Charles Taylor’s War

Onset of the War

On December 24, 1989, rebel forces called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles McArthur Taylor, invaded Liberia from the Ivory Coast into Nimba County. Taylor was the former head of the General Services Agency (GSA) of Liberia. He fled the country when charged with embezzlement of government funds and was jailed in the US awaiting extradition to Liberia.

taylor-war
Charles Taylor
Credit: The Star

He mysteriously broke jail and traveled to Libya where he and some of his men were trained as guerilla fighters. It was rumored that his escape was orchestrated by people who wanted to use him in removing President Doe from power.

Taylor was aided by Libya, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast in starting the Liberian war. Some members of the Association for Constitutional Democracy in Liberia (ACDL) residing in the US including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Grace M and Thomas Woewiyu supported Taylor and his so called freedom fighters.

 

Causes of the War

Causes of the Liberian have been traced to many factors including the nation’s founding and Americo-Liberian oppression of the native tribes, intertribal conflicts, the regional conflicts from Doe’s rise to power, failures of the Doe administration, Liberia’s strained relationship with the US and the greed and political ambitions of Taylor and his supporters.

Ethnic and political conflict between the Americo-Liberians/Congo and the natives has existed since the settlers landed on the Grain Coast in 1822. The settlers formed an authoritarian class like the American south, they became the masters and the native Liberians were reduced to slavery. The natives were considered inferior and restricted in their own land. Although relations between the two groups softened over the years, the natives were suppressed until Samuel Doe and a group of soldiers seized power in 1980.

About a year after Doe came to power, he executed A.B. Tolbert, son of former President Tolbert, and son-in-law of Ivorian President, Houphouet-Boigny. AB was seeking refuge at the French embassy and Doe had given Houphouet the assurance that AB was safe. It seems Houpouhet’s revenge on Doe was getting the francophone block of West Africa and Qadaffi to support Taylor, and allowing him to attack Liberia from the Ivory Coast.

The US initially shunned the new leadership but later embraced it because they needed a station in Africa from which to counter the spread of communism, and monitor regional activities. This led to the US sending military and monetary aid to Liberia and helping its economy. Towards the end of the decade with the US and other entities withdrawing aid, the Liberian economy was in trouble. Another US connection was that Taylor, Sirleaf, Woewiyu and other architects and proponents of the war had being in the US, with Sirleaf and Woewiyu garnering support for the invasion.

Doe’s administration was not all favorable for the nation. There were multiple murders after the coup and it continued with his enmity with Nimba County. He had also rigged the 1985 election and enriched himself like prior administrations had done. The nation’s economy had taken a downturn and Liberian’s teachers were unpaid for periods at a time. These and other failures of the government had Liberians ready for change in leadership, blindly trusting Taylor who had embezzled government funds, escaped from jail, and came with loaded guns.

Taylor and his supporters like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Prince Johnson, Woewiyu and others had their own ambitions on power sharing or control after Doe was removed from office. As a warlord, Taylor declared himself President of Liberia without an election, and formed a makeshift government in Gbarnga, Bong County. Sirleaf severed ties with Taylor in the early 1990s and ran against him in 1997 and lost, she later won the presidency in 2005 and served 2 terms. Woewiyu broke away from the NPFL in 1994 and started another rebel group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia Central Revolutionary Council (NPFL-CRC). Prince Johnson broke away in 1990 and formed the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). He is currently serving as a senator for Nimba County, and has had numerous failed attempts for the presidency.

Liberia at War

According to Taylor, his sole objective was to overthrow the Doe government and free the Liberian people. Upon entering Nimba County, which is home to the Gio and Mano tribes, he took advantage of the animosity between the Doe Administration and these tribes to expand his force. He recruited men, women and children to join the NPFL. To appeal to the indigenous Liberians, Taylor changed his middle name from McArthur to Ghankay, a name from his mother’s Gola tribe. Many Liberians disillusioned with the Doe government welcomed Taylor and his rebel forces with open arms.

In a short period from December 1989 to June 1990, the rebels controlled a majority of the country except Monrovia, the nation’s capital. Their advance to the capital consisted of murdering thousands of people especially government employees and members of the Mandingo tribe and Doe’s Krahn tribes. Other civilians that fit these descriptions were also killed.

