Charles Taylor's 50 year sentence a reflection of Liberia's past and future

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The Special Court of Sierra Leone has passed judgment on former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor, with a 50 year sentence for committing international war crimes in Sierra Leone.  The leader of the armed opposition group National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Taylor was found guilty on 11 counts for aiding and abetting crimes against humanity in the civil-war-plagued West African nation between 1996 and 2002.  The civil war in Sierra Leone left thousands murdered, raped and mutilated, and claimed 50,000 lives.

Taylor’s conviction places the spotlight on neighboring Liberia, which has a special relationship with African-Americans.  Liberia also has its problems.  The oldest African republic, Liberia was founded by freed American slaves.  The descendants of those slaves became the oppressive ruling class that led to Taylor’s rise to power and brutal reign, and a civil war that killed 250,000 Liberians and displaced thousands more.

From the start, the Republic of Liberia became a classic example of the oppressed becoming the oppressors.  The former American slaves who founded the nation in the 1800s — known as Americo-Liberians — instituted their own Jim Crow system.  Known as the “settlers,” some of whom were the mixed-raced children of white slave masters, they wore top hats and tails.  “Octoroon” and “mulatto” settlers clashed politically with their darker and poorer counterparts.  Meanwhile, the American blacks ruled over darker skinned indigenous Africans, who were barred from citizenship and unable to vote until 1904.  Descendants of Liberia’s founding class number less than 5 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Moreover, these former slaves adopted a national flag that bears an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. flag.  And they named the capital city Monrovia after President James Monroe, who owned 30 to 40 slaves himself and, through his involvement in the American Colonization Society (ACS), believed in the repatriation of freed slaves to Africa in order to prevent slave rebellions.  Between 1821 and 1867, ACS had relocated 10,000 African-Americans, hundreds of immigrants from Barbados, and several thousand Africans from slave ships to Liberia, and controlled the country until independence in 1847.

Through their True Whig Party, the Americo-Liberians ruled uninterrupted from the country’s independence until 1980, when Samuel K. Doe staged a military coup and ushered in military rule. President William R. Tolbert, Jr. was assassinated in the presidential palace.  Doe, who was of the indigenous Krahn ethnic group, solidified his control after holding fraudulent elections in 1985.  He was a staunch ally of the U.S. under President Reagan, and ran a corrupt and repressive regime known for its human rights abuses.

Doe, in turn, was assassinated in 1990, by an armed opposition group called National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).  NPFL was led by Charles Taylor, who had received guerilla training from Muammar Gaddafi and invaded Liberia from Cote d’Ivoire.  Taylor’s father was an Americo-Liberian teacher, sharecropper, lawyer and judge, and his mother a member of the Gola people (there is a theory that the Gullah people of the Lowcountry area of South Carolina and Georgia come from the Gola).

Under Taylor’s rule, Liberian rates of unemployment and illiteracy were over 75 percent.  He supported a rebel group in Sierra Leone known as the Revolutionary United Front, providing arms in exchange for blood diamonds.  Further, Taylor entered into a business venture with American televangelist Pat Robertson, awarding Robertson an gold mining concession in Liberia in 1999.  The televangelist’s investment totaled $8 million.  In return, Robertson would later offer to lobby the Bush administration on Taylor’s behalf.