Liberia's former leader, Samuel Doe, ended his 10-year reign of terror in a singularly gruesome fashion. Captured by rebels, he was slowly cut to pieces and forced to eat his own ears as he bled to death. The proceedings were captured on videotape, and became one of West Africa's biggest underground hits for 1990-91. One of the several leaders of that rebellion, Charles Taylor, later went on to become Liberia's ruler… but only after several more years of brutal civil war. The 1995 Ajuba Peace Accords saw a fragile alliance between the various squabbling parties, while 1997 saw Taylor voted into office … in an election marred by widespread fraud and intimidation. Today Taylor is considered by many to be Africa's worst dictator - no mean feat, given the competition.
For much of its history, Liberia was an American colony, albeit an African-American one. A White Protestant minister named Richard Finley decided that freed slaves in America had little hope of integrating into society and would be able to improve their lot by returning to their homelands. Accordingly, he created the American Colonization Society to handle the emigration, with the aid of prominent members and officers like Henry Clay, Francis Scott Key, James Monroe, and Daniel Webster. In 1816 the first ship landed on the Liberian coast, carrying eighty-eight voluntary immigrants and three White company officials.
Alas, the idea of "repatriation" never took off in the United States; a majority of freed slaves believed that they were fully American. To further complicate matters, the area was already occupied by various tribes which resented the newcomers. The "repatriated Africans" were forced to defend their new capital, Monrovia, by guns… but, since the Americans were more than happy to provide them with guns, this proved no obstacle. By 1847 they were able to declare the "Republic of Liberia" … a republic in which the former natives of Liberia had no voting rights. For over 100 years the descendents of these American immigrants held absolute power in Liberia, until Samuel Doe, an ethnic Krahn descended from the indigenous Africans, took control in 1980. Charles Taylor became head of the General Services Agency, only to flee to the United States a year later amid allegations of massive embezzlement. Arrested in the United States, he disappeared in 1985. In 1989 he resurfaced in Liberia as head of the National Patriotic Front, one of several groups fighting against the Doe administration.
Since coming to power, Taylor has treated Liberia as his own personal fiefdom. By some accounts, his personal fortune is as great as Liberia's official Gross National Product. His involvement in gold, diamond and timber smuggling is well-known, as is his military and financial support for rebels who have destabilized neighboring Sierra Leone, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. While Taylor has enriched himself and his cronies, Liberia's economy continues to languish. The rubber plantations and mines have still not recovered from a decade of civil war, and international organizations which have sought to bring relief to the region have faced massive looting from government forces. The "independent" branches of the government - the judiciary, legislature, and human rights commission - remain firmly under Taylor's thumb, while those journalists who have criticized the Taylor regime have faced charges of "criminal malevolence" and "treason."
Following the lead of Haitian President-for-Life François Duvalier and his Tonton Macoutes, Taylor has surrounded himself with a loyal ragtag militia. Rape and mutiliation are standard tactics of intimidation, and the perpetrators are rarely held accountable. The government has regularly conscripted civilians, including children, into the military, arming them and sending them off to fight the rebels with little or no training. (To be fair, the various rebel groups are guilty of equally brutal offenses against human rights, and have been equally quick to press civilians into their service). Many of these militias have divided along tribal lines: there is considerable ill feeling between many of the ethnic groups which reside in the region, and a real potential exists for Rwanda/Burundi style genocide.
The United Nations has declared sanctions against Taylor's government for its continuing human rights abuses and its meddling in the affairs of its neighbors. To date these sanctions have been about as effective as the UN sanctions against Iraq. Smuggling remains widespread, and the sanctions have mainly fallen upon Liberia's desperately impoverished people. Inflation has begun to further erode the living standards of those who survive on the minimum wage, as many basic living needs have become too expensive or entirely unavailable. Meanwhile Taylor still remains in office, and continues to rail against UN "neocolonialists."
While there has been some American criticism of Taylor, the U.S. has a long history of supporting Liberia despite political atrocities. While there is an active arms embargo against Liberia, American companies continue to do business in Liberia. Among Charles Taylor's biggest business partners is the Rev. Pat Robertson, whose for-profit company Freedom Gold Inc. has signed contracts to develop the gold mines in Liberia.