“He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.”
The first black president has come across as a milquetoast moderate and a loser in his fights with the Republican House over raising the debt ceiling. This has disappointed the African-American base who are waiting for Obama to start acting like a more authentically black leader.
What is an authentically black leader? What does it mean to go “full gangsta”? These are some excellent questions which provide us with an occasion during Black History Month 2012 to discuss the leadership style of one of the greatest African-Americans of our times.
As we saw in Black History Month 2012: The (Black) “Land of the Free,” President Samuel K. Doe of Liberia was the first head of state in world history to be tortured and publicly executed on television. The execution of Doe was the beginning of the Charles Taylor warlord story arc that would dominate Liberia and West Africa for the next fourteen years.
Charles McArthur Taylor was an Americo-Liberian who spent his early twenties as a college student studying economics at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts and Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. During his nine years in America, he became actively involved in Liberian student politics and developed a reputation as a dissident.
After returning to Liberia following Doe’s coup d’état, Taylor became the director of the Liberian government’s General Services Agency and was placed in charge of procuring goods, works and services worth more than $100,000. He used this position to take commissions on each government contract he arranged and embezzled more than $900,000 into his American bank account.
Accused of embezzlement in 1983 by the Doe administration, Charles Taylor fled to the United States but was detained in Somerville, Massachusetts after Doe issued an arrest warrant and a request for his extradition to Liberia.
After paying guards $50,000 in bribes in 1985, he sawed through a barred window in a laundry room in the Plymouth House of Corrections and used a knotted sheet to escape from a maximum security prison. His wife and sister-in-law picked him up at a nearby hospital and he drove a getaway car to Staten Island where he fled the United States.
Like Fidel Castro in Cuba, Taylor spent the next four years as a revolutionary drifting around Africa, searching for allies, and plotting to overthrow the Doe regime. With the support of Libya, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire, he raised and trained a rebel army of 168 guerrilla fighters and launched an invasion of Northern Liberia with his self-styled “National Patriotic Front of Liberia” (NPFL) on Christmas Eve 1989.
As we have already seen, there are 16 indigenous tribes in Liberia in addition to the Americo-Liberians. When the Americo-Liberian ruling class was overthrown by Samuel K. Doe in the 1980 coup d’état, Doe took power and relied upon his coethnics in the Krahn tribe to retain power.
In 1985, Doe was nearly overthrown by a coup d’état led by Thomas Quiwonkpa (his former partner in the coup that had overthrown Tolbert), and he responded with a violent crackdown on the Gio and Mano tribes in Nimba County that left thousands dead. Seizing on the volatile ethnic resentments boiling underneath the Doe regime, Charles Taylor and the NPFL launched the First Liberian Civil War to overthrow Doe and Krahn supremacy.
Thousands of Gio and Mano yearning for vengeance against Doe soon flocked to Charles Taylor and the NPFL standard. Doe responded by sending in the Armed Forces of Liberia (mostly drawn from his own Krahn tribe) and massacring Gio and Mano civilians. It wasn’t long before Liberia was embroiled in a full scale tribal “chimp out” over control of the state.
Within six months, the NPFL (which split into two factions under Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson) had overrun Liberia and was laying siege to Monrovia. At that point, Nigeria and its allies in ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) intervened in the conflict to prevent the Liberian Civil War from spilling over into other countries and destabilizing the entire region.
President Doe was captured, tortured, and executed in September 1990. In the wake of his death, this left behind three factions in control of parts of Liberia: Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson (NPFL), Nigeria and ECOWAS, and the Krahn supporters of Doe who were driven out of the country and who reorganized themselves as the “United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy” (ULIMO).
From 1990 to 1996, these three factions (NPFL, ECOWAS, and ULIMO) fought over the spoils of war in Liberia. Charles Taylor established himself as a warlord in control of “Greater Liberia” outside of the capital in Monrovia. He made hundreds of millions of dollars trading in gold, diamonds, iron ore, timber, and stolen goods in his territory.
