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Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa
Copyright © 2002 Bill Berkeley
All right reserved.
On a Saturday morning in June 1992, the Liberian port of Buchanan sweltered in the dense tropical humidity of West Africa's rainy season. Four small boys ambled up a muddy and pothole-ridden sidewalk and entered a tea stall on the city's main street. They looked to be scarcely older than ten. Dressed in baggy jeans and grimy T-shirts, not much taller than the loaded Soviet-era Kalashnikov assault rifles they cradled in their arms, the boys shuffled heavily in big brown military boots that on them resembled the outsized paws on a puppy.
"How the day?" one of them muttered.
A shudder ran down my spine. The bullets were bigger than his fingers. The boy brushed by the stool where I was sitting and approached the woman who owned the stall. He lifted his fingers to his mouth. The owner dutifully fetched some bananas and buttered some rolls. The boys shuffled out into the street—no word of thanks, no suggestion of payment—savoring their breakfast as they walked.
It was six years since I had last visited Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves and for a century and a half America's closest ally in Africa. In 1986 I had written some unkindwords about the country's mercurial tyrant, Samuel K. Doe, and his confederates, and Doe had flattered me with a personal rebuke. "Lies, lies, lies, bias and misinformation," the president said of my work, and he banned its distribution in Liberia. The chief of Doe's personal militia, a notorious butcher named Charles Julu, whom I had singled out for his particularly egregious conduct, had let it be known that he could not guarantee my safety if I chose to return. A friend of mine, Gabriel Williams, one of Liberia's many fearless journalists, had apprised me of these developments in a letter from Monrovia, signing off, "Keep fit and keep well, don't come to Liberia now."
So I had watched from afar as the country descended from repression into slaughter—from tyranny into lethal anarchy. On Christmas Eve, 1989, a band of insurgents invaded Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast. Within months, in a spiraling conflagration that had long been feared, tens of thousands of Liberians were murdered, half the population was scattered into exile, and much of the country was bombed and looted into ruins. The much-loathed Doe was captured by a rebel gang and tortured to death. Charles Julu fled into exile.
Now, two years later, Liberia was in thrall to armed children and teenagers, to a mind-numbing array of con artists, embezzlers, and murderers, and to ghosts from its peculiar past.
The boys in Buchanan were soldiers in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the rebel force that had launched the war against Doe, and that at this moment of attenuated stalemate controlled 95 percent of the country outside Monrovia, the capital. They were among several hundred scruffy, edgy, blank-expressioned members of the "Small Boys Unit" attached to the personal security force of Charles Taylor, the rebel leader. They were not paid, but neither were they hungry. They got what they wanted with their guns.
"Many of these boys are orphans of the war," Taylor told me when we met the following day. "Some of them saw their mothers wrapped in blankets, tied up, poured with kerosene, and burned alive." The rebel leader paused reflectively, then explained, "We keep them armed as a means of keeping them out of trouble. It's a means of control."
Charles McArthur Taylor is an Americo-Liberian, a descendent of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia in 1847. Buchanan, like Monrovia fifty miles up the coast, was named after an American president. For 133 years Americans acquiesced in and profited from the exclusionary rule of the Americo-Liberians. For decades Americans trained and equipped the armed forces that would violently seize power in 1980. In the last years of the Cold War, the Reagan administration contributed a half billion dollars in aid that helped soldiers of Samuel Doe's ethnic Krahn militias bludgeon their rivals into submission. With abuses mounting and alarm bells sounding, American officials were memorably obfuscatory. When Taylor's war finally came, in 1990, four U.S. Navy ships carrying two thousand marines floated off the coast as the slaughter intensified, evacuating Americans, but declining to intervene.
