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African view: Memories of Taylor

Charles Taylor in 1990, 1997 and 2009
Charles Taylor played the role of soldier, president and now defendant

In our series of weekly viewpoints from African journalists, former BBC editor and Ghanaian minister Elizabeth Ohene, relives her unforgettable encounters with Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president currently defending himself against war crimes charges.

Not much had changed. It was the same self-assured, flamboyant performer. I must confess it gave me quite a start to hear that voice on television say: Dr Charles Ghankay Taylor.

The memories came flooding in... The Charles Taylor story is well known, so where do I start with my Charles Taylor story?

Boxing Day, 1989. The day after Christmas Day, Boxing Day is usually a slow day in newsrooms, and the four of us who were at work in the BBC's Focus on Africa office that Boxing Day were probably cursing our luck that we were at work when most other people were nursing their Christmas hangovers at home.

The phone rang and the voice at the end said he was Charles Taylor, he had launched an invasion into Liberia to throw out the head of state, Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe.

'No better than a murderer'

I do not remember if there were any arguments among us about whether we should give him the exposure. But that is not the point today and as the old cliche goes, the rest is history.

A child soldier in Charles Taylor's army, 1990
Taylor's rebellion was notorious for its use of child soldiers

He was interviewed and the Liberian rebel war was introduced to the world - and with it a certain notoriety for the programme.

As time went by and Focus on Africa continued with what was to become a daily chronicle of the war, the internal arguments and agonising did take place in the office.

But hey, the man made great radio. Gift of the gab - if ever anyone had it, that was Charles Taylor. Probably the most famous of the verbal sparring between editor Robin White and Charles Taylor went something like this...

Robin White: "Mr Taylor, some people think you are not much better than a murderer."

Charles Taylor: (guffaws) "Robin, Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time."

Okay, I know Jesus Christ was accused of many things in his time but I cannot recall him being accused of murder; all the same you get the drift and must concede it made riveting radio.

'He killed my ma'

Fast-forward to 1997 and I am in Liberia to cover the elections that would eventually make Charles Taylor president.

UN troops confront a Sierra Leone militiaman, 2000
Mr Taylor was eventually charged over the war in Sierra Leone

My abiding memories of that assignment and the face-to-face encounters with Charles Taylor must surely be the chant of his youthful supporters.

There were thousands of them, all clad in yellow Taylor T-shirts and they would run up and down the streets of Monrovia chanting: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll vote for him."

When I interviewed him, he brought up the matter of the chant.

"Have you heard them?" he asked. "They mean it, you know, and they love me." And indeed they voted for him, and he became president.

Did he make up that chant himself, as some suggested? I tackled him on that and as I recall it he simply laughed, but again you must admit he can put words together to make good radio.

Reluctant dinner guest

Fast-forward again to the year 2002 and I am a minister of state in Ghana when a then "under-pressure-to-step-down" President Taylor arrives for a summit of the West African bloc Ecowas, and I am asked to be his ministerial escort.

CHARLES TAYLOR CHARGES
BBC map
Violation of humanitarian law: Conscripting child soldiers
Crimes against humanity: Terrorising civilians, murder, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement
War crimes: "Violence to life", cruel treatment (including hacking off limbs), pillage

I am afraid the abiding memory of that encounter was the last evening of the summit when Ghanaian President John Kufuor hosted a dinner at the hotel in which all the visiting presidents were staying.

I arrived to take Charles Taylor to the dinner at the seafront of the hotel.

He was reluctant to go and I could not immediately work out what the problem was because he would not say. I managed to get him out of his room, we walked for a few yards and could see ahead of us the dinner laid out and the guests.

He stopped, and have I mentioned that he was surrounded all the time by four hefty bodyguards? We never made it to the dinner - he did not feel safe.

Not even the presence of all the other presidents could convince Mr Taylor it was safe to go and eat in an outdoor setting; he looked and acted like a hunted man. He ended up with room service for his dinner that night and I cannot remember any great witty remarks.

He will doubtless keep the courtroom in The Hague spellbound with his oratory and choice phrases. I shall be watching carefully to see if the judges are also mesmerised by his performance.

I wonder whether that macabre chant will be resurrected, this time ending with the words Taylor used the day he was forced out of Liberia: He killed my ma, he killed my pa... and he will be back.


Read some of your comments:

The first time I saw Mr Taylor it was 1990 at the time I was only ten year old. He had just captured Harbel, the administrative seat of Firestone, Liberia's largest rubber plantation. After the successful capture of most of these places, he will visit the areas to tell the residents that he came to free the Liberian people, as exampled by the name of his group-"FREEDOM FIGHTERS". There are lots of things that I will remember about Charles Taylor's rule. Just to name a few, the secret killing of those he felt were threat to his dictatorial behaviour. the free flow of money from his officials to needy people, especially during their happy times. The conscription of able body young men to fight for him. Mr. Taylor is remembered for his strong position against western influence in Africa.
Henry, Monrovia, Liberia

I will remember Charles Taylor as the worst president my country (Liberia) ever had. I lived under his presidency until he lifts for where he is today. I have never met him physically, but I will never forget Charles Taylor's revolt of Dec 1989.
Oliver, Kinshasa, DR Congo

It is clear that Taylor was a convincing man who had his way easily with the Liberian people before his Presidency in 1997. People were convinced that he could deliver us and bring about peace that we long desired. After he took over as president we saw his brutal side. He ruled with Iron hand. Justifying his every action by means of the gun. Who dared stand against him... life was hard and fearful under his rule. It our so called freedom felt like slavery. slavery is the right word. Today i am happy to be a Liberian once more because Taylor is no longer around to bring shame and disgrace to our belong country. Long live Liberia the land of liberty for all.
Mark, Monrovia, Liberia

Taylor was a monster and his regime was even worse then the late Dictator Samuel K. Doe. In the Anti Terrorist Unit (ATU) there was so many Sierra Leone and Liberian Youths from the RUF and NPFL beating people at night. I met Mr. Taylor on Broad Street and was shock to see this short guy surrounded by huge bodyguards and I thought to myself is this small man causing all the trouble in the south region.
Seltue,

Yes, I did live in Liberia during his so called presidency. I met him in person and shook hands with him. i can only remember him being very destructive, disorder in doing things, buying new car for any sweet girl.
Patick, Monrovia

He is good man, when he took power, why did America not try to take him out, they work with him and take our mineral. When he became wise and decide not to try and give our mineral - then America call him killer and try to put him in jail.

Mat, Freetown

Taylor made many Liberians and Sierra Leoneans life miserable - it about time he face justice. So this time, "He killed my ma, he killed my pa" let him pay for it.

Albert, Columbia, USA



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