creating an oligarchy. The result of all this was that on the land of their forefathers these indigenous Africans were considered 2nd class citizens and denied the rights of full citizenship.

By the 1880s Liberia, through various land grabs and deals, had acquired a 300 mile stretch of the western, central Africa coastline just south of Sierra Leone, while at the same time pushing its territory inland to arrive at what are roughly its current borders. As we have seen, and as could be expected, the chief problem of the new nation moving forward, besides its ethnic issues, was economic. With an abundance of both mineral and plant natural resources, but lacking the wherewithal to develop them, in the early 1900’s the Liberian government attempted to solve its finance problems with foreign loans. This resulted in the need to divert nearly the entire income of the government to repay them, which in turn resulted in even more economic hardship. The arrival of World War I in 1914 made the situation even worse and, desperate to find solutions, the Liberian government took the unusual measure of diverting trade from one of the main indigenous African tribes in the area, a people known as “The Kru.” [4] The Kru had long resisted assimilation by the Liberians and the trade diverting measure gave them the perfect excuse to now declare their loyalty to Great Britain, while at the same time requesting annexation of their territory by Sierra Leone. Unable to handle this uprising, the Liberian government requested the intervention of the U.S. Navy to put down the rebellion, which the United States agreed to, sending the USS Chester to carry it out.

Charles King

Charles King

As is almost always the case, such solutions tend to go down sideways to those on the receiving end and usually end up making things worse. It also did little to handle Liberia’s economic problems. At the end of World War I Liberia attempted to enhance its international status by joining the fledgling League of Nations, but its financial problems continued unresolved. In a further effort to handle this, in 1926 the Liberian government, under then president Charles King, cut a deal with the U.S. rubber corporation Firestone granting it a 99 year lease on 1 million acres of prime, rubber tree real estate and ensured the corporation cheap labor to go along with it. Firestone also gave Liberia a $5 million loan, a provision insisted upon by the American company as Liberia was heavily in debt to English bankers and, since it (Firestone) would be operating within Liberia for a long time, did not want English influence or interference in Liberian internal affairs and/or its economy. (At the time England was the main nation in the world controlling the rubber market and English policies favoring British rubber interests were detested by Firestone.) The deal resulted in the American rubber giant having unwarranted influence within Liberian government circles for many years to come, which may have been good for certain government officials and Firestone, but was not particularly good for Liberian Africans, as events would soon demonstrate.

In 1927 president King won re-election over the challenger for his post, a man named Thomas Faulkner. The only problem with the election was that in a nation of 15,000 registered voters King received about 240,000 votes, which prompted accusations from Faulkner and others that the election had been the most fraudulent in the history of the world. The disgruntled Faulkner then levied charges against King’s party (the True Whig Party), stating that they had been involved in using what amounted to slave labor both in their own nation with Firestone and through selling forced laborers to the Spanish colony on the island of Fernando Po on the African coast just south of Liberia. Faulkner’s charges prompted the League of Nations to launch an investigation into the allegations and a commission was established for this purpose headed by an Englishman named Cuthbert Christy. In 1930 the Christy Commission published their report of findings and concluded that while, “Slavery as defined by the Anti-Slavery Convention, in fact, does not exist in this Republic”, the following abuses had definitely occurred:

  • Shipment (of Liberian Africans) to Fernando Po is associated with slavery because the method of recruiting carries compulsion with it.
  • Persons in the Liberian government holding official positions have illegally misused their office in recruiting, with aid of the Liberian military.
  • Labor for private purposes is impressed by the government and used in the Firestone plantations.

The report implicated President King and his Vice President Allen Yancy stating that they profited from providing the forced labor. The Liberian House of Representatives, therefore, started impeachment proceedings against both of them, and rather than face this King and Yancy chose to resign. Meanwhile Firestone, which by 1930 was employing some 10,000 Africans, 8500 of which had been impressed into labor by the Liberian government, seemed to float through the scandal unaffected. Despite the Commission report the American rubber company continued to benefit from enforced labor policies for another 30 years until the Liberian legislature, in response to another scandal regarding such practices, finally outlawed them in 1962.

