Opinion

My final phone call with warlord Charles Taylor

Former president of Liberia Charles Taylor called me regularly in the early 1990s when I was the director of Voice of America's English-to-Africa broadcasts. I'll never forget one strange phone call from him. Unfortunately, my hunch about Taylor's connection to Sierra Leone would prove correct.

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    Former Liberian President Charles Taylor waits for the start of his sentencing judgement in the courtroom of the Special Court for Sierra Leone near The Hague May 30. Taylor will serve his 50-year sentence for crimes against humanity in a British prison. Op-ed contributor Gregory Alonso Pirio recalls the phone interviews he conducted with Taylor as a Voice of America journalist in Africa.
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Charles Taylor would call me on regular basis in the early 1990s. It’s not that I was a friend of the former Liberian rebel leader and later president, whom the International Criminal Court sentenced to 50 years in prison on Wednesday for his role in the bloody Sierra Leone civil war. Rather, Mr. Taylor needed me.

I was a media gatekeeper who could give him access to an audience of millions of African listeners, including Liberians. These were the days before the advent of independent FM radio in Africa, and millions of Africans had no recourse but to tune to international broadcasters like the BBC and Voice of America as credible news alternatives to the government-monopolized radio stations.

For my part, as the director of VOA’s English-to-Africa broadcasts, I pursued newsmakers like Taylor to enrich the news offerings to our listeners. The advent of satellite telephone in the 1980s revolutionized our coverage of African civil conflicts. Rebel leaders were no longer isolated in faraway bush headquarters awaiting the occasional Western reporter to arrive to get their stories out.

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With the advent of direct dial, we could talk directly to murky figures within seconds, and my Rolodex quickly came to read like a Who’s Who of cold war and post-cold war warriors: UNITA leader and one-time US ally, Jonas Savimbi of Angola; Renamo leader, Afonso Dlakama, of Mozambique; Rwandan Patriotic Front leader, Paul Kagame; Somali warlords, and more.

These phone relationships were professional but intense, and these leaders made strong impressions, both in person or just over the phone. Savimbi was brilliant, personally imposing, and ruthless. Dlakama appeared meek and unprepared for media scrutiny. Kagame was highly intelligent and calculating. And Taylor seemed coarse and shifty to me over the phone.

Taylor would call me weekly or biweekly to give me updates on battlefield accomplishments or peace overtures. Sometimes I would interview him myself, but as our stable of top-notch reporters with intimate knowledge of African reality grew, I would hand Taylor over to them for interviews.

One day, I received a call with an unfamiliar voice on the other end. My memory tells me that his voice was somewhat shrill as he announced, “I am Corporal Foday Sankoh, and I am leader of the Revolutionary United Front, which has launched the liberation of Sierra Leone. I am calling you on satellite phone from RUF-liberated territory inside Sierra Leone.” Sankoh proposed an interview.

My mind raced: “The only one who could have given Sankoh my phone number was Charles Taylor,” and I imagined Foday Sankoh speaking on Taylor’s satellite phone somewhere in neighboring Liberia with the shifty Taylor at his side.

My hunch about the Taylor connection would prove correct. Sierra Leone’s RUF – which later became synonymous with terror, murder, rape, conscripting child soldiers, and thirst for the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone – acted much like a brigade of Taylor’s own forces.

Taylor trained RUF fighters within Liberia, facilitated the transshipment of weapons to RUF forces, provided Liberians to fight with RUF forces, and controlled the lucrative illicit diamond trade from Sierra Leone that provides financial support for the Sierra Leone rebels.

Taylor’s recent conviction of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Sierra Leone civil war appears completely justified in this regard. It was only years later that I learned that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi had sponsored both Taylor and Sankoh, unleashing a bloodbath of civil wars in West Africa that victimized untold numbers of Africans.

I refused the RUF leader an interview for days, saying I needed to ascertain the credibility of his story. Having the ear of millions of listeners, many of whom depended on our news for life and death information, was a huge responsibility. I wasn’t going to take undue risk that could have sorry consequences for innocents. Eventually, after having been satisfied that Sankoh had indeed launched his rebellion, we interviewed him.

Some months later, I received another strange phone call. I immediately recognized the voice as that of Charles Taylor, but he identified himself as a unit commander in Taylor’s rebel army. The caller wanted to give an interview to refute charges that his unit had violated a truce with a rival militia. I said, “What are you talking about? You are Charles Taylor; I would know your voice anywhere.”

He insisted, saying that even Taylor’s wife, who was also a unit commander, would get their voices confused. I knew no Taylor subordinate would be so bold as to grab the headline from the boss: Such audacity was surely a death sentence.

I said, “No, we are not going to interview you because you are Charles Taylor, and we will only interview you under your real name.” We went back and forth for some time until I ended the call. I can only guess that Taylor attempted this disguise to cast doubt on reports of the truce violation without having his lies attributed directly to him.

In 1997, Liberians elected Taylor president in the hopes that making the ambitious warlord the head of state would bring lasting peace to the country. This gamble would prove wrong. By 2003 Taylor was driven out of power by another Liberian faction in the second Liberian civil war, which engulfed Sierra Leone and parts of Guinea as well. In that same year, he was indicted for war crimes.

Now Taylor sits in jail in The Hague awaiting the start of his 50-year sentence in a British prison. The falsehoods that Taylor told presiding Judge Richard Lussick in his defense reminded me of the Taylor that I knew – a shifty man, who, in his last phone call to me, pretended to be someone else in an effort to fool our listeners.

Gregory Alonso Pirio currently serves as president of EC Associates (Empowering Communications). He is the author of “The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa” and editor of “Rebuilding Shattered Nations and Lives: Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development in Africa.”  Mr. Pirio is currently a visiting scholar at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, where he has launched the “Voices of Marginalized Youth Initiative.”

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