James Sackie would make a good frontman for a campaign to help ex-child soldiers. At the age of 17, he was press-ganged into one of Charles Taylor’s juvenile militias. Twenty years on, he talks movingly, in his matter-of-fact pidgin English, about the dreadful things he saw, including the day he had to stop his own baby son, JR, being whisked away as lunch for a general called Eat Human Being.
But ask Sackie about Taylor himself and he changes. Taylor is a war hero, not a war criminal, James insists. And if he were freed from his jail cell in Britain, where he’s currently serving 50 years for war crimes, James would welcome him back as leader of Liberia. Not the kind of talk that gets donors reaching for their chequebooks.
‘Pa Taylor’ remains a big talking point ahead of next week’s Liberian elections, where voters will choose a successor to donor darling Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has been president since 2006. By most measures, the election should be a rather cheery landmark. Ebola is no more. The Liberian capital, Monrovia, is safe for foreigners. And ‘Ma Ellen’ is doing the decent democratic thing and stepping down after two terms, as constitutionally required. The worry, though, is that just as Liberians bid farewell to one powerful, formidable woman, they will say hello to another — who just happens to be Taylor’s second wife.
Jewel Howard Taylor, 54, who was married to him during his 1997-2003 presidency, is vice-presidential candidate for football-star-turned-politician George Weah, in what some see as a Hillary Clinton-style dry run for the top job itself. For some voters, it’s the perfect blend of brawn and brains. Weah, who played for Chelsea and Man City, is much-liked but not too bright, while Howard Taylor, like Johnson Sirleaf, has a clutch of degrees in banking and finance and is considered one of the smarter women in the Liberian senate. For other voters, though, the Weah-Howard Taylor ticket is akin to having Wayne Rooney run the country along with, well, someone who was First Lady to one of the world’s most bloodthirsty despots. Mrs Howard Taylor, they fear, might become Liberia’s Lady Macbeth.
The first round of voting on 10 October saw the Weah-Howard Taylor ticket take a narrow lead over the other main favourite, Johnson Sirleaf’s current vice-president, Joseph Boakai. Both camps face a run-off vote in the coming week, with Weah-Howard Taylor the favourite. Yet the fact that the Taylor name can even stand a chance on a ballot paper in Liberia speaks volumes about the country’s ambiguous relationship with its past.
In ex-Taylor strongholds like Bong County, the rainforested rural backwater where I met James last month, nostalgia for Taylor’s time in power is the norm, not the exception. Under his rule, they got a gun and a belly of cheap rice a day, more than many in Liberia’s neglected interior had before. And as the biggest, baddest gangster on the block, he also offered a degree of protection against other thugs.
‘When my son was abducted by General Eat Human Being, it was one of Taylor’s Small Boys Units that rescued him,’ James says. Wouldn’t it have been better if there were just no militias at all? He points to the forest and quotes a local proverb. ‘When two elephants fuck in the jungle, the grass gets flattened.’ This translates roughly as: ‘Civilians always suffer when Big Men fight. Get over it.’
It’s this lingering affection for the nation’s abusive father which explains Weah’s alliance with Howard Taylor, who, as current senator for Bong County, brings with her a hard core of Taylor support. Many even think she’ll get him freed if she wins power. EU diplomats in Monrovia even felt compelled to point out ahead of the elections that Taylor’s sentence was not going to be ‘overruled because of a change of president’. Outside of the metropolitan elite, though, the notion that Taylor belongs behind bars is not one that enjoys much consensus.
‘The elite know the level of injury Taylor caused, and are pleased he’s in jail, but many ordinary people don’t see it that way,’ one Liberian government official told me. ‘Why? Because he had the largest militia in Liberia, and in the chaos of the civil war, many grew up knowing him as their only father.’
True, the former Mrs Taylor insists she won’t bring back the bad old days. Having sparked alarm by saying she wanted to return to her ex’s ‘agenda’, she clarified recently that this meant education and development, not chopping off limbs. Rather less clear, though, is just how much she really knew what he was up to.
In an interview five years ago, when asked about his sponsoring of the Revolutionary United Front rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone, she sounded vague, saying that as she’d never been to Sierra Leone, she ‘didn’t know what happened’. The charitable interpretation of this ignorance is that Taylor — admittedly a master manipulator — kept her in the dark. The less charitable version is to ask why someone as educated as her hadn’t since found out.
Then again, Mrs Howard Taylor isn’t the only candidate in the race who prefers not to dwell too much on the past. Other candidates in the first round included Taylor’s one-time ally Prince Johnson, whose men tortured and executed Liberia’s previous dictator, Samuel Doe, in 1990.
In what is perhaps one of the most dubious product endorsements ever, a grainy video from the time shows Johnson sipping a Budweiser at his desk while his goons slice off one of Doe’s ears. Yet despite this seemingly incontrovertible evidence, he has never been put before a court, or even banned from holding office. Johnson has now also urged his supporters to back the Weah-Howard Taylor ticket in the second round, a move that will make the chances of his prosecution even slimmer.
Instead, what pressure there is for justice comes from outside — as happened back in June, when another former Taylor wife, Agnes Reeves Taylor, now a lecturer at Coventry University, was arrested by Scotland Yard’s war crimes unit. Acting on a dossier from Civitas Maxima, a Swiss human rights organisation, prosecutors have charged her with four counts of torture between 1989 and 1991, two of them in Bong County.
Ms Reeves Taylor, who has been remanded in custody, has denied the allegations, telling her initial hearing that she was ‘unaware of what was going on’. It means that while one Taylor ex-wife may be about to become the country’s second most powerful politician, another is at risk of joining him as a guest in Britain’s prison system.
Colin Freeman is the author of Kidnapped: Life as a Somali Pirate Hostage, published by Monday Books.