Charles Taylor’s Declaration of War: Twenty Six Years On

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The guttural voice at the other end of the telephone line came booming into my landline (mobile telephony phone was still years away). It turned out to be that of one of the most quizzical, almost interrogative broadcast interviewers ever to work for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The last time ace broadcaster of BBC fame Robin White interviewed me, it was to get clarity on the relatively soft story on how the treason case against Doe’s once powerful former Defense Minister Gray D. Allison had been progressing. That was in 1986. But when he came over the line again to talk to me some three years later (on Christmas Day—December 25, 1989), the urgency in his voice reflected a far more serious newsworthy affair.
Charles Taylor, Robin informed me, had called him up to announce to the world that his troops (under the banner of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia—NPFL) had crossed into Liberia to begin a war of attrition aimed at ending Samuel K. Doe’s regime, and he (Robin White) wanted my informed take on this exclusive and journalistically spicy story that had landed on his laps like manna from Heaven.

A few hours before Robin subjected me to his characteristic no-holes-barred and aggressive questioning sessions for the BBC’s flagship Focus on Africa program, a relative had called me from Yekepa (in Nimba County) to say that hush-hush rumors were making the rounds about a reported rebel incursion. All too aware that peddling of wild rumors was a stock-in-trade of many of our people, I initially adopted a cavalier attitude toward the buzz. That was until Robin White subsequently filled me in on the available facts during our pre-interview discussion—a background chat journalists usually engage in before conducting the interview proper.

What Robin did not give me a heads-up on was that he had extensively interviewed Taylor a few hours before getting to me (even though I should have expected that from him), and that he was going to subsequently broadcast Taylor’s interview and mine back-to-back that day, beginning with Taylor’s. Ordinarily, that should have easily passed as a mundane professional broadcast news editing procedure. However, given the live-wire political tensions that were ratcheting up steadily in Liberia at the time, such a Taylor war-related interview, followed by that of an erstwhile President of a radicalized Press Union of Liberia whom Doe considered as anti-him, Robin White unintentionally almost landed me in trouble big time.

On the day BBC aired the two interviews, I had gone to my favorite beach, Caesar—a serene, out-of-town holiday hide-out nestled away from the then unpaved Marshall Highway. Journalist Isaac Bantu, then President of the PUL, and his family had asked me to drive them there to spend the Christmas Day. Some three hours after we had arrived at the beach, the Focus on Africa program came on through some beachgoer’s transistor radio. The first headline was on Taylor’s declaration of war against Doe.

By the time I knew it, many Liberians at the beach had gathered around the guy with the radio and were listening intently.

Tailor railed against Doe and served notice to him and his government that what he had started was no joke, and the war he was declaring will be pursued until Liberians were rid of Doe one way or the other. Taylor’s war declaration bluster was immediately followed by my interview I had granted to Robin a few hours before leaving for the beach that day, in which, among other things, I informed him that Butuo was hundreds of miles away from Monrovia though, and so while Taylor’s declaration would be understandably concerning to the regime, it’s impact would not immediately be felt in the seat of power—that is, Monrovia.

‘Suicide Mission’
Following the broadcast of the interviews, a palpable panic gripped many beachgoers. Such was the impact of Taylor’s temperamental BBC outburst on those who had peaceably gathered at Caesar beach that Christmas Day, that the beach started to empty of its revelers—as if the NPFL insurgents were already closing in on Monrovia and its environs! As we (me, Isaac and his family) also packed up to go home, some of those on the beach who recognized me as the one interviewed after Taylor had spoken, gave me a double take.

By the time I dropped Isaac and his family in Congo town and got to my residence in Sinkor, there were already a few students of mine from the University of Liberia waiting to get more information from me (as if I knew so much about Taylor’s war plan). A few of them expressed apprehension about how my otherwise innocuous responses to Robin White’s questions could be misunderstood by the regime in Monrovia.

As if to reinforce this fear factor, a cabinet-ranking government official (an old professional friend of mine) drove into my compound just at that time. He had come, he said, to advise me that although my interview that day was clearly not earthshaking as that of Taylor’s own declaration of war, nonetheless, I should not sleep at my place that night.

I tried to laugh off his anxiety, but he opined that his suggestion was based on his understanding of the crude mentality and heightened witlessness of certain security advisers around Doe. He believed that some of these guys were so ignorant and jittery that they might just see the back-to-back interview to mean that Taylor and I were together in one physical location, and that after Robin had been through interviewing him, Taylor then had passed on the microphone to me for my own interview with Robin White. And so these guys might well come calling on me.

