At Large

Taylor Made in Liberia

Africa's future looks dim no matter how decent President Bush's intentions.

By 7.14.03

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I have never met Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, but I once spent several days at a conference with the man who was then his Army chief of staff. His name was Prince Johnson, and I am not at all embarrassed to say he scared the hell out of me. He was a youngish man with cold dead eyes, and despite his gold braid, epaulets and lieutenant general's rank it was clear he was not really a soldier. He was more a professional murderer, better suited to disemboweling Taylor's opponents than he was at commanding troops. Indeed I later heard from a reliable source an account of Prince Johnson in action. He tied a poor unfortunate to a tree, and then lopped off his fingers, ears, lips and nose before he allowed him to bleed to death.

I bring this up now, of course, because Liberia is much in the news, and President Bush must decide what he will do, if anything, to end the violence there. Meanwhile I do not know if Prince Johnson is still around, but I suspect that if he has been replaced, Taylor has chosen a successor very much like him. Prince Johnson, incidentally, never said a word at the conference, although he did distribute a paper he had written. It referred to the "Lord God Jehovah," but not, as I recall, to Christ, and was virtually unintelligible.

But whatever Bush decides to do about Liberia, it is already clear that his presidency will be far better for Africans than that of his Democratic predecessor. Clinton expended no political capital at all on Africa, while Bush has committed himself to a massive program to combat AIDS. At the same time, to his great credit, he seems to have divorced himself from the influence of the Congressional Black Caucus. (Actually he still has a way to go in the divorce, but that's another story.)

Bush took no members of the Black Caucus with him on his trip to Africa. He did not even ask any of them for advice before he left. This has made them very angry, of course; the Black Caucus has been trading off its supposed expertise on Africa for years. On NPR the other day a member of the member of the Caucus -- it sounded like Maxine Waters -- said she was outraged that Bush did not talk to Donald Payne, the Caucus's principal spokesman on Africa, before his trip. She was especially outraged, she said, because Payne knows more about Charles Taylor and Liberia than anyone else.

And, in a way, she was right. Payne had his first connection with Taylor when Taylor was in prison in Massachusetts -- he later escaped -- and Payne was a local politician in Newark. In the years to come Payne championed Taylor's cause in Congress, even as Taylor went from horror to horror in Liberia, and became one of Africa's great monsters. As pointed out in this column before, there is often an American connection to African problems. Usually this revolves around business deals, although rancid ignorance may also come into play. And in a stunning display last week Pat Robertson showed he was affected by both.

Robertson, who invested $8 million in a gold-mining venture with Taylor's government -- Robertson was also once involved with Zaire's notorious Joseph Mobutu -- said on the "700 Club" that the "horrible bloodbath" in Liberia was all the fault of the U.S. State Department and not Charles Taylor. "So we're undermining a Christian Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country," he said. "And how dare the president of the United States say to the duly elected president of another country, 'You've got to step down.'"

But the Liberian election was rigged, and even Jimmy Carter, an election observer, had to hold his nose when the results were announced. (Carter had a wonderfully sanctimonious op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times. Neither he nor his administration, he said, had anything to do with Liberia's decline. Nothing, absolutely nothing, that had gone wrong there was his fault.)

Meanwhile Africa will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, and its future looks grim no matter how decent Bush's intentions. It suffers from corrupt governments, and there is little sign this will change. Hope springs up on occasion, but then the hopes are dashed. Consider the conference I attended with the benighted Prince Johnson, in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, in 1997, as an example.

The conference was convened by the late Joseph Nanven Garba, who, by force of personality alone, convened soldiers and diplomats from 14 sub-Saharan nations to discuss African security problems. As a young army colonel in 1975, Garba had helped lead a bloodless coup in Nigeria that overthrew the government. At the same time he and his colleagues promised to surrender power after four years, and hold democratic elections. African coup plotters always promise that, but they seldom keep their word, although this time they did. In 1979, Nigeria held a democratic election.

Meanwhile Joe Garba became a major general, and also his country's foreign minister, and then its ambassador to the U.N., and president of the General Assembly. He was respected throughout Africa, and so when he summoned the soldiers and diplomats to Abuja they came, even though some had been mortal enemies for years. Moreover they reached some intelligent conclusions (while being only icily polite to Prince Johnson because they knew he was not really a soldier).

The principal conclusion, it seemed to me, was that Africa should solve its own security problems, and that it should not rely on outside forces. But to do this, the soldiers said, they needed logistical support, and they had to be free from bureaucratic control. This was eminently sensible, and enlightened military circles in the U.S. agreed. The Clinton Administration, however, had its own hare-brained agenda and so it paid no attention. (It also prevented the commandant of the U.S. European Command from attending the conference, even though he had wanted to do so.)

So nothing changed in Africa, and you wonder if it ever will. U.S. policy there is pretty much run now by the National Security Council and not by the State Department. And say what you will about the State Department, but at least it has people who have spent time in Africa, in contrast, I think, to the NSC.

You could see some of the consequences of that on Bush's trip. When he praised Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, for example, for his anti-AIDS campaign, you wondered if anyone had told him that Museveni was also supporting a Congo militia that was butchering helpless villagers.

But nowhere, I think, was the NSC's influence so clear as it was on Bush's stop in Nigeria. During his trip Bush had denounced, correctly, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. Mugabe had intimidated political opponents, won a rigged election, and was presiding over a thoroughly corrupt government. All these things also apply to Nigeria under Olusegun Obasanjo, but Bush embraced the corpulent Nigerian president as if he were a genuine democrat. Indeed he actually hugged him. Many Nigerians were distressed this, but the NSC was in charge, and so apparently that didn't matter.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.