Before Taylor's war few Americans could locate Liberia on a map of the seven continents. Once the fighting started, Liberia briefly captured our imagination as Hell on Earth, an especially lurid example of apparently senseless slaughter. Taylor against Doe, Gio against Krahn—the images that flickered across our TV screens were as inscrutable as they were chilling and bizarre. Sadistic teenage killers with names like "General Fuck Me Quick" and "Babykiller" raped, shot and beheaded at roadside checkpoints decorated with human heads and entrails. Fighters fortified by amphetamines, marijuana and palm wine sashayed irresistibly for photographers, decked out in looted wedding gowns and women's wigs and shower caps, or in novelty-store fright masks. Some sported fetishes they believed made them impervious to bullets. Accounts of cannibalism were commonplace, and apparently credible. Taylor's fighters, among others, were said to eat the hearts and genitals of their slain enemies to enhance their "power."
The fact that so many of Taylor's fighters were children added an especially surreal element. One British newspaper carried a photograph of uniformed peacekeeping troops trying to lure Taylor's fighters out of the bush by offering them sweets and toys. Another featured a picture of a Taylor confederate looting a large teddy bear from a Monrovia shop.
Liberia's fifteen minutes of infamy seemed to spring full-blown out of the most sensational Western images of Darkest Africa. But Taylor's war, like Rwanda's genocide in 1994 was not as senseless as it seemed. In Liberia, no less than in Rwanda, there was method to the madness.
Charles Taylor comes as close as anyone in this volume to being outright evil—or "wicked," as Liberians say. Race war was his method. By "race war" I mean not a war between whites and blacks but rather between groups distinguished by ethnicity, in which their ethnicity is a calculated instrument of mobilization. In this case it was a war between groups distinct not just from each other but from the man who set them against each other. It was Taylor's signature insight that someone else's will to mass slaughter, that of the aggrieved Gio people toward Samuel Doe's tiny minority Krahn, could be harnessed to his own will to power. "Kill the Krahn!" became his battle cry.
As many as 150,000 Liberians were murdered in the seven years between 1989 and 1997 out of Liberia's prewar population of 2.5 million, and 25,000 women and girls were raped, as Taylor made one disastrous miscalculation after another, survived to fight another day, and finally prevailed.
Like so many of the Big Men examined here, Taylor early on proved adept at turning a stalemated war into a lucrative business enterprise. He became the prototypical gangland impresario thriving in a lawless market. And like all of the others, Taylor is both a molder of his environment and a reflection of it. He is quintessentially a creature of Liberia's sinister history who became its master by exploiting and magnifying its most "wicked" features.
The story of Taylor's conquest of Liberia includes many of the threads in the larger pattern of evil that has consumed so much of the African continent in the decade since the end of the Cold War: the historical legacies of tyranny, the links between tyranny and anarchy, and those between ethnicity and organized crime. Not least, the swaggering, twisted orphans of Taylor's Small Boys Unit exemplified a time-honored method employed by racial tyrannies across Africa through the ages, from Monrovia to Khartoum to Johannesburg: let the natives do the dirty work, not least in war.
"Peace is our answer"
"There was no other way to get power from Samuel Doe than to resort to arms," Taylor was telling me now. "He killed people. He maimed people. He beheaded people. He raped students. He had wrecked the country. Nothing short of arms would have removed him from power."
The rebel leader and I were sitting in leather-upholstered chairs in the plush, carpeted, air-conditioned living room of his "official residence" in Buchanan. A satellite dish sprouted from the roof, and a big screen TV dominated a corner of the room. The scene was as cool and comfortable as any home in suburban America. By the standards of wartime Liberia, this trim, whitewashed villa was a veritable palace.
Buchanan, like Monrovia, is a quaintly seedy seaside port with salty air drifting in from the Atlantic Ocean and blending with the pungent emissions of teeming tin-roof slums on the city's periphery. Even before the war, loiterers and beggars patrolled the streets. The beach was lined with mounds of garbage. Open sewers bred rats and mosquitoes.
I had spent the previous night in Buchanan's only functioning hotel, a dingy, roach-infested bungalow with candles for light and buckets for bathing. The night before that, Taylor's fighters, drunk and stoned, had set me up in what they presumed to be the choicest accommodation in town, the grimy, one-room hovel of a teenage prostitute named Irene. Her bedroom walls were decorated with extremely lewd pornographic magazine photos. Irene spoke no English. She stared at me uncomprehendingly when it became clear that I was in Buchanan to consort not with her but with "President Taylor," as the rebel leader had come to be known in the territories under his control.
