The international dimension of Liberia’s civil war is rarely given the attention it deserves. The fact that Charles Taylor stands on trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone points to it partially, but often not realized are the roles that countries like Libya, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria played in initiating a truly multinational war. Recent revelations by the CIA — which have always been suspected — put the United States’ role in the war at center stage, adding fuel to claims of outside intervention in Liberian politics, since its founding as a Western style nation-state, up until today.
In 2009, during his trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor claimed that the CIA had arranged for his “release” from a Massachusetts prison. This release was made to look like an escape, after which he was allowed to travel freely across international borders, build up a small fighting force in Libya, depose of the sitting president Samuel Doe, and eventually set up a rogue state government in the capital Monrovia. The CIA denied this, but a recently answered Freedom of Information Act claim, filed by The Boston Globe six years ago, has the CIA admitting to aiding Taylor
‘s escape from prison during the 1980’s.
In his book, The Mask of Anarchy, Stephen Ellis suggests that Samuel Doe, the president who was overthrown by Taylor, had cozied up to United States in the early years of his presidency, becoming a Reagan ally in the hopes of garnering the favor and resources that a strong relationship with the Americans would bring. The U.S. saw Liberia as a possible military foothold in Africa in order to fight Gaddafi, the Soviet Union, and other unfriendlies on the continent. Staying true to Doe’s wishes, the U.S. overlooked a questionable election and various human rights abuses, including the brutal public executions of his political opponents.
Ellis contends that the U.S. stayed true to Doe until his demise, and that Taylor’s escape from prison was a mystery. But, while the Americans were backing Doe publicly, the possibility that the CIA gave material support to coup plotters exiled from Liberia, including Taylor, suggests that Doe’s brutality may have caused him to fall out of favor with the U.S. government privately. This is especially interesting since one of the main criticisms launched at current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both by her political opponents and Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is her material support for Charles Taylor in his plots against Doe.
In the wake of the Cold War, it seems that such stories of international meddling by the U.S. government are going from speculation to confirmed facts. Though such revelations can teach us more about the past, the present state of affairs needs just as much scrupulous attention. American military interest in Africa in general is at an all time high. And because of its strong historical relationship with the United States, perhaps it’s not surprising that Liberia is now a key delegate for the military monitoring force, Africom.
While whistle blower organizations like Wikileaks remain under attack, rumors abound about the real reasons for intervention in Libya, there is speculation about a presence in Uganda, and the labeling of political and economic dissidents from the Western Sahel to the horn of Africa as Al-Qaeda or pirates justifies covert military action. It seems that perhaps the future of military manoeuvring in Africa is just as unknown and out of the hands of the people as it ever was.
* UPDATE: Josh Keating notes that The Boston Globe is now backtracking with a “near-retraction” of the story, including a line that “records relating to Taylor and to his relationship, if any, with American intelligence” exist but the CIA won’t release them.