As we sat down, Taylor admonished us to take out our notebooks "so you do not make any mistakes about what I say." He began with a long, scolding lecture about the ICG's reports on Liberia, which had been uniformly critical of his ruinous leadership. His assembled ministers provided periodic punctuation by nodding their agreement or solemnly intoning, "Yes, Mr. President."
Taylor seized on the issue of the war-crimes tribunal that had recently been set up to prosecute atrocities conducted during the 1991-2002 war in Sierra Leone. Taylor had directly supported the militia faction that had committed the worst abuses in the neighboring country, while profiting wildly from an illegal diamond trade that flourished in the midst of the war. There were growing calls for Taylor to be indicted by the tribunal, and his vehemence convinced me he was deeply nervous about it -- justifiably so, as it turned out.
Taylor also went on at great length about the LURD rebels. With the 9/11 attacks still a fresh memory, he mimicked the language of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, calling the rebels "terrorists" and "Islamic fundamentalists," though there were no grounds for such charges. Indeed, only a portion of the group's followers were Muslim, and they had no links to any international terrorist group. Turning history on its head, Taylor claimed that the notorious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone -- the militia group he had directly supported -- was some kind of Islamic conspiracy. Taylor denied that his government supported the RUF, even though it was a poorly kept secret that it did. The RUF had become notorious for hacking arms off opponents, real and imagined, and even small children.
"The way the RUF has been cutting off people's arms," suggested Taylor, "maybe this is a sharia practice. I do not know." He insisted that his own forces had been very well behaved as they fought the LURD rebels in Liberia's countryside. "We were so careful. War is not child's play," he said. It was an unintentionally ironic statement given the number of Taylor's child soldiers we had seen manning checkpoints during the previous days.
Taylor claimed that all his actions, including smuggling in weapons from Eastern Europe to circumvent a U.N. arms embargo and cracking down on opposition groups, were in keeping with the United Nations Charter and the rights of a sovereign government. He blamed Washington and London for conspiring against him. I noticed the foreign minister craning to read my notes as I jotted all this down.
After taking us to task at length, Taylor tried a more personable approach. He insisted we should not impose our worldview on Africa, saying, "You see, my brother, political feuds border on hatred in Liberia. You cannot expect First World standards. Things are just different; everyone wants power. It is not like the politics you know."