JUSTICE

On eve of court verdict, some Liberians recall Charles Taylor's rule fondly

MONROVIA, LIBERIA — The Globe and Mail

Entrepreneur and Charles Taylor supporter William Knowlden, shown n Monrovia on Tuesday, gave financial assistance that allowed local musician Peter K. Toby to produce a CD of music in support of Charles Taylor. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

When the world thinks of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, the images are horrific: armies of drugged-up child soldiers, stories of rape and cannibalism, blood diamonds, and victims with chopped-off hands.

But when Vasco Allison thinks of Charles Taylor, he remembers a better era. “We were living a normal life,” says the unemployed Liberian construction worker. “Rice was cheap, and we could earn money. Everything was better. He was our leader, and we love him.”

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It’s an astonishing phenomenon – nostalgia for a murderous strongman – yet it recurs around the world, from the Russians who yearn for Joseph Stalin to the Chinese who sentimentalize the rule of Mao Zedong. Many people in the impoverished West African nation of Liberia have the same nostalgia: a rosy-hued vision of a past dictator, ignoring his atrocities and exaggerating his glories.

After a five-year trial, an international court in The Hague is expected to announce on Thursday that Mr. Taylor has been found guilty of multiple war crimes. He would become the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court – a breakthrough in the campaign for international justice. Yet here in Liberia, he remains a hero to many.

Mr. Taylor was one of the most notorious instigators of a protracted series of armed conflicts that began in 1989 and eventually killed an estimated 250,000 people in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone. He was elected president of Liberia in 1997 and remained in power until he was finally ousted by rebels in 2003.

Mr. Taylor continues to hold sway over a sizable percentage of the population today. Some say he could beat the current president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a fair election. “If he is released from prison, people would parade all the way from the airport to the city,” says one Liberian journalist.

Many of Mr. Taylor’s supporters hold key positions of power in the country. Some are in parliament. Some hold government posts. One of his former allies, ex-warlord Prince Johnson, finished third in the presidential election last year.

“Popular support for Africa’s ‘big men,’ even after they have done their worst, is an enduring mystery,” said Ian Smillie, an Ottawa-based expert on blood diamonds who was the first prosecution witness at Mr. Taylor’s trial.

“Perhaps it’s because people don’t associate them with the evil they did, or there is a degree of nostalgia because the high expectations for their successors could never be met,” he said. “Perhaps it’s because people never had any expectations of the big men themselves, apart from the pomp and wealth they displayed – a bit like our own adulation of royalty or sports heroes or movie stars.”

One group of Taylor supporters held a gospel concert last weekend to pray for a not-guilty verdict from the international court. They insist that Mr. Taylor is a generous humanitarian who became the victim of a U.S.-led conspiracy to remove him from power.

“He’s a great African king, the elephant of Africa,” said Peter Toby, a gospel singer who recently recorded a CD of pro-Taylor songs. “Because of his greatness, America hates him. It’s because Liberia has oil – that’s why they hate him.”

Mr. Toby’s songs have titles like God Bless Charles Taylor and Freedom Song for Charles Taylor. For the past week, he has worn a T-shirt with Mr. Taylor’s portrait and the words “Not Guilty.”

He reminisced about the former warlord on Tuesday at the ceremonial hall where Mr. Taylor was sworn into presidential power in 1997, and where a photo of Mr. Taylor is still hung. Lifting his hands toward the roof, he said: “You are a God of forgiveness. Please have mercy on Charles Taylor.”

Asked whether Mr. Taylor made mistakes or committed sins, Mr. Toby would only say this: “In war, innocent people die.”

Not everyone in Liberia is a fan of Mr. Taylor. Many of his former child soldiers, now unemployed and mutilated, have bitter memories of his wars. Peter Tarr, a 31-year-old homeless beggar in Monrovia, was forced into Mr. Taylor’s militia at the age of 11. Later he joined Mr. Taylor’s government army, where he was shot and badly injured in a battle, eventually losing his arm.

“I can’t tell if Charles Taylor was guilty or not,” Mr. Tarr says. “But he brought the wars to Liberia. People died. People lost their parents. We never heard of war before him.”

Mr. Taylor’s trial has focused on his role in Sierra Leone, where he is accused of supporting a brutal rebel army and sending Liberian soldiers to fight the government.

He is facing 11 charges – including mutilation, rape, murder, sexual enslavement and the recruitment of child soldiers – at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an unusual hybrid tribunal organized by the United Nations and Sierra Leone. His is the last remaining case among the 13 defendants indicted by the special court.

The trial featured testimony by celebrities such as Hollywood actress Mia Farrow – who testified about the blood diamonds issue – and British supermodel Naomi Campbell, who admitted that she had received a pouch of diamonds from Mr. Taylor in 1997 at a charity event hosted by then-president Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

Ms. Campbell described them as “very small, dirty-looking stones.” The prosecution said they were blood diamonds – illegally extracted gems of the same kind that were used to finance Mr. Taylor’s wars across Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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