Taylor was born in 1948 in a small Americo-Liberian settlement outside Monrovia called Arthington. He was the third of fifteen children born to a former servant girl and a rural Baptist schoolteacher and circuit judge. Like most children of the Americo-Liberian elite, he was sent to the United States to college after graduating from high school; he received a degree in economics from Bentley College in Boston, then did graduate work at New Hampshire College. Taylor spent nine years in the states, becoming an outspoken leader of the expatriate Liberian students movement and a vocal opponent of President William Tolbert's inept regime.
After Doe's coup in 1980, Taylor returned home, and, through his wife's family connections to one of Doe's co-conspirators, a charismatic soldier named Thomas Quiwonkpa, he succeeded in ingratiating himself with the new junta. The People's Redemption Council, made up as it was primarily of illiterate conscripts, was in dire need of capable managerial talent. Taylor shrewdly emerged as director of the obscure General Services Agency, the government's main procurement office. There he soon managed to amass a personal fortune by cleverly centralizing government procurement in his own hands and taking commissions on each contract he arranged. He also served, briefly, as deputy minister of commerce.
In 1983 Taylor was accused of embezzling $900,000 from the purchasing agency he headed by negotiating bogus contracts with his own front company in New Jersey. Whether the charge was true or not is difficult to know. It may well have been politically motivated, for it was around that same time that Taylor's brother-in-law and military patron, Thomas Quiwonkpa, was falling out with Doe. In any case Taylor fled to the United States, and the following year he was arrested by U.S. marshals in Somerville, Massachusetts. He spent sixteen months in jail while his lawyers fought his extradition. He finally escaped from the Plymouth House of Corrections by paying guards $50,000 in bribes. He would pass through Mexico, Spain and France before returning to West Africa in late 1985 or 1986 and surviving two more stretches in jail for vaguely defined transgressions in Ghana and Sierra Leone, repairing to Libya for training in guerrilla warfare, and finally emerging in his present incarnation as rebel leader, racketeer and aspiring head-of-state.
Taylor comes across as an intelligent man, suave and urbane, articulate and smooth as butter. He has an oval face and a close-cropped beard and slits for eyes. His skin is several shades lighter than that of most indigenous Liberians—evidence of his Americo-Liberian roots. He has the disarming Americo-Liberian habit of calling friend and stranger alike "my dear," as in, "The danger in this, my dear, is that we are involved in guerrilla warfare."
Taylor speaks with a pretty close approximation of an American accent, as distinguished from the thick Liberian creole spoken by most Liberians. He speaks in a silken baritone, in measured, cadenced sentences that convey a thoughtful temperament. The words tumble out of him in a rolling, reassuring, sermonlike delivery. He says things like "I have always shown respect for other views and values, and I've always shown respect for the rule of law."
For our encounter Taylor exchanged his battle fatigues for a pressed white cotton shirt, navy pinstripe slacks, and black Oxfords. He said he enjoys Handel and Bach—"not Beethoven"—and that his favorite singer is Mahalia Jackson. (I would later discover that these were personal touches he shared with nearly every foreign journalist he met). A bevy of obsequious aides were gathered around us, and a crew from Taylor's fledgling TV station was deployed to record the great man's interview with this presumably distinguished American correspondent.
"War is not our answer," Taylor purred. "Peace is our answer." On the other hand, he added, "I cannot be held responsible for the anger of my people. Here is my projection: I can see the people being very violent."
From his rebel domain Taylor loomed over Liberia as a larger-than-life, infinitely potent political personality, an object of obsession for friend and foe alike. I heard him described as flamboyant, a womanizer, a con artist, a gangster, an "emasculator"—and also as shrewd, bold, magnetic. "He is a superb negotiator," said one diplomat; "a deft political operator," added another.
"He is much slicker than Doe," I was told in Buchanan; "that's what makes him dangerous."
No one doubted that Taylor is a figure of immense cunning and ruthlessness, and monumental recklessness, who would stop at nothing—not mass murder, not gang rape, not even the wholesale ruination of his country—in pursuit of power and the loot that goes with it.