It was during this period that the Liberian Civil War became infamous for its crossdressing child soldiers and drug addicted cannibals who fought naked. The most famous of these Liberian generals is General Butt Naked (he fought for ULIMO under Roosevelt Johnson) who used to mutilate innocent children and drink their blood and converse with Satan before going into battle.
After 14 peace agreements, the warlords finally agreed to end the fighting in 1996 and submit to demobilization and national elections. Charles Taylor was finally elected president of Liberia in 1997 on the most original campaign slogan in the history of democracy: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.”
He won 75 percent of the vote because Liberians hoped that allowing him to legitimately take power would finally end the bloodshed. The U.S. mediators which included Jimmy Carter threw their hands up in the air and endorsed the election as a triumph for “democracy.”
In 1999, the ULIMO reorganized as “Liberians United for Democracy in Liberia” (LURD) and resumed the war – this being the Second Liberian Civil War – with the support of Sierra Leone and Guinea. By 2003, the Côte d’Ivoire backed “Movement for Democracy in Liberia” (MODEL) had emerged in the south. The two rebel groups fought Charles Taylor and the Armed Forces of Liberia until they had taken over two thirds of the country.
Fearing another bloodbath in Monrovia, the international community pressured the United States to intervene in the conflict. The French had responded to the White Man’s Burden in Côte d’Ivoire. The British had taken up the White Man’s Burden in Sierra Leone. The argument was made at the time that Liberia was an American responsibility in light of our strong ties to “The (Black) Land of the Free.”
In 2003, President George W. Bush intervened in the Second Liberian Civil War – the man who was accused of “hating black people” by Al Sharpton and the NAACP after Hurricane Katrina – and dispatched the USS Kearsarge to the coast of Liberia. The threat of American intervention forced Charles Taylor to surrender power and go into exile in Nigeria.
Bush doesn’t hesitate to point out the irony in his Decision Points memoir:
“But the suggestion that I was a racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low. I told Laura at the time that it was the worst moment of my presidency. I feel the same way today …
On Sunday of that week, Day Fourteen, I made my third visit to the Gulf Coast. I choppened onto the USS Iwo Jima, which had docked in the Mississippi River. Two years earlier, I had deployed the Iwo Jima to free Liberia from the dictator Charles Taylor.”
George W. Bush was telling the truth: Bush really had freed Liberia from an evil African-American dictator, a man who was despised by his own people, and he was hailed in Liberia as a liberator in the way that the neocons had falsely presumed he would be in Iraq.
Freedom failed in Liberia … the U.S. intervention in 2003 quietly marked the end of “The (Black) Land of the Free.” After 220,000 Liberians and 50,000 Sierra Leoneans had lost their lives in senseless fighting between rival warlords, the U.S. was finally moved to shoulder the White Man’s Burden in West Africa.
Liberia has effectively become a U.S. colony since the 2003 intervention. From 2004 to 2006 alone, the U.S. poured $1.6 billion dollars into Liberia to stabilize and rebuild the country. $172 million was spent on Liberia in 2009. America underwrites the U.N. Mission in Liberia which has flooded the country with thousands of peacekeepers to keep the warlords on a leash.
Last November, Liberia held the freest and fairest elections in its history. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was reelected President of Liberia, but tellingly Prince Johnson (the man who sipped the Budweiser while torturing Samuel K. Doe) won third place with 12 percent of the vote.
In light of what happened in Liberia, Don Cheadle and Chris Rock should take advantage of Black History Month 2012 to reflect more carefully upon the history of African-Americans in power before yearning to see Obama go “full gangsta” in his second term.
No one was more “gangsta” than Charles Taylor.
Note: The civil war in Sierra Leone which was started by Charles Taylor and escalated into a regional war between Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea will be dealt with in the review of “Blood Diamond.”