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Liberia's Diverted Dreams
As Leader Grows Richer, Vow to Rebuild Is Unfulfilled

 

By Douglas Farah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 31, 2001; Page A01

GBARNGA, Liberia -- When Liberia's brutal factional war ended in 1997, the newly elected president, Charles Taylor, promised to quickly rebuild this town, a once vibrant intellectual center that had been the base of operations for his rebel forces.

But today, spread out below the bombed-out shell of Taylor's former headquarters -- still called the Executive Mansion -- the bullet-pocked town of 30,000 has no lights, no running water, few jobs and little hope.

"This town used to be alive; it was the place to be," said Mayor Jerome N.J. Clark II, who said he had not been paid in three months. "We had three colleges here, including a seminary, a hospital and a rubber processing plant. Now we struggle."

Just a few miles down the road, heavily armed troops of Liberia's elite Anti-Terrorist Unit guard Taylor's Yassa Farm, which he visits on weekends. The farm has 24-hour electricity, working tractors and earth-moving equipment to maintain the lakes and ponds visible from the main highway, and newly graded roads.

The stark contrast -- mirrored in Monrovia, the capital, and elsewhere -- illustrates how Taylor, 52, has used Liberia's resources for his own benefit while doing little to help rebuild the war-ravaged country, according to residents, diplomats and businessmen.

In a recent interview, Taylor accused the international community of failing to help rebuild postwar Liberia as it did Kosovo. His government is unable to do the job itself, he said, in part because a festering border war with neighboring Guinea is bleeding resources from reconstruction.

But businessmen, diplomats and international aid workers say huge amounts of money have been siphoned off by a small group of Taylor's associates and relatives. Onetime friends of Taylor's, such as former president Jimmy Carter, Jesse L. Jackson and others, have withdrawn support and shut down their operations in Liberia because of allegations of human rights abuses and government corruption.

"If you want to do business in Liberia, you do business with Taylor," said one businessman, who was told that a Taylor relative had been appointed to the board of his business and would be taking a share of the profits. "He has his hand in everything and gets a cut of everything."

Taylor's lucrative business ventures generate cash for his personal security apparatus and the purchase of weapons rather than for rebuilding the nation, according to U.S., European and Liberian sources. A prime example, they say, is the Hong Kong-based Oriental Timber Co., known as OTC. The company is virtually clear-cutting about 2.5 million acres in some of West Africa's most valuable virgin forest, shipping rare hardwoods to Europe and cutting smaller, less valuable trees for plywood in Asia -- and generating millions of dollars.

OTC, according to the same sources, obtained its concession through Taylor's brother Robert, who heads Liberia's Forestry Development Authority, and has paid the Taylor family millions of dollars to operate.

Gus Kouwenhoven, manager of OTC, in a fax to The Washington Post, said those assertions were false and that OTC operated "in strict conformity with the terms and conditions of our timber concession agreement with the government," which includes paying taxes. "We have never paid any funds directly or personally to President Taylor," Kouwenhoven said.

Known locally as the president's "peppertree" or personal source of wealth -- Liberians joke that the company's initials stand for "Only Taylor Chops" -- OTC controls and operates the port of Buchanan, the nation's main port, and employs virtually no Liberians.

"We usually log 4 percent of our concession a year, making it last 25 years," said one veteran logger here. "OTC is taking out as much as they can as quickly as they can, with no regard for the size of the trees. It is rape."

A recent U.N. report, which accused Taylor and a "small coterie of officials and private businessmen around him" of "international criminal activity," strongly recommended banning trade in Liberian timber as part of a package of sanctions. The Security Council is debating the sanctions, which could include a ban on Liberian diamonds and a worldwide travel ban on Taylor, all senior Liberian officials and their families.

The U.N. report said "large amounts of the proceeds" of OTC and other lumber concessions go to Taylor and "are used for extra-budgetary activities, including the acquisition of weapons." U.S., European and African diplomats, as well as Liberian sources, say Taylor and his colleagues also profit heavily through activities that help destabilize West Africa, including illicit trading in diamonds that are used to purchase weapons and fuel some of the world's most vicious conflicts.

That is the main focus of the U.N. report. Dozens of sources -- including regional intelligence sources, weapons transporters and two sources with direct knowledge of Taylor's dealings -- said that the document, while flawed, paints a generally accurate picture of Taylor's role. The sources said Taylor is part of a regional arms-shipment and diamond-smuggling network that provides weapons throughout the continent, a shadowy pipeline stretching from former Soviet bloc countries across Africa with the support of senior East European officials and senior members of the governments of Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo and Guinea.

The most prominent group benefiting from Taylor's support is the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel force fighting in neighboring Sierra Leone. The RUF in recent years has gained international notoriety by hacking hands and legs off thousands of civilians, razing hundreds of villages and forcing thousands of children into combat.

Taylor denied he is involved in criminal activity or in diamonds-for-weapons deals and said he had severed all links to the RUF.

In a written response to the U.N. report, the Liberian government said the U.N. panel of experts was "biased and prejudiced in its investigation, allegations and conclusions. . . . The standards employed . . . are reminiscent of the long-discredited Star Chamber proceedings, McCarthyism and outright character assassination."

But a source with direct knowledge of Taylor's dealings said: "Taylor and his circle were deeply shaken by the report because someone high in his government obviously gave [the investigators] very good information. It is full of truth."

Among Taylor's key foreign associates, according to the U.N. report and the same sources, is Victor Bout, a native of Tajikistan and a former Soviet KGB officer who lives in the United Arab Emirates. Generally known as Victor B. because of his numerous aliases, Bout "oversees a complex network of over 50 planes" that are part of a web of companies and are used to ship weapons across Africa, the report said.

The report and other sources identified Talal Ndine, a Lebanese businessman, as an important financial lieutenant of Taylor's. The report called him the "inner circle's paymaster" and said those bringing diamonds out of Sierra Leone "are paid by him personally." Ndine did not respond to requests for comment sent through intermediaries.

While Taylor and his associates have amassed enormous riches with their enterprises, the country he vowed to rebuild after seven years of fighting still resembles a war zone. Health care is virtually nonexistent. The John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia, the country's biggest health care facility, shut down last month and reopened only when Taiwan agreed to finance it for several months.

Most schools remain closed, and the illiteracy rate has risen from about 30 percent to more than 70 percent in the past decade, development workers said. There is no running water, and the nation's telephone system, plagued by a lack of maintenance and antiquated equipment, routinely crashes, cutting the country off from the outside world.

In Gbarnga, Liberians say Taylor's image is gradually beginning to mirror the way he is regarded abroad. His unfulfilled promises are eroding his support in this West African country, which was founded by freed American slaves.

"Some people here say Taylor will still rebuild the town as he promised, and some people say that Taylor lied," said Jonathan Nyante, a businessman. "I myself fall into the camp that says he lied."

 

Last Updated May 5, 2001
Copyright 2001 Palavahut. All rights reserved.