At the time of my visit with Taylor, Liberia's war was in a lull. The country was split in two, with two governments, two economies, three currencies, at least four armed factions, and some twenty thousand armed "fighters" hustling for survival without pay—and with much blood on their hands for which they would rather not be held accountable. Rival militias were proliferating. Profiteers were milking the stalemate and stripping mines and forests. More than 700,000 refugees languished in limbo in neighboring countries. There were forces at play and interests at stake that suggested to many Liberians that renewed military conflict was likely. And they were right.
Three months after my visit, Taylor launched an assault on Monrovia code-named "Operation Octopus." Attacking the capital from three sides, his drug-addled fighters bombarded residential neighborhoods, looted, raped and pillaged on an awesome scale, and murdered several thousand civilians. Taylor failed to take the city, however, and he was finally driven out by West African peacekeepers. He licked his wounds and bided his time.
"A mad, horrified people"
"We have been angry a long time," said Blamo Nelson, cochairman of SELF, the home-grown relief organization that was overseeing the distribution of food in besieged Monrovia at the time of my visit. Nelson's mother had starved to death during Taylor's war. "We all wear masks," he told me. "Behind those masks is a mad, horrified people."
Charles Taylor's war was not a purely "tribal" affair. Taylor's rebels sought to eliminate not just Doe's ethnic Krahn but also people of means, people who wore fine clothes or lived in decent houses. The fighters assumed that people of means had collaborated with Doe. The Krahn suffered disproportionately not just because they were Krahn but because their leaders had appropriated an inequitable and oppressive system and exaggerated its worst features.
It was the Americo-Liberians who built that system. Ultimately the Krahn, traditionally one of Liberia's poorest ethnic groups, took the fall for 133 years of simmering hatred born of envy. It is a sinister irony that Charles Taylor and many who bankrolled his war against that system are themselves Americo-Liberians.
Evidence of Liberia's American roots are pervasive all along the coast, from Robertsport to Maryland County. Quaint echoes of the antebellum South can be found amid the crumbling, mildewy streets. The freed slaves built tin-roof houses on the model of their former masters' dwellings, with pillared porches, gabled roofs and dormer windows, and they still stand, albeit unsteadily. Liberia's contemporary culture abounds with touches of inner-city Washington or Detroit. Taylor's radio station, KISS-FM, broadcasts up-tempo soul music, played by disk jockeys with names like Marcus Brown, "the guy with the glide who will put a smile in your slide." The cinemas show films like Mean Mother, featuring a protagonist who was "mean and wild, smashing the man and the mob for his woman."
Liberia's flag is a replica of the American Stars and Stripes, with a single star. The constitution—alas, for its neglect—was drafted by a Harvard law professor. The people have names like Sawyer, Cooper, Johnson and Richardson. They wear secondhand American jeans shipped in bales and sold wholesale to sidewalk hawkers. The police wear the discarded summer uniforms of the New York City police. The soldiers wear U.S. Army fatigues and helmets, with M-16's slung over their soldiers. Baptist churchgoers sing "Nearer Thy God to Thee." The protesters, when they can get away with it, sing "We Shall Overcome" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
Liberia was founded in 1821, the brainchild of the American Colonization Society, whose members were white Americans with a mix of motives, some philanthropic, others nakedly racist. Not a few of them feared the black "horror" likely to ensue with the coming of emancipation; they sought to establish a mechanism for ridding the United States of slavery's progeny. The small number of ex-slaves who took up the society's offer of free passage and returned to Africa likewise had a mix of motives: some were missionaries, some were entrepreneurs, some merely despaired of any hope for a better life in the United States. Their small settlement on the Atlantic coast of Africa was secured by a blend of bribery, deception and coercion. The first deed of settlement was secured, at gunpoint, in return for three hundred dollars' worth of muskets, beads, tobacco, gunpowder, clothing, mirrors, food and rum, from a chief named "King Peter", who reportedly came only later to understand the full implications of the term "sale."