An excerpt from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s prepared statement about the war and child soldiers, to the US House Subcommittee on Africa, given in June of 1990 reads:

Additionally, the current uprisings should not be seen as a repeat of the 1980 coup or the 1985 invasion involving the participation of a small number of armed dissidents who seek to overthrow a government and proclaim for themselves a new one. This revolt symbolizes a civil war which encompasses regions of the country where more than two thirds of the Liberian people live and the greatest resources are located. The people, many of them children, have joined this struggle for freedom with little more than courage and hope for the future. It is within this context that the uprising represents an opportunity for creative transformation of the Liberian political landscape.

To use the words of noted Liberian academic and professional, Elwood Dunn, “In 1990 Charles Taylor is as much the principal instrument of history as Samuel Doe was in 1980”.

-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Doe’s army, a remnant of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), and death squads were also carrying out their share of ethnic cleansing, killing many from the Gio and Mano tribes. One such incident was the St. Peter Lutheran Church massacre in Sinkor, Monrovia, where hundreds of Gio and Mano people seeking refuge were killed overnight.

Many other causalities of the war were due to famine in areas around Monrovia and contagious diseases like cholera. Thousands of Liberians were displaced internally and thousands others fled as refugees to the neighboring countries. People walked many miles to escape battles between the various factions and many died or were killed along the way. At certain times it was common to see dead bodies lying in the bushes or along the roads and smell the stench of decay.

Taylor recruited many children to fight for him. Not sure what they were fighting for but with a gun in hand, even a child had some form of power. The other factions also used child soldiers but nothing compared to the magnitude in Taylor’s NPFL. There was no pay for the rebels, so they were allowed to loot, harass the citizens, rape woman and take whatever they wanted. A take on the child soldiers by journalist Bill Berkeley from June 1992 reads:

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.”

-Bill Berkeley

Some West African nations led by Nigeria took charge in finding a solution to the carnage in Liberia. Through their intervention, the ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) was established as well as the interim government headed by exiled Liberian, Amos Sawyer.

Before the Interim government was installed, Doe was captured, tortured and killed by Warlord Prince Johnson and his Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) rebels at the Freeport of Monrovia in September 1990. Doe’s body was mockingly laid in state for residents of the Freeport community to see.

As the war progressed, Liberia was divided into two with the Interim Government in Monrovia as the rightful leadership and Taylor’s self-proclaimed government seat in Gbarnga, Bong County. Each region used a different currency with the Liberty Liberian dollar in Monrovia and the J.J. Liberian dollar used in Taylor’s territory. Traveling between the regions was very limited and unsafe. After numerous failed peace agreements, there was a period of calm and Taylor was elected Liberia’s 22nd president in 1997.

Taylor’s Presidency and Resignation

Taylor was described as a corrupt and authoritarian leader. His presidency didn’t bring the anticipated peace, freedom, stability or development. Since the onset of the war, the nation’s resources were used to enrich Taylor, purchase arms and fund the war. His support of the war in Sierra Leone lead to the UN arms and diamond embargo, travel ban on Liberian government officials and a ban on Liberian timber trade.

Moreover, with this Sierra Leone connection, the instability in Guinea and a rising crisis in the Ivory Coast, many other West African countries feared he would influence more unrest and destabilize the entire region.

Less than 2 years after he took office, Taylor was faced with opposition by the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel group. In 2003, a new rebel group called the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) joined the fight to oust Taylor and Liberia relapsed into war. As attacks on areas close to Monrovia by these 2 groups intensified, the international community was mounting pressure for Taylor’s resignation.


After President Obasanjo of Nigeria offered him asylum, Taylor resigned on August 11, 2003 and immediately went into exile in Nigeria. His resignation made way for the final peace agreement in Accra and the eventual end of the war on August 18, 2003.

Vice President Moses Blah was acting president for 2 months while the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was in progress in Ghana. The Agreement established the last interim government, the NTGL, headed by Gyude Bryant. The interim leadership would work with foreign entities including the UN, World Bank, EU and ECOWAS to establish peace, carry on disarmament, repatriate Liberians and prepare for national elections.

The NTGL stayed in power for two years while the nation transitioned to normalcy and prepared for national elections. On October 11, 2005, Liberia held national elections and a presidential runoff election on November 5, 2005. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the runoff election and was sworn in as Liberia’s 23rd president on January 16, 2006.