As bizarre as this sounded, coming from such a highly placed government functionary who probably was familiar with the thought process of Doe and his men, his reasoning got me a bit sobered up. Ultimately, my resistance against leaving my house that night finally crumbled in the face of similar sentiments expressed by a former ‘Miss Liberia’ who was also visiting me at the time after listening to the interviews. She graciously offered to give me sanctuary in her beachside apartment for as long as I wished to stay—another example in my activist life of the bravery and kindness of Liberian women in the face of trouble and danger.

To be sure, the December 24, 1989 NPFL incursion into Liberian territory by way of the Cote d’Ivoire was an audacious venture. For starters, the Samuel K. Doe regime had become even more militarily strengthened after the 1985 Quiwonkpa ‘invasion’ five years earlier, which in turn had come hot on the heels of a fraudulent electioneering exercise. Additionally, many opposition politicians, civil society and pressure groups had all but thrown in the towel in their struggle to rid themselves of Doe—after several endeavors (attempted coups, assassination plots, etc.) to do so had woefully failed, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Thus, when Taylor and his small band of Liberian dissidents and mercenaries lunched their limited military intrusion by way of the famous Butuo border town in Nimba, not many Liberians initially took him seriously. Even foreign diplomats wondered whether Taylor was in fact not on a suicide mission, and whether the ‘crazy’ enterprise was not indeed destined to go down the tube as quickly as it had been launched.

Crystal Ball
Although I subscribed to this view myself, I was nonetheless too aware of the depth of disillusionment and desperation that had gripped so many Liberians both at home and in the Diaspora, to be surprised by Taylor’s military bravado, which ultimately morphed into one of the most brutal and bloody civil wars in modern history—all fought to upend a dictatorial military-civilian regime that was suffocating the political system.

In fact, long before Taylor, himself a one-time key player in Doe’s regime, took up the military cudgel against the government, many other persons were, even if marginally, harboring a similar plan of action. It may sound unbelievable, but even some journalists (yes, you read me well, journalists), as early as 1986, were theorizing on the possibility of a guerrilla warfare as the only practical means by which the Doe regime could be toppled.

I recall happening on one such conversation where some guys were rationalizing how the vast expanse of thick forests and their foliage could simultaneously provide ideal spots for cover and training grounds for fighters; and how isolated highways and bypasses in the countryside easily lent themselves to ambushes; and how, perhaps with the single exception of Guinea, some leaders of neighboring countries then (already peeved by Doe’s political behavior) would not mind turning a blind eye to efforts by dissidents to establish staging posts for hit-and-run purposes. But this strategic appraisal by the media people concerned turned out to be mere intellectual, feel-good talk bereft of actionable possibility.

Taylor’s rebellion succeeded largely because, in addition to the topographical assessment and the presence of sympathetic neighboring supporters as discussed by the journalists, he cashed in on the existence of widespread disaffection against the Doe regime among the generality of the Liberian people – especially those in Nimba County, which, not surprisingly provided the entry point for his rebel forces. Indeed, evidence-based historical experience shows that disaffected and aggrieved masses can provide the oxygen for guerilla warfare in many ways, including easy recruitment in the rebel force, food supply, and vital information on regime troop movements.

For some Liberians, the jury is still out on whether, taking into consideration the totality of the pre-war situation and the prosecution of the war itself, the very bloody insurrection was worth the carnage it spawned after all. For others, there is absolutely no question that what could have been a revolution in the mold of classic progressive mass uprisings in history, rapidly lost its way in the thicket of medieval-type, internecine ethnic blood-letting, power greed driven by wealth-seeking protagonists, and subsequent gross inability to put in place an efficient, selfless, truly patriotic, people-centered post-conflict governance system.

For many Liberians who went through the conflict period that followed Taylor’s war declaration, the cost of that war has since far outweighed whatever benefits that may have derived from it. Twenty six years on, they give as evidence of their claim, the enduring and grinding impoverishment of the masses in whose name the ‘liberation’ and ‘revolutionary’ war was allegedly waged; the destruction of social services, including hydropower and drinkable pipe-borne water system; our individual and collective incapability thus far to restore these facilities to even 25 percent of their pre-war level; and the continuing manifestation of arrogance of power and malfeasance in society.

Were it not that he is long retired, Robin White would have probably called me up again to ask for my opinion on whether Taylor’s daring military mission ultimately made Liberia and Liberians better or left them in a worse state of affairs. I would have responded by stating that if I had a crystal ball and had therefore seen what the war and post-war years were going to look like, and what Liberians would get from successive post-conflict governments, especially in terms of socioeconomic dividends, I would have rather the Taylor offensive, given its apocalyptic nature, never saw the light of day. But that, as the sages would say, is now history.

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