Harvey Firestone

Harvey Firestone

The balance of King’s term as President was served by Edwin Barclay, who had first been King’s foreign minister and later his Secretary of State. In the election of 1931 Barclay, another True Whig party member, was re-elected and would serve as President for the next 13 years, until his retirement in January, 1944. With the Great Depression in full swing rubber prices collapsed, and Barclay, just after being re-elected, faced another financial crisis when Liberia could not make its payments on the Firestone $ 5 million loan. The rubber company’s Chairman, Harvey Firestone, tried to get the help of US President Franklin Roosevelt to coerce Liberia into making its payments but Roosevelt refused. Instead he wrote to his state department: “At all times we should remember that (Harvey) Firestone went to Liberia at his own financial risk, and it is not the business of the State Department to pull his financial chestnut out of the fire except as a friend of the Liberian people.” In 1932 the Liberian Legislature passed “The Moratorium Act” which suspended payments on the Firestone loan until its payment structure could be re-negotiated into something more in line with what Liberia could do. Barclay then appealed to the League of Nations for assistance and after 3 years of negotiations, while fending off proposals from some European nations that would have infringed upon Liberia’s sovereignty by forcing oversight of the nation’s financial affairs, a deal was struck which allowed Liberia to continue with its loan payments.

With the advent of World War II Liberia’s strategic importance was enhanced by the fact that Japan had occupied the French rubber producing colonies of Southeast Asia which left the West African nation as the primary source of natural rubber available to the Allied war effort. The upshot of this was that in 1942 Liberia signed a defense pact with the United States which opened the door to US assistance in developing vital infrastructure such as roads and airports. In 1943 none other than US President Franklin Roosevelt was compelled to visit Liberia to secure its support in the war effort against the Axis powers and to negotiate the establishment of military bases there. This led to a reciprocal visit by Barclay to the United States later in 1943, during which he became the first Black man ever to be introduced from the rostrum of the United States Congress as a guest of honor.

In May of 1943 an election was held to determine who would be Barclay’s successor to the Liberian presidency. The election was won by a Methodist Americo-Liberian attorney named William Tubman. Also a member of the True Whig political party, Tubman had served as an associate justice of the Liberian Supreme Court since 1937. Among Tubman’s first actions as President was to align his nation fully with the Allied and US war effort by formally declaring war on Germany and Japan, a step his predecessor Barclay had been loath to take due to the fact that Germany was Liberia’s chief trading partner and that many of the country’s merchants and doctors were German. Following the war Tubman established an economic policy for his nation known as “porte ouverte” (open door), the purpose of which was to encourage foreign investment and development. The policy was very successful and in the 27 years Tubman was in office (1944-1971) foreign investment in Liberia, mostly from the US, increased by more than 200 per cent. In the 10 years between 1950 and 1960 Liberia experienced an average annual economic growth of 11 per cent, the 2nd highest growth rate in the world, just behind that of Japan. Much of this foreign investment took place to develop the high grade iron ore deposits found in Liberia’s interior, the ore of which is among the highest quality on the planet. As a result iron ore export became one of Liberia’s top industries, along with rubber.

Because of the success of Tubman’s economic policies Liberia at last began to approach solvency as a nation. Money was now available for road development and to build hospitals and rail lines. The task of paving the streets of the Liberian capital of Monrovia was commenced and sanitary and water systems were built. Schools were established and a literacy program was launched; agricultural methods were improved and with US help a hydroelectric plant was built. In addition to all this Tubman made efforts to do a better job of including his country’s indigenous African tribes, who constituted the overwhelming majority of Liberia’s people (roughly 95 percent of Liberia’s people are of native descent comprising 16 different ethnic groups and a number of languages), in his government programs, and was more insistent that traditional tribal laws be allowed to be followed.[5] He also extended the right to vote to Liberian women for the first time. As a result of these successes and policies William Tubman is today often referred to as, “the father of modern Liberia.”

William Tubman

William Tubman

Despite the progress, due to the inherent inequities in a nation run mostly by Americo-Liberians who comprised a small minority of its people, Liberia remained a nation troubled at its core. In 1955 this manifested with an assassination attempt on Tubman by political rivals which, though he survived, caused him to become more autocratic in his rule. He consolidated his political power through assuming the leadership of the True Whig party and by ensuring loyalty through political appointments and favoritism. He repressed his political opponents and inevitably made enemies of people who opposed his national unification efforts and his open door policies. Many of these were other Americo-Liberians who felt that Tubman’s supposed national unification stance was really a ruse to gain native African support for him against his Americo-Liberian opponents. Consequently, for all of his successes, Tubman was ultimately a polarizing figure for Liberia; a man who, upon his death in a London clinic in 1971, was both eulogized and criticized for his policies.