Warring Factions

The National Patriotic Front of Liberia was organized by Brigadier-General Thomas Quiwonkpa in 1984. The former AFL General used this group in the 1985 coup intended to overthrow the Doe government. The coup failed and Quiwonkpa and several of his lieutenants were killed. Taylor took advantage of the remnants of this group that resided in the Ivory Coast. Those opposed to his leadership were eliminated from the group.

Besides the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) which supported Doe during the onset of the war, Taylor soon had to worry about the formation of new rebel groups like Prince Johnson’s Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) that broke away from Taylor’s NPFL. Johnson’s group occupied Bushrod Island in 1990 when he captured and brutally murdered President Doe as Doe and some of his men attempted to leave Liberia through the Freeport of Monrovia.

Other major groups came about with their own intentions and control of different areas. These included Alhaji Kromah’s United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO-K), Roosevelt Johnson’s ULIMO-J and their Butt Naked battalion.

LURD Leader, Sekou Damate Conneh (R) signs a peace pact on 18 August 2003, in Accra.
Credit: -/AFP/Getty Images)

There were also the Lofa Defense Force (LDF) headed by Francois Massaquoi, Liberia Peace Council (LPC) headed by Dr. George S. Boley and another NPFL breakaway group called the National Patriotic Front of Liberia Central Revolutionary Council (NPFLCRC) headed by Samuel Dokie, J. Lavela Supuwood and Thomas Woewiyu.

The latter rebel factions to attack Taylor in an attempt to oust him included the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) led by Sekou Conneh and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) with Thomas Yaya Nimely as its leader.

Peace Accords and Interim Leaders

Starting with the Anglophone block of ECOWAS in 1990, there were many peace talks to end the Liberian crises and stop the brutal killings. The major Peace Accords and meetings included the warring factions agreeing to ceasefire and ending the hostilities.

Some of these accords established the numerous interim governments that headed the nation especially areas in and around Monrovia. Listed below are some of the peace agreements and proposals of that period. Most of them failed to bring peace as they were violated by the warlords. Finally, in August 2003, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Accra, Ghana, establishing another interim government and marking an end of the war.

Peace Accords
Peace Accord/Agreement Date
Liberia Inter-Faith Mediation Committee (Freetown) June 12 – 16, 1990
ECOWAS Standing Mediation Committee (Banjul) August 6 – 7, 1990
Banjul Agreement October 24, 1990
Bamako Accord November 27-28, 1990
Banjul Agreement December 21, 1990
Lome Summit February 13, 1991
Yamoussoukro I June 30, 1991
ECOWAS Committee of Five Meeting (Yamoussoukro II Agreement) July 29, 1991
ECOWAS Committee of Five Meeting (Yamoussoukro III Agreement) September 16 – 17, 1991
ECOWAS Committee of Five Meeting (Yamoussoukro IV Agreement) October 30, 1991
ECOWAS Committee of Five Meeting (Geneva) April 7, 1992
Cotonou Agreement July 25, 1993
Akosombo Agreement September 12, 1994
Accra Clarification (Clarification and Expansion of the Akosombo Agreement) December 21, 1994
Accra Acceptance and Accession Agreement December 21, 1994
Abuja Agreement August 26, 1995
Abuja Supplement August 17, 1996
Accra Ceasefire Agreement June 17, 2003
Comprehensive Peace Agreement (Accra) August 18, 2003
Interim Administrations and Leaders
Period Administration Head
1990 – 1994 Interim Government of National Unity of Liberia (IGNU) Amos Sawyer
1994 – 1995 Liberia National Transitional Government (LNTG) David Kpomakpor
1995 – 1996 Liberia National Transitional Government (LNTG II) Wilton Sankawulo
1996 – 1997 Liberia National Transitional Government (LNTG III) Ruth Perry
Between these 2 periods was Taylor’s presidency from 1997 – 2003
2003 – 2003 Acting Presidency Moses Blah
2003 – 2006 National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) Gyude Bryant

ECOWAS Intervention (ECOMOG and ECOMIL)

The Anglophone block of ECOWAS felt the obligation to intervene and stop the bloodshed in Liberia. They also didn’t want Libya or the Ivory Coast using Liberia as a ground for other unrests. For their own safety and that of the region, Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Guinea set off a series of Peace talks in 1990.

