Ten years ago, the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, resigned and went into exile. A decade before that, Liberia was in the middle one of the most horrific civil wars of the 20th century. Today, the country is at peace and under the administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president. Since early 2013, Taylor has been on appeal at a UN-backed special court in The Hague, the Netherlands, due to his recent sentence of 50 years' imprisonment for arming rebels during the Sierra Leone Civil War of the 1990s. In order to mark these events and the ensuing decade of peace, I travelled overland from Sierra Leone to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, to listen to the memories and views of two Liberians in their mid-20s who, despite being related to each other, differ greatly in their opinions of the war.
With African and American R&B booming from speakers, regular hassle from passing prostitutes, and clouds of red dust settling from moving vehicles, I drank a bottle of Club beer at one of the many roadside bars in Barnesville, a busy suburb of Monrovia. Joining me were two local residents, John Dupor — a slim, helpful, and polite 27-year-old — and his cousin, the 24-year-old Mike Johnson, who enthusiastically informed me about his future career plans (both individuals requested pseudonyms). As the night progressed, the conversation started to focus on the teenage years of the two men. The stories were fascinating, and at times harrowing and emotionally charged. Yet what struck me most about this evening was the great and at first hidden divergence that exists between the two family members, reinforcing not only the horrors of war, but that in every event there is more than one viewpoint, which can differ greatly from how such an event is portrayed by the media.
In early 2003, after returning home from the neighboring Ivory Coast for the school holidays, John was captured by the rebel group known as the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, which was based in the east of the country. Over the following eight months, John, aged 17 at the time, was forced into the life of a teenage soldier, surviving on whatever means possible, trusting no one, and using provided arms to fight and protect himself. Speaking with a soft accent reminiscent of America’s Deep South, John recalled some of the events: “I killed people, yes. I had to survive. I took a bulletproof shirt [vest] from a dead man to save me. This gave me hope.”
Welcoming peacekeepers in the latter months of 2003 and the subsequent end of the war, John was reunited with his family who had been hiding in the surrounding rainforest with no supplies. Initially shocked by their son’s recent lifestyle, John’s parents understood his reasoning and began rebuilding their lives. Today, John is completing his education and hopes for continued stability in his country.
Sat opposite John was Mike. Aged 14 when the war ended, Mike’s memories and views are quite different from John’s. To appreciate why, it is important to understand the events that led Liberia to civil war.
Buildup To War
Originally proposed as a resettling ground for freed American slaves (known as American Liberians), Liberia gained its independence in 1847. The young country was influenced heavily by the United States, and the small American Liberian population dominated all economic and political institutions, while indigenous communities were refused national citizenship. By the mid-20th century, Liberia prospered under the presidency of American Liberian William Tubman, and the country became a founding member of the United Nations and African Union. Despite such achievements, mounting inequalities between American Liberians and local populations escalated, which led to increased hostilities. Although all Liberians were given the right to vote in 1963, government corruption continued. During 1971, William Tolbert succeeded Tubman as president. Nine years later, Tolbert was assassinated by 28-year-old Sergeant Samuel Doe in a coup due to food-price riots. Doe became the country’s first non-American Liberian president.
Under the Doe administration, corruption combined with poor international relations continued to devastate the economy, which led to the rise of opposition groups. On December 24, 1989, Charles Taylor, the former head of Doe’s government procurement agency, launched an invasion from the Ivory Coast, marking the start of the First Liberian War. Taylor controlled many rural areas, while Doe kept a stronghold around the capital. During the conflict, which was funded by the illegal trading of tropical hardwoods and diamonds (to purchase arms from the civil war in Sierra Leone), over 200,000 people were killed, while millions more fled as refugees. In 1996, a peace agreement was signed, and Taylor was elected as president during the subsequent year. The Second Liberian War broke out in 1999 when the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy rebel group launched an insurgence on Taylor from the northeast of the country. This was followed by an attack in 2003 from the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, another rebel group originating from the Ivory Coast border, which led to Taylor’s resignation and exile to Nigeria.
Listening to John and Mike recall their youth in the side-street Monrovian bar certainly focused my attention away from the biting mosquitoes and sweat dripping down my spine. Three years younger than John, Mike, a charismatic, lively, and proud young Liberian, bristled with confidence and thoroughly enjoyed living the highlife. Mike was the son of Alfred Jackson, the procurement director for Taylor’s government who died in 2007. Responsible for killing at least 300 individuals, Jackson supported Taylor — they were friends since university — from 1989 to 2002. Unlike John, who was forced into rebel fighting, Mike was exiled for safety during the conflict. Thus, Mike’s memories of the war only stem from a young age. Despite his father's actions, Mike was proud of his immediate family’s place in his nation’s history, noting that many developed countries pass through a period of civil war prior to socio-economic prosperity. In other words, the events that ended a decade ago were important for Liberia and the country’s future socio-economic growth.
“In the U.S. there was civil war and then development,” said Mike. “In England there was war and then industrialisation. France had their revolution and then economic growth. Liberia had its war, and now we are moving forward.” Today, Mike is an accountant and hopes to embark on his own career in politics over the forthcoming decade.
Hot, steamy, and chaotic, with wide, dusty roads clogged with motorbikes and flanked by low-rise buildings, clothing stalls, food vendors, and busy bars, modern Monrovia and its inhabitants display resilience, optimism, and a sense of looking forward. The shadows of war, however, have not faded, as poignantly portrayed by John and Mike – a blunt reminder of how civil war can sever family bonds. The relationship between the two cousins also demonstrates the multifaceted nature of a major event and the impacts that such an occurrence has on a population. John was forced into fighting for the rebels for his own survival, while Mike’s parents supported the Taylor regime for a variety of reasons, including loyalty and the hope for their own family’s survival. The horrors of war can never be justified, yet the personal motives of individuals in such events are complex and made during times of desperation. Something to remember next time we make judgments about conflicts or other events we see portrayed in the news, and the people who are involved.