Replacing Tubman as the president of Liberia following his death was his long time vice president, William Tolbert. A True Whig member who was descended from one of Liberia’s most affluent and numerous Americo-Liberian families, Tolbert was a graduate of the University of Liberia, a Baptist minister and also the Grand Master of the Liberian Masons, an interesting combination of hats to say the least. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1943 and became Tubman’s vice president in 1952. Whatever Tubman’s motives were for his liberal reforms with regard to the indigenous Africans, Tolbert continued on and expanded these policies, which led to him being criticized by other Americo-Liberians as being too liberal with regard to the Africans. At the same time, to many of the indigenous people he was not reforming things fast enough. To understand this it is necessary to recall that in the 1950’s and 1960’s post World War II anti-colonialism had caught up to Africa as it had in other parts of the world, and that the erstwhile European colonial masters were being expelled from the continent one by one. In these other countries indigenous Africans were assuming power, though often amidst great turmoil. This made an anomaly of Liberia which, being run by the non native Americo-Liberians, had more in common with the European colonial powers from the indigenous African point of view.  To understand Liberia and what would happen in its civil war to come it is VERY important to understand this. To the African native peoples Liberia was lagging behind what they saw happening in the rest of the continent.

Tolbert differed from Tubman in a number of other areas where he tried to effect change. Against some True Whig opposition he got a constitutional amendment passed which limited a president to eight years in office and then defended the amendment against several attempts to repeal it. He also took the bold foreign policy steps, especially for a nation so dominated by its relationship to the United States, of expressing his nation’s political independence by establishing diplomatic relations with the communist nations of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and Cuba. In 1973, as a result of the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur war, he severed his country’s relations with the long time US ally of Israel and spoke in favor of recognizing the national rights of the Palestinian people. With the Cold War still very much in play in the 1970’s none of these were moves that endeared Tolbert and Liberia to the United States.[6]

Tolbert was re-elected in 1975 and then began to initiate other changes. In the mid ‘70s world rubber prices declined which affected the Liberian economy and Tolbert helped solve the problem by ordering audits on foreign companies operating within the country, chiefly Firestone, which resulted in the assessment of millions of dollars of back taxes. He also initiated the re-negotiation of the concession agreements of these foreign companies so that they were more favorable to the Liberian government; and he endorsed Liberia becoming a signatory to the treaty establishing the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)—a pact intended to be the African equivalent of the European Common Market. He also allowed the formation of a 2nd political party in Liberia, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), thus allowing for the first time in 100 years an alternative to the Americo-Liberian True Whig party.

William Tolbert

William Tolbert

While much of what Tolbert was trying to do appeared to be positive, in the swirling milieu of Liberian cultural, economic and political factors no politician could operate with much certainty. For Tolbert things began to come apart in 1979 as a result of an effort by his minister of agriculture to raise the subsidized price of rice from $22 to $26 per 100 lb bag. [7] With Tolbert’s family being one of the larger rice growers in the country, the price increase opened him up to charges that he was using it to line his own family’s pockets. The PAL organized a protest to the rice price increase and scheduled it to take place in April of 1979. Initially expected to draw no more than 2,000 demonstrators, the protest ended up being joined by some 10,000 additional economically deprived Monrovian youth known as “backstreet boys”, and basically all hell broke loose with riots and the looting of stores and rice warehouses. Tolbert sent in the militia to quell the situation and gave them “shoot to kill” orders, which resulted in, depending on which estimate you believe, 40 to 74 demonstrators being killed and over 500 injured. Hundreds of civilians were arrested and over $40 million in property damage resulted. He then followed this by jailing a number of his political opponents, charging them with sedition. In March of 1980 this specifically included the leaders of the PAL, which by then had changed its name to the “People’s Progressive Party” or PPP, after they had launched a general strike and demanded the Liberian president’s resignation. The stage was now set for the incident that would cost William Tolbert his life.