This led to the founding of ECOMOG (ECOWAS Monitoring Group) in 1990 and the deployment of West African peacekeepers that would maintain security especially in the capital for most of the Liberian war. Nigeria was the main force behind this regional peace keeping force. The francophone nations that initially supported Taylor later joined ECOWAS’ efforts to restore peace to Liberia.

ECOMOG’s mandate was to supervise the establishment of a cease-fire, after which Doe would resign to make room for an interim administration, while the head of the transitional authority would, in turn, be excluded from the standing in the eventual elections.

–Pham

ECOMOG was charged with securing Monrovia, defending the IGNU and keeping Taylor from taking over the presidency. Its military prowess set ECOMOG as the strongest force in the war, keeping Taylor’s NPFL out of Monrovia and supporting forces opposed to Taylor when necessary.

A sea of jubilant Liberians welcome ECOMIL in August 2003
Credit: Beegeagle Blog

After ECOMOG and UNOMIL aided with the election in 1997 and the Taylor government took office, EOCMOG troops finally withdrew from Liberia in November 1999. However, as Liberia plunged into war again in 2003, ECOWAS formed the ECOWAS Mission in Liberia (ECOMIL) and deployed troops to Liberia beginning August 4, 2003.

These peacekeepers were greeted by jubilant Liberians at Roberts International Airport and in Monrovia. After UNMIL was established and took over the security of Liberia, the ECOMIL peacekeepers were pulled into UNMIL.

United Nations Intervention (UNOMIL, UNOL & UNMIL)

The ECOWAS nations brokered the Cotonou Agreement in July 1993. In September of that year, the UN Security Council established the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) to support ECOWAS in implementing the Cotonou Agreement. This group consisting of civilian and military personnel would work with ECOMOG to ensure the ceasefire was upheld, oversee disarmament and demobilization of combatants, and provide humanitarian, political and electoral assistance.

With the help of ECOMOG, UNOMIL, the European Union and other organizations, Liberia held free and fair national elections in July 1997. Taylor’s National Patriotic Party won the presidency and a majority of the legislative seats. UNOMIL’s mission was achieved with the successful election and installation of the new government in August 1997. The mission was terminated in September 1997 and its members were withdrawn. In November of that year the UN setup a peace building support office, the United Nations Peace-building Support Office in Liberia (UNOL) to provide continued assistance in peace building.

When fighting between the government and warring factions intensified in 2003, the UN established a multinational force with military and civilian personnel to maintain law and order throughout the country, and support efforts of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Ukrainian UN peacekeepers leaving Liberia in 2018
Credit: UNIAN

UNMIL as it was called, was established for 12 months and took over the functions of UNOL. It also assumed the peacekeeping duties of ECOWAS with about 3,500 ECOMIL troops transferring to UNMIL.

These UN Peacekeepers remained in Liberia for many years, maintaining the peace and security of the nation for most of Sirleaf’s presidency.

The Government of Liberia took over the security of the nation on July 1st, 2016, and UNMIL’s mission in Liberia finally ended on March 30, 2018.

Charles Taylor, a War Criminal

Taylor’s era as warlord and President might forever be seen as the worst time in Liberian history. He is considered the most criminal president of Liberia. His term was marked by a breakdown of law and order, the death of tens of thousands of Liberians, total economic decline and a strained relationship with the international community.

A handcuffed Taylor arrives at Rotterdam Airport, The Hague, for his war crimes trial – 6/21/2006
Credit: Reuters/Toussaint Kluiters

He was charged with war crimes by the Sierra Leone War Crimes Tribunal in 2003 for his support of the RUF rebels. He tried to escape while in Nigeria, but was arrested and flown to Liberia. Upon arrival, he was immediately transferred to the War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone.

Taylor’s trial for aiding the commission of war crimes in Sierra Leone began in June 2007 in The Hague. He was found guilty and sentenced to 50 years in prison. In 2013 he began serving his prison term in the United Kingdom.

His son, Charles McArthur Emmanuel “Chuckie” Taylor, a US citizen, who was very notorious for atrocities during the war, is serving a 97 year prison sentence in the US.


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