The honorable Charles G. Taylor served as the 22nd president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003. Before that time, he virtually defined the term “African warlord.” He fled into exile at the end of his reign, and was arrested on behalf of the Sierra Leone High Court in 2006.
Taylor’s early years included stints in the United States where he studied at Bentley College in Massachusetts and involved himself in a number of dodgy activities. He eventually made his way to Libya, where he underwent military training with a number of fellow Liberians. They eventually formed a group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, and in late 1989 launched a coup attempt against the reigning Liberian Government. They enjoyed a large measure of popular support in the early years, as well as backing from Libya and the Ivory Coast. In turn, they sponsored rebel movements in nearby Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds from that country. Taylor had deep connections with Sierra Leone’s rebel leader Foday Sankoh., who engaged in many of the same inhuman practices as Taylor. In 1990, the NPFL seized control of the capital city of Monrovia-toppling the government-but eventually retreated under counter-attacks from loyalist forces and other rebel groups, which had split off from them for ideological reason. In the ensuing five years, under Taylor’s direction, they engaged in numerous human rights abuses, including the ethnic cleansing of Mandingo and Krahn minorities and the forced recruitment of children into their army. At their peak, they numbered approximately 25,000 members, broken into a loose quasi-military organization of armed marauders.
The war officially ended in 1996 with the promise of civil elections, though bloodshed continued for some time afterwards. Taylor ran for president and was elected by a landslide in 1997, garnering 75% of the vote. Observers believe that many people voted for him out of fear that he would resume hostilities if he were not elected (his campaign included perhaps the most chilling slogan in history of democracy: “he killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”). The NPFL merged with the official military, and many of Taylor’s underlings gained key cabinet positions in the new government.
His ascent to power did not stop the bloodshed for long. He continued to support the rebel forces in Sierra Leone during their civil war against the government there, and conflict with neighboring Guinea remained troubling as well. In 1999, a new rebel group-Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD)-launched attacks from Guinea against Taylor’s regime. They succeeded in slowly winnowing down his sphere of control, aided by a second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, which emerged from the country’s southern area in early 2003. Though fiercely opposed to Taylor, LURD engaged in many atrocities similar to those which marked his reign.
A ceasefire was declared in late 2003 which involved Taylor agreeing to relinquish power and go into exile in Nigeria. He resignation came in part from pressure from the United States, who opposed his sponsorship of rebels in Sierra Leone. Though he departed for Nigeria peacefully, critics claim that Taylor continued to influence politics in Liberia. In 2006, a new, democratically elected Liberian government formally requested Taylor’s extradition in order to stand trial for his crimes. Nigeria agreed to release him to face trial in Sierra Leone, but he vanished before he could be arrested. The authorities caught him trying to sneak across the border into Camperoon, and United Nations troops escorted him to the Hague for trial. Official proceedings opened on June 4, 2007, but Taylor’s defense attorneys gained a postponement until January 2008. He was found guilty in April 2012 of all eleven charges, including terror, rape, and murder. He is currently serving 50 years in prison.
Taylor has been credited for recognizing a shift in African politics away from unifying strongmen and towards a more ethnic or tribal sensibility. The NPFL violated some of Africa’s most deeply held taboos, such as forcing their child soldiers to return to the villages of their birth and assist in wholesale slaughter of friends and family. He remained in power, as so many do, because of an intense personal charisma and a knack for shifting his tone to make those around him believe he represented their point of view. The civil wars which he helped foster cost Liberia over 200,000 lives, and led to the displacement of more than two million citizens-one Liberian out of every three.