Published by Zed Books Ltd. on October 13th 2011
Genres: Political Science, General
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Campaigner, insurgent, fugitive, rebel commander, commodity kingpin, elected president, exile and finally prisoner, Charles Taylor sought to lead his country to change but instead ignited a conflict which destroyed Liberia in over a decade of violence, greed and personal ambition. Taylor's takeover threw much of the neigbouring region into turmoil, until he was finally brought to face justice in The Hague for his role in Sierra Leone's civil war. In this remarkable and eye-opening book, Colin Waugh draws on a variety of sources, testimonies and original interviews - including with Taylor himself - to recount the story of what really happened during these turbulent years. In doing so, he examines both the life of Charles Taylor, as well as the often self-interested efforts of the international community to first save Liberia from disaster, then, having failed to do so, to bring to justice the man it deems most to blame for its disintegration.
This is an extremely comprehensive, well-researched and readable book that will be of great use and interest to anyone interested in brutal civil wars that ravaged Liberia and brought this country – that was established with such high hopes – to its knees.
Although centred around the life and activities of Charles Taylor, the book ranges far and wide across West Africa and its tumultuous events over the last 150 years, and the last three decades in particular. So it also covers the revolution in Sierra Leone, as well as the history and (shamefully) fluctuating status of United States’ involvement with Liberia.
It’s a highly complex story and therefore not easy to document, involving a multitude of countries, regions, tribes and factions. Each has its own acronym, many of which are so similar: NPFL, NPP, NPRAG; UNAMSIL, UNMIL, UNOMIL. What’s more, warring parties split, leading to further confusion, so we have the splinter groups ULIMO, ULIMO-J and ULIMO-K; and NPFL and INPFL. It’s to Mr. Waugh’s credit that he weaves his story through this maze without it reading like an incomprehensible coded text.
Running throughout is Charles Taylor and his various personas: the highly educated overseas student, the patriot, the political campaigner, the communicator, the womaniser, the freedom fighter, the president of a gangster government, the cruel warlord. Mr. Waugh backs up each stage in Taylor’s life with vast amounts of research to give detailed descriptions of events in Liberia and its neighbours.
However, if you come to the book expecting a traditional biography, you might feel a little disappointed, because it’s not. Of course, this wasn’t the author’s intention. But the result is that although I now know a lot about what Taylor did, I still don’t feel I know the person behind his various masks. However, if you treat the book as a biography of Liberia, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
One area in which the book scores very highly is how it stands up for ordinary Liberians. These of course are the people who have suffered the most at the cruel hands of Taylor and his contemporaries. In this respect chapter 13 – Liberian Legacy – is a particularly strong piece of writing which addresses the horrors of war: the ‘child shields,’ waves of armed children sent out ahead of the adult combatants to attack the enemy positions; the Bulk Challenge cargo ship with its 4000 refugees in cramped, insanitary conditions that was ignored by the international community; and the women victims of the ‘epidemic of rape and sexually based attacks’.
Finally, a word of praise for the author’s editor and proof-reader, who have done a great job, producing a near-perfect text, which considering the complex names and acronyms is no mean feat. Ironically where mistakes do occur it was where they were least expected: Ramsey Clark morphs into Ramsey Clarke, and the IEE becomes the IIE. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise immaculately produced book, with clear and helpful maps, some interesting black and white photos, and, most important, a list of acronyms!