The first freed American slaves arrived in 1822, but white governors ruled the settlement on behalf of the Colonization Society until 1847, when Liberia was handed over to the settlers—the Americo-Liberians—and proclaimed Africa's first independent republic. The new country's motto, "The love of liberty brought us here," survives to this day. But the years of settler rule were characterized by severe exploitation of the indigenous inhabitants, who still constitute more than 97 percent of Liberia's 2.5 million population. Half the country's national income was enjoyed by less than five percent of the population. The ruling True Whig party, composed entirely of Americo-Liberians, maintained a kind of feudal oligarchy, monopolizing political power. While the settlers along the coast developed an elaborate lifestyle reminiscent of the antebellum South, complete with top hats and morning coats and a Society of Masons, the indigenous peasants eked out a meager, brutish existence on the thin edge of survival. Exploitation reached a nadir in the 1920s, when high government officials were implicated in a flourishing international slave trade and domestic forced labor.
Among those linked to forced labor was the Firestone rubber company, which operated the world's largest rubber plantation in Liberia. After World War I, which spurred the growth of the automobile industry in the United States, Firestone secured a ninety-nine-year lease for a million acres in Liberia. The Americo-Liberian elite was experiencing acute economic difficulties and hoped through the Firestone presence to solidify its position by strengthening its ties to American capital. Firestone in turn ensured its own stable source of rubber by becoming deeply enmeshed in the political and economic culture of the Americo-Liberians. The company provided spacious homes for government officials. It retained True Whig leaders on the company payroll. By 1950 Firestone alone was responsible for a quarter of Liberia's tax revenues.
Graft and repression peaked during the prolonged regime of President William V. S. Tubman, who ruled from 1944 to 1971. Tubman is said to have appropriated more money for ceremonial bands than for public health; he devoted more than 1 percent of the national budget to the upkeep of his presidential yacht. Tubman created a personal cult based on an elaborate network of kinship and patronage, personal loyalty, the manipulation and co-optation of tribal chiefs—and force. He built an extensive secret police network and laid the groundwork for much of what was to come under Doe: a personal autocracy based on weak institutions and contempt for law.
But Tubman established himself as a reliable ally of the United States in the early stages of the Cold War, and this won him both financial and military support. It was during Tubman's rule that the United States built the Voice of America relay station for broadcasts throughout Africa and the Omega navigation tower for shipping up and down the Atlantic Coast. The American embassy in Monrovia became the main transfer point for intelligence gathered in Africa. U.S. military planes were granted landing and refueling rights on twenty-four hours' notice at Roberts Field, outside Monrovia, which had been built by Americans as a staging ground during World War II. Liberia cast a key vote in the United Nations in support of the creation of Israel.
Tubman's successor, William Tolbert, did try to liberalize the political machinery, but his reforms merely heightened expectations that could not be satisfied. One memorable confrontation in Monrovia, on April 14, 1979, almost exactly a year before Doe's coup, highlighted the wide gap between the ruling elite and the indigenous masses. At a time of intensifying hardship for most Liberians and increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth by the elite, Tolbert announced an increase in the price of rice, the Liberian staple. When it became apparent that Tolbert and members of his family stood to benefit personally from the price increases, residents of a seething Monrovia slum known as West Point rose up in a series of street demonstrations. Tolbert ordered the police to open fire on the unarmed demonstrators. More than forty were killed. The "rice riots," as they came to be remembered, created a groundswell of ill will from which Tolbert never recovered.
Unfortunately, the agent of change was the army. Originally called the Frontier Force, Liberia's army was created in 1907 as a means of securing the country's borders against French and British colonial encroachment. President William Howard Taft sent the first U.S. training officers to help out in 1912. The army assumed two essential responsibilities: tax collection—one might say "taxation without representation"—and suppression of dissent. The army fought twenty-three brutal wars against indigenous uprisings, and the United States intervened directly in nine of them. By 1951 the United States had established a permanent mission in Liberia to train its army. Many top officers were sent to America for training. Samuel Doe was trained by the Green Berets.
The enlisted ranks were mainly illiterate peasants, school dropouts and street toughs. In the hinterland areas under their control, they were kings—unpaid but able to plunder what they needed, from cattle and rice to women and girls. It was a West African version of Haiti's Tonton Macoutes.
