The Verdict on Charles Taylor–Take 2

Guest Post by Aaron Leaf
“Liberians decry ‘mockery of justice’ in Charles Taylor verdict” is a piece by Geoffrey York in Canada’s Globe and Mail that portrays a country outraged by the result of Taylor’s trial. The fact that Charles Taylor is reviled in the West but loved in Liberia is a fun thing to report on. It hints at the idea that Liberians have a very different world view, a mystical one where power is celebrated for its own sake, except it’s not really true.

At the Committee to Protect Journalists headquarters in New York yesterday, Liberian journalist Mae Azango was fetted over lunch for her daring stories detailing the harmful practice of female circumcision. She talked about the difficulties of being a woman in the macho world of Liberian journalism and the nasty backlash against her from traditionalists that caused her to go into hiding.

Afterwards she was asked her opinion on the Taylor verdict. She took a breath and thought about it for a while before structuring her story this way:

“Every Liberian was affected by Taylor’s regime whether they were harmed directly or lost friends and family,” she said. Taylor’s forces came to her house at breakfast time, looting their possessions and beating her father so hard in the back of the head with rifle butts that he later died. She would end up fleeing to the Ivory Coast. If the verdict keeps Taylor from returning to Liberia then she’s happy about it.

When I first moved to Monrovia and had colleagues and acquaintances profess their love for Taylor I was shocked, but it eventually got boring. Taylor supporters—posturing young men not old enough to have lived through war, greying NPFL partisans grasping at faded glory, former child soldiers messed up from years of trauma and drug abuse, boys and girls named after him (Charles and Charlsetta), relatives living off the money they made during his plunderous reign—made for a rather pathetic bunch. The common denominator was a love for Taylor’s enduring charisma and a belief in an international conspiracy to deprive Liberia of its rightful leader.

The longer I lived in Liberia, and the deeper my connections got, the more I heard different kinds of stories, private stories about grief and loss. Not for journalists.

A colleague, a man in his sixties, cried as he told me how everyday he prayed for his adopted father—”a kind and generous man”—whom “Taylor’s boys” had shot over something trivial.

A loud-mouthed sports reporter who I’d long taken for a Taylor supporter told me how, as a child, he’d watched as his older brother was killed and his liver eaten by rebels in the family kitchen. He could never forgive Taylor, he said. “Never never never.”

So when outsiders report from media savvy pro-Taylor rallies in downtown Monrovia and mingle with the crowds of men watching the verdict from tea shops and intellectual centers— overcaffeinated men in love with their own voices—it may not be very accurate.

What about the woman selling fritters across the street, or the Krahn laborer trying to avoid walking through the rally? Or all the people in the vast suburbs surrounding Monrovia that didn’t make make the trek downtown to share their opinions?

Like Mae, they may not offer you their views on Charles Taylor. If you ask and they choose to respond, it might be slow, considered and probably sad. This doesn’t make for good headlines. There’s nothing contrarian or weird about it.


4 thoughts on “The Verdict on Charles Taylor–Take 2

  1. I disagree that the street vendors, the laborers or the suburb people should be any more against CT than people at rallies in downtown Monrovia (Btw there were no rallies downtown, but one gathering in Sinkor near the SL Embassy). Also there was a major pro CT demonstration trying to enter town from Red Light (suburban Monrovia) which was stopped by the police.
    UN int. staff claimed that CT is not as popular in Monrovia as in the countryside because only 20 people showed up for a support concert held a few days before the verdict (a typical UN conclusion). He may not be as popular in the capital as in the countryside, but I talked with loads of people in the streets on verdict day and far the majority wanted him free. From street vendors to City Hall staff. But it is not either or. There are conflicting opinions and there are lots of people who are sad about this verdict as well as people who are happy about it. Also not everyone wants him back as president but people feel that it is unfair that he is being punished while others, incl. the president, are free. Some simply don’t feel that he was worse than the people running the country now.
    The international media must recognize that this is how a lot of Liberians feel. And they don’t feel this because they are savage, crazy people who like wars, killings and cannibalism. They feel this simply because they had a better life (low rice prices) during CT presidency and they felt he was a strong leader. That tells us something about their current life more than it tells us something about their mindset or mentality.
    From what I have been able to read in the int. press it seems that there is more focus on how great it is that this war lord is now behind bars for good than why he is so popular in the country. The media is not trying to answer that question in order to make outsiders understand these many Liberians’ opinion. Instead they paint a picture of Liberians being crazy for wanting a man like that back to their country.

  2. Hi Laura, I think your points are valid. I was not in Liberia for the verdict. One thing which I thought about touching on but didn’t are the many Liberians who, while no fans of Taylor, feel that the trial was a bungled mess, its verdict predetermined (see wikileaks), and is just the latest in a long history of foreign powers infringing upon Liberian sovereignty to the detriment of its people.

  3. Errr.. did we read the same article?

    York reports that a crowd gathered to watch the verdict and that “most people among the crowds were Taylor supporters.” Does this really hint that Liberians have a “mystical” world view?

    You write:

    “What about the woman selling fritters across the street, or the Krahn laborer trying to avoid walking through the rally?”

    York writes:

    “On the streets of Monrovia today, bitter arguments erupted as crowds argued over the verdict. Some people were pleased to see Mr. Taylor found guilty. “My people were massacred,” said Sekou Dukuly, a 38-year-old shopkeeper from a Liberian tribe that was persecuted by Mr. Taylor. “He should be in prison forever.””

    Seems like a fairly accurate description of what went on (a crowd gathered, some Liberians supported Taylor, others didn’t). There’s nothing contrarian or weird about that.

  4. A little perspective on the Taylor case from a former insider:

    A read of the SCSL section of this also provides some light in the machinations of the prosecutions of SCSL (page 59):

    This is not about Charlie boy … it’s a show once again that Africa is a crapping field for its colonizers administered by so called African leaders who clear the feaces mingled with the bodies of the Africans. Charles can rot in his british cell eating nice sausages and mash potatoes for all I care …

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