In the early morning hours of April 12th, 1980 a group of non-commissioned Liberian Army officers led by a master sergeant named Samuel Doe, attacked the Liberian Executive Mansion and murdered president Tolbert along with 26 of his supporters. Doe, who had been trained by American Green Berets, and his men were all members of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group. They took control of the government and 10 days later publicly executed by firing squad 13 members of Tolbert’s cabinet, thus bringing to an end nearly 135 years of Americo-Liberian rule in Liberia. In the days following the coup other government ministers were rounded up and killed while many more fled the country or were arrested. Doe assigned himself the rank of general and set up something called the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) composed of Doe and 14 other low ranking military officers to rule the country. The first actions of the council were more reprisals against former Tolbert officials, as well as the release of PPP leaders who had been arrested during the rice riots.

Doe quickly aligned his new government with the United States, endorsing US Cold War policies for Africa and severing Liberia’s diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union that had been established by his Americo-Liberian predecessor. Part of this was a modification of the mutual defense pact between the two countries, which granted US armed forces staging rights with only a 24 hour notice at Liberian airports and seaports in the event of security threats anywhere in the world; virtually making Liberia a US military base should it be needed. (The early years of Doe’s regime coincided with those of the Ronald Reagan presidency in the United States and the anti-Soviet defense build up the US was engaged in at the time. The perception was that the US needed Liberia to counteract Soviet influence in the developing nations of Africa) Doe also promised that he intended to stabilize the government under a new president and then return himself and the army to their proper place in the army barracks. It soon became apparent that he had no such idea, however.

Samuel Doe

Samuel Doe

In 1981, stating that he wanted to “pave the road to a genuine democracy,” Doe announced the formation of a commission charged with the task of creating a new constitution for Liberia. Instead of getting that done and “returning to the barracks” as he said he would, he went on to form his own political party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL), and then ran as that party’s candidate for president in a corrupt election held in October, 1985. With Doe claiming 51 per cent of the vote he announced himself as the winner of the election and was to be installed in office as Liberia’s 20th president in January of 1986. Before that could happen, however, in November of 1985 Doe’s former right hand man in the 1980 coup, a man named Thomas Quiwonkpa, led an invasion of Liberia from Sierra Leone in a coup attempt of his own against Doe’s regime. Quiwonkpa and his supporters made it to Monrovia and actually attacked the executive mansion before his troops were stopped and he was killed. Doe made an example of his erstwhile compatriot by having his mutilated body put on public display.

Following the coup attempt Doe and his Krahn supporters, (with whom he had surrounded himself in his government) then launched a series of vicious reprisals against the indigenous Mano and Gio (the “Gio” people were also called the “Dan” people) ethnic groups of Quiwonkpa’s native Nimba county (Quiwonkpa himself was from the Gio people) in north central Liberia. As a result of Doe’s repressive actions much animosity began to develop between the Krahn, Mano and Gio peoples, who before this had more or less been peaceful toward each other. This was to become a significant factor in the future Liberian civil war, when reprisals against different ethnic groups became rampant.

One of the men who joined Doe’s rebellion in 1980 was a 32 year old, American educated Liberian named Charles Taylor. The son of a woman from the Gola ethnic group and an Americo-Liberian man named Nelson Taylor, Charles Taylor was born in 1948 in the town of Arthington near Monrovia. In 1972 he came to the United States and attended Bentley College in Massachusetts where he graduated in 1977 with a degree in economics. He returned to Liberia and upon joining the Doe government was assigned to the post of Director General of the General Services Agency, where he had responsibility for doing the purchasing for the Liberian government. His post in the government was short lived, however, because in 1983 Taylor was sacked and charged with embezzling over $ 1 million and sending it to an account in the United States. He managed to flee the country and followed the stolen money to the US, where he was arrested in 1984 and charged with embezzlement of government funds. Taylor was then put in jail where he awaited extradition back to Liberia.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor

At this point the strange story of Charles Taylor becomes even more curious. With the help of a legal team led by none other than former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, through a series of hearings Taylor fought his extradition. Then, on September 15, 1985 he, along with 4 other prisoners, escaped from the Plymouth County House of Corrections by sawing through a bar covering a window, lowering themselves 20 feet on knotted sheets down the side of the building, and then fleeing into the woods outside the facility. While Taylor’s four accomplices were recaptured, he managed to disappear altogether, somehow working his way to Mexico and from there escaping to the country of Libya. While there he underwent special training in guerrilla warfare at a camp established by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.[8]  Just how Taylor was able to accomplish all of this remains something of a mystery. In 2009 at his trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity committed during the Liberian civil war, Taylor himself stated he was assisted in his escape from jail by agents of the US Central Intelligence Agency— something the CIA has said is “absurd”. Responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, however, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) acknowledged that Taylor was involved with US intelligence in the 1980’s but did not state in what capacity, predictably citing “national security” as the reason.  Whatever the truth is behind Taylor’s miraculous escapes from jail and back to Africa, as well as his guerrilla training in Libya, the fact that these things happened would contribute to the disaster that would soon occur in Liberia.

To be continued…

Copyright © 2015

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

 


[2] Melegueta is a herbaceous perennial plant native to swampy habitats along the West African coast. Its trumpet-shaped, purple flowers develop into 5- to 7-cm long pods containing numerous small, reddish-brown seeds (peppers).  Melegueta pepper is commonly used in the cuisines of West and North Africa, where it has been traditionally imported by caravan routes through the Sahara desert, and from where they were distributed to Sicily and the rest of Italy. Also called “African pepper”, melegueta pepper became a popular substitute for black pepper in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries and was one of the first commodities traded by the re-located American Blacks in Liberia.

[3] The True Whig Party, also known as Liberian Whig Party, is the oldest political party in Liberia. Founded in 1869, the party dominated Liberian politics from 1878 until 1980 to the extent that the country was virtually a one-party state, although opposition parties were never actually outlawed.  Initially its ideology was heavily influenced by that of the United States Whig Party, which in the U.S. was formed in opposition to the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson and which supported the supremacy of Congress over the Presidency and favored a program of modernization and economic protectionism. The name was chosen based on the  American Whigs of 1776, who fought for independence, and because “Whig” was then a widely recognized label of choice for people known for opposing tyranny.

[4] The Kru are an ethnic group who live in the interior of Liberia. A small minority of Kru also live in southern Sierra Leone close to the border with Liberia. Their history is one marked by a strong sense of ethnicity and resistance to occupation and efforts to control their trade. They were also infamous amongst early European slave raiders as being especially averse to capture.

[5] It was and is claimed by some Americo-Liberians that Tubman embraced the indigenous Africans as a ploy adopted to be able to keep himself in office as President long past the point he would have otherwise been forced out. Through appointing native Africans to certain government posts also filling the military with young native Africans Tubman ensured the loyalty of the military and denied it to his opponents; thus creating the odd scenario of a True Whig, Americo-Liberian President ensuring that he stayed in power against the opposition of other Americo-Liberians through gaining the loyalty of the indigenous Africans, who had been suppressed by the True Whig Americo Liberians ever since the party was formed in the 1860s—indeed a dizzying scene.

[6] More research would need to be done to verify, but this may help explain what ultimately happened to President Tolbert, who would be murdered in a coup in 1980. There have been allegations that the CIA was involved in this coup, as they had been in other coups and regime changes in other countries around the world in the 1950’s, 1960s and 1970s. Tolbert’s moves in recognizing communist nations around the world and distancing his country from Israel makes one suspicious, as do the changes in Liberian foreign policy after Tolbert was murdered.

[7] The problem of how to keep people fed is common in third world nations and lesser developed countries. In Liberia rice is a major staple and a $4 price rise would have brought further hardship to many who were already challenged economically.

[8] Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi[ c. 1942 – 20 October 2011), commonly known as Colonel Gaddafi was a Libyan revolutionary and politician who governed Libya as its primary leader from 1969 to 2011. Taking power in a coup d’etat, he ruled as Revolutionary Chairman of the Libyan Arab Republic from 1969 to 1977 and then as the “Brotherly Leader” of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya from 1977 to 2011, when he was ousted in the Libyan civil war in 2011. The term “jamahiriya” is meant to mean “the masses,” as a plural form of the Arabic “jumhuriya,” or “republic.” This is used to indicate a communist society ostensibly ruled by the masses, though in Libya’s case all governmental power was centralized under Gaddafi.

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