The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), as it came to be called, was a malignant organism in the body politic, inherently opportunistic, unlikely to be a source of progressive change. In retrospect it's clear that the institution of the army was a microcosm for what ailed Liberia. A gang culture flourished. Violence was rampant. Ties of blood and ethnicity were paramount. The construction of ethnic patronage systems by rival soldiers would become one of the most important causes of Liberia's subsequent collapse.
On April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe, then an unknown semiliterate master sergeant, and a band of sixteen collaborators—the youngest was sixteen years old—stormed the Executive Mansion in Monrovia, captured President Tolbert in his pajamas and disemboweled him. Two weeks later, in an unforgettable public spectacle that haunts Liberia to this day, thirteen members of Tolbert's cabinet were tied to telephone poles on the beach and mowed down by a drunken firing squad. There followed weeks of bloodletting in which hundreds were killed.
Nevertheless, Doe's coup was widely applauded at first. There was dancing in the streets of Monrovia. Casting himself as the liberator of the indigenous masses, Doe promised an end to the corrupt and oppressive domination of the Americo-Liberian elite and a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth. He also pledged to return the country to civilian rule in five years. But he soon proved to be a lawless and brutal tyrant.
Master Sergeant Doe and his comrades styled themselves the "People's Redemption Council" (PRC), and they lost no time in consolidating their control. Within a matter of days after the coup, the PRC suspended the constitution and declared martial law. Political activity was banned. Military rule evolved into a byzantine pattern of plotting and intrigue, alleged conspiracies, and executions by firing squad. In his first five years in power Doe executed more than fifty rivals, real and imagined, after secret trials. Scores of civilians were detained without trial for violating the ban on political activity. Informal charges ranged from plotting coups to "discussing Sgt. Doe's level of education." Doe, for his part, adapted to the perquisites of power in a manner familiar to leaders across the continent, expanding from the scrawny sergeant in battle fatigues to a blowfish-fat, self-proclaimed doctor in a three-piece suit.
"When the coup took place in 1980, it was an exact reflection of the kind of army that the system had produced," said Commany Wesseh, a onetime student activist who spent a decade in exile during Doe's regime. "Arrest on mere suspicion, strip people naked, parade people naked through the streets, kill people on the beach after summary trials—the same acts that were carried out against my own father and others prior to 1980 were carried out against their creators. Doe was the embodiment of everything that had happened before. The difference with Doe was a difference in scale, not quality. If Tolbert did it twice, Doe did it a thousand times."
Patrick Seyon, president of the University of Liberia, likewise emphasized the continuity from one regime to the next. "Those who found themselves in power after 1980 went along with the world that had been set in place by the freed American slaves," Seyon told me. "No one saw that there was something systemic in the level of inequality that existed. They followed right in line."
Dr. Seyon is a gentle, soft-spoken scholar with a wry wit and wispy white goatee. In 1981, when he was forty-three and vice president of the university, he was jailed for two weeks on suspicion of plotting to overthrow Doe's year-old government. He told me he received fifty lashes twice a day for eight consecutive days. Flogging has long been the most common form of summary punishment in Liberia. This, too, was a legacy of the old Americo-Liberian regime, under which common criminals were subjected to what was known as "breakfast and dinner," twenty-five lashes in the morning and twenty-five lashes in the evening.
"There were two of them, two soldiers," Dr. Seyon recalled. "One of them used a fan belt from an army truck, doubled up. The other used a strip from a rubber tire. The rubber portion of the thing was removed, so that the fiber, the nylon, was exposed. First they put water on your back. Then they sprinkle sand on your back so that when the piece of rubber was used, you get traction. The sensation you got was as if your skin was being pulled off your back."
The campus of the University of Liberia is a modest collection of tan and red cement-block buildings directly across the street from the Executive Mansion, on the edge of downtown Monrovia. It has been a focal point of conflict for years. In the 1970s it was the scene of protest against the regime of President Tolbert. In the 1980s the campus was roiled by protest and repression under Doe. In 1982 Doe issued an infamous edict, Decree 2A, banning all academic activities that "directly or indirectly impinge, interfere with or cast aspersion upon the activities, programs or policies of the People's Redemption Council." Faculty members and student leaders were repeatedly detained and harassed under martial law.
