The Verdict on Charles Taylor–Take 2

“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.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.