Gregory Alonso Pirio writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
Charles Taylor would call me on regular basis in the early 1990s. It’s not that I was a friend of the former Liberian rebel leader and later president, whom the International Criminal Court recently convicted for his role in aiding the bloody Sierra Leone civil war. Rather Taylor needed me. I was a media gatekeeper who could give him access to an audience of millions of African listeners, including Liberians. These were the days before the advent of independent FM radio in Africa, and millions of Africans had no recourse but to tune to international broadcasters like the BBC and Voice of America as credible news alternatives to the government-monopolized radio stations.
For my part, as the director of VOA’s English-to-Africa broadcasts, I pursued newsmakers like Taylor to enrich the news offerings to our listeners. The advent of satellite telephone in the 1980s revolutionized our coverage of African civil conflicts. Rebel leaders were no longer isolated in faraway bush headquarters awaiting the occasional reporter, usually a Westerner, to arrive to get their stories out. With the advent of direct dial, we could talk directly to murky figures within seconds, and my rolodex quickly came to read like a Who’s Who of Cold War and post-Cold War warriors: UNITA leader and one time U.S. ally, Jonas Savimbi of Angola, Renamo leader, Afonso Dlakama, of Mozambique, Rwandese Political Front leader, Paul Kagame, Somali warlords and others.
These phone relationships were professional but intense, and these leaders made strong impressions, both in person or just over the phone. Savimbi was brilliant, personally imposing and ruthless; Dlakama appeared meek and unprepared for media scrutiny; Kagame was highly intelligent and calculating, and Taylor appeared coarse and shifty to me over the phone.
Taylor would call me weekly or biweekly to give me updates on battlefield accomplishments or peace overtures. Sometimes I would interview him myself, but as our stable of top notch reporters with intimate knowledge of African reality grew, I would hand Taylor over to them for interviews.
One day, I received a call with an unfamiliar voice on the other end. My memory tells me that his voice was somewhat shrill as he announced, “I am Corporal Foday Sankoh, and I am leader of the Revolutionary United Front [RUF], which has launched the liberation of Sierra Leone. I am calling you on satellite phone from RUF-liberated territory inside Sierra Leone.” Sankoh proposed an interview. My mind raced, “The only one who could have given Sankoh my phone number was Charles Taylor,” and I imagined Foday Sankoh speaking on Taylor’s satellite phone somewhere in Liberia with the shifty Taylor at his side.
My hunch about the Taylor connection would prove correct; the RUF, which later became synonymous with terror, murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers and thirst for the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone acted much like a brigade of Taylor’s own forces. Taylor’s recent conviction of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Sierra Leone conflict appear completely justified in this regard. It was only some years later that I learned that Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, had sponsored both Taylor and Sankoh, unleashing a blood bath of civil wars in West Africa that victimized untold numbers of Africans.
Qaddafi’s motivation for supporting Taylor was part vengeful and part strategic. Libyan leader reportedly wanted to get back at the United States for frustrating Libya’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East and Africa. In particular, he wanted to get even for U.S. pressure on Liberia to sever its ties with Libya. Liberia had been a tight U.S. ally in the Cold War, hosting a large VOA radio transmitting facility and reportedly an important CIA electronic listening post.
So, after Colonel Samuel Dole seized power in Monrovia in 1988, the U.S. wanted Dole to give the strategically assertive Qaddafi a cold shoulder. Libya responded to by giving arms and money to Liberian dissident groups willing to oppose Dole. Taylor became the biggest recipient of Qaddafi’s largesse as he supported Taylor’s decision to invade Liberia on Christmas Eve, 1989.
I refused the RUF leader, Sankoh, an interview for days, saying I needed to ascertain the credibility of his story. Having the ear of millions of listeners, many of whom depended on our news for life and death information, was a huge responsibility. I wasn’t going to take undue risk that could have sorry consequences for innocents. I was keenly aware of the critique made by Liberian exiles, whether justifiable or not, of the BBC’s Africa Service for having given Taylor and his ragtag band of rebels blanket coverage, arguing that the British broadcaster had to a certain extent created Charles Taylor’s movement. Eventually, after having been satisfied that Sankoh had indeed launched his rebellion with armed forces inside Sierra Lone, we interviewed him.
Some months later, I received a strange phone call. I immediately recognized the voice as that of Charles Taylor, but he identified himself as a unit commander in Taylor’s rebel army and wanted to give an interview to refute charges that his unit had violated a truce with a rival militia. I said, “What are you talking about? You are Charles Taylor; I would know your voice anywhere.” He insisted saying that even Taylor’s wife, who was also a unit commander, would get their voices confused.
I suspected no Taylor subordinate would be so bold as to grab the headline from the boss: such audacity was surely a death sentence. I said, “No, we are not going to interview you because you are Charles Taylor, and we will only interview you under your real name.” We went around back and forth for some time until I ended the call. I can only guess that Taylor attempted this disguise to cast doubt on reports of a truce violation by his forces without having his falsehoods attributed directly to him.
In 1997, Liberians elected Taylor president in the hopes that this would end the costly civil conflict, but by 2003 he was driven out of power by another Liberian faction. In that same year, he was indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone. Taylor is in jail in the Hague awaiting his final sentence due to be announced May 31, 2012.
Though peace and a growing feeling of stability have returned to Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Qaddafi-Taylor alliance gave birth to unprecedented transnational criminality that afflicts the West Africa region today. The funds, arms and personnel supporting Taylor necessarily took illegal channels largely via Burkina Faso ruled by Blaise Campoaré since his 1987 coup, which by some accounts took place with the support of Taylor’s movement. The convicted Russian arms smuggler, Viktor Bout, had his share of the action, and when the traffic in Blood Diamonds, which Sankoh’s forces harvested in Sierra Leone, became the financial backbone of Taylor’s operations, all sorts of shadowy criminal syndicates, including Al Qaeda, swooped upon the Monrovia-Ouagadougou-Tripoli corridor to earn their share of blood profits. Inside Liberia, President Taylor criminalized the formal economy, attracting questionable investment from an odd cast of cowboy investors, including American Christian fundamentalist scam artists, South African neo-Nazis and the prominent American Christian television evangelist, Pat Robertson.
Though Taylor is in jail and Qaddafi is dead, their legacy of criminal personal networks and syndicates appear to have survived, morphing into the current illegal arms, drugs, and human trafficking trade. These criminal enterprises have a vested interest in corrupting officials in the region and keeping vast tracks of the Sahel, especially in Mali, ungoverned and suitable operational space for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Latin American drug cartels, among others. The fallout of arsenal and personnel into West Africa from the recent Libyan revolution is more fuel on the fire of corruption, state fragility and armed militias financed by an economy of multinational criminal trafficking that threatens the stability of an entire region and the well-being of its inhabitants.
Gregory Alonso Pirio earned an M.A. in African Studies and a Ph.D. in African History from UCLA. His dissertation was entitled, “Commerce, Industry and Empire: The Making of Modern Portuguese Colonialism in Angola and Mozambique, 1890-1914.” He is also author of The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2008). Dr. Pirio was editor of Rebuilding Shattered Nations and Lives: Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development in Africa (UNHCR, 2009), for which he wrote the introduction, “African Conflicts in Historical Perspective.” He has published and produced studies on numerous topics, including on media issues, Pan-Africanism, global health, African conflicts and terrorism. Dr. Pirio is also a Visiting Scholar at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, where he has launched the “Voices of Marginalized Youth Initiative.’