On August 22, 1984, in an event that left an indelible impression on a generation of Liberians, uniformed troops of Doe's personal militia, the Executive Mansion Guard, opened fire on unarmed student demonstrators. They killed a still-unknown number of students. Doe's justice minister at the time, Jenkins Scott, acknowledged there had also been "some rapes" on the campus of both students and staff, but the episode was never investigated, and no one was ever prosecuted.
In October 1985 Doe brazenly stole an election that was to have ushered in civilian rule. There were piles of burning ballots. The Special Election Commission appointed to verify the vote was abruptly replaced with a new panel stacked with Doe partisans. Opposition parties had been banned, criticism outlawed, newspapers closed, opposition leaders detained and beaten.
Doe by then was well on his way toward bankrupting the country. In a decade in power Doe and his cronies are estimated to have stolen about $300 million—equal to half of the anemic gross domestic product for their final year at the till. Doe himself stashed $5.7 million in a London branch of the notoriously corrupt, now liquidated Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). He had turned Liberia's distinctive American panache—the U.S. dollar remains legal tender—into a lucrative money-laundering racket. At a time when Liberia's legitimate economy was contracting almost by half, the number of banks in Monrovia rose from six to fourteen.
Liberia has always been a poor country. By the mid-eighties only one in four Liberians had access to safe running water—and only 6 percent in the rural areas, where most of the prewar population lived. Barely one in four adults could read or write, and only one in five school-age children finished elementary school. Infant mortality was ten times the American average. Life expectancy was fifty-two years.
Doe, for his part, had largely disappeared from public view by the time I arrived in 1986. Unpolished, inarticulate, consumed with the intrigue of barracks politics, Doe never went in for the kind of personality cult promoted by the likes of Mobutu in Zaire. His activities were usually not reported. His methods and motives were largely unknown to the general public. "This fellow," as he was called in hushed conversations with a mixture of fear and derision, had had little success in dealing with his country's mounting woes. The populist fervor that had greeted his sudden rise to power in 1980 was a distant memory.
My own first impression of Samuel Doe's Liberia: On the day I arrived in Monrovia, in March 1986, I discovered I needed a new wallet. For more than a century the U.S. dollar had been the only currency in Liberia. After Doe seized power, corruption and mismanagement began outpacing the government's ability to meet its payroll. So Doe started minting "Doe dollars," heavy, octagonal coins that were officially valued on a par with the U.S. greenback. U.S. notes were soon trading at a premium on the black market, and Doe dollars fell to a third of the official rate. Inflation soared, one awkward result being that it was necessary to carry huge quantities of these coins around just to make petty purchases. The coins were too ungainly to carry in my pocket, or in my wallet. The solution was a heavily reinforced leather pouch, the kind of thing one associates with currency transactions in the Middle Ages. I duly obtained one of these pouches from a roadside vendor almost as soon as I emerged, pockets bulging, from changing traveler's checks in the largest bank in Monrovia, the Chase Manhattan Bank.
I had been sent to Monrovia to investigate an event that would prove to be the catalyst for Charles Taylor's war five years later. On November 12, 1985, barely a month after the stolen election, Taylor's mentor, the erstwhile fellow putschist of Doe's named Thomas Quiwonkpa, attempted a coup. The coup nearly succeeded, and Doe finally put it down with horrific violence, killing hundreds of presumed supporters of Quiwonkpa—mostly members of the Gio and Mano ethnic groups from the remote border region of Nimba County.
The "November 12 business," as it came to be called, established an unprecedented new level of brutality and yielded a critical mass of enduring hatred for Doe—particularly among the Gio and Mano. This was the ethnic division that Charles Taylor would exploit for his own ends five years later. It was from Nimba County that Taylor launched his rebellion in 1990; he would call it "a continuation of November 12."
Excerpted from The Graves Are Not Yet Full by Bill Berkeley Copyright © 2002 by Bill Berkeley. Excerpted by permission.
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