In a Leaking Life Raft: Pat Robertson's Curious Relationship with Liberia's Charles Taylor
By Jayson Whitehead
August 5, 2003
"One thing has to happen," George W. Bush demanded on July 9 during his recent trip to Africa. "Mr. Taylor has to leave the country." Bush's pronouncement seemed to seal the fate of the embattled Charles Taylor. President of Liberia since 1997, Taylor was indicted in June by a U.N.-backed international court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law for his part in the decade-long strife in neighboring Sierra Leone. Through his direct and indirect involvement in civil wars in that country, other neighboring nations, and Liberia, Taylor is believed to be responsible for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of deaths. While he accepted an offer of asylum from Nigeria, Taylor refused to leave Liberia until U.S. peacekeepers arrived. And although he recently announced that he would abdicate power on Aug. 11, he suddenly changed the conditions of his exit on Aug. 2, demanding that the U.N. sanctions be dropped. "He will only leave Liberia as a free man," Taylor's spokesman stated.
As rebel forces continue to battle with Taylor's armies in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and U.S. troops float off the coast of this country formed by freed U.S. slaves in 1847, Taylor has vociferously protested the cries that he is a warlord and murderer. "Charles Taylor is not the animal that people try to make me out to be," he told the Liberian press. "I think there is a zealous attempt to high-noon Charles Taylor." And on another occasion: "Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time." While Taylor's attempts at self-defense met only scoffs, one lone defender rose to bear the mantle of Taylor's innocence.
On June 26, "M.G." Pat Robertson appeared before the million viewers of his 700 Club and let loose a series of verbal attacks aimed at the U.S. government. "[O]f late—the last oh, four, five, six years—the United States State Department has tried as hard as it can to destabilize Liberia and to bring about the very outcome we're seeing now," he told the television audience. "They had no endgame, they have no plan of what to do, they only wanted to destroy the sitting president and his government, and as a result, the place is being plunged into chaos."
Only a few days later, the former head of Christian Coalition again took on the U.S. State Department. "Well, they haven't had an endgame, all they've wanted to do is destroy the government of Liberia, which they have succeeded in doing," Robertson said. "And they have emboldened the LURD guerrillas to come in and bring about terrible fighting... It's a horrible bloodbath brought on by the United States State Department."
As international demands for Taylor's removal increased through the first week of July, Robertson stepped up his condemnation of what he considered was America's complicit participation in the chaos in Liberia. On July 7, he chastised the U.S. for mismanaging crises throughout Africa, including Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and Zaire (now the Republic of Congo). Then he got to the crux of his position—that the U.S. is supporting Muslim attacks on Christian nations, adding both the Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast to the list of beleaguered nations. Then he turned his viewers' attention back to the country of controversy.
"So we're undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country. And how dare the President of the United States say to the duly elected president of another country, 'You've got to step down.' How can he do that?" Robertson demanded of President Bush. "It's one thing to say, 'We will give you money if you step down,' or 'We will send troops if you step down.' But just to order him to step down? He doesn't work for us." Robertson's disgust was palpable. "But that's the arrogance that comes through in this whole thing," he said. "So I mean, I'm appalled." (As late as Aug. 4, Robertson continued to denounce the State Dept. for its role in the imminent fall of Taylor.)
On July 10, the Washington Post, which had been following Robertson's Liberian comments since his June 26 remarks on the 700 Club, published a story on his support of Taylor. In an interview for the piece, Robertson agreed that Taylor should leave office but only if accompanied by U.S. peacekeepers. Yet this was not meant to be a retraction of his earlier comments. In the same conversation, he labeled Taylor's indictment for crimes against humanity "nonsense" and said that it "should be quashed."
Robertson's stance brought him immediate scorn. Richard Land, president and CEO of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's agency for "applied Christianity," lashed out in the same Post article. "I would say that Pat Robertson is way out on his own, in a leaking life raft, on this one."
Robertson responded by issuing a press release on his website. Maintaining that Taylor was elected president in a free election, Robertson downplayed the Liberian leader's role in the violence in Sierra Leone. Throughout his defense, Robertson returned to the notion that the U.S. is supporting the Muslim takeover of Christian nations. He also offered excuses for previous statements: "These questions and my concern in no way indicated that I was supporting Charles Taylor. ...I regret that my sentiments in support of the suffering Liberian people were misinterpreted by the Washington Post as unqualified support for Charles Taylor, a man who I have never met, and about whose actions a decade ago I have no firsthand knowledge."
While Charles Taylor was easily elected president of Liberia in 1997, his path to the top post was a winding, contentious one. He was first involved with the Liberian government in the early 1980s when he returned to his native country following studies in America to run the General Services Agency for newly installed Liberian ruler Samuel Doe. Doe had only recently come to power after leading a successful coup against President William Tolbert, whom Doe's men had disemboweled. (Doe would meet a similar fate ten years later). Doe also ordered the public execution of thirteen government ministers, having them stripped to their undershorts on a beach and gunned down.
As head of the General Services Agency, Taylor controlled much of his country's budget, and in 1983 was accused by Doe of embezzling nearly $1 million from the government. In the first act of what sounds like the plot of a bad espionage novel, Taylor fled to the U.S., where he was detained under a Liberian extradition warrant and held in a Massachusetts prison. Before he could be shipped back to Liberia, Taylor escaped from jail when he and his fellow inmates sawed through their prison bars and climbed to freedom on a rope of knotted bedsheets. Although the rest of the inmates were eventually captured, Taylor eluded the grasp of the authorities.
Taylor resurfaced in Libya, where, according to a November 2, 2001, Washington Post article, he trained under Col. Moammar Gadaffi at an international terrorist training camp in order to launch a rebellion against his former employer, Samuel Doe. It was also during his time at this camp that Taylor befriended Foday Sankoh, who would found the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and soon begin a war against Sierra Leone's government.
From there, Taylor moved to countries bordering Liberia, where he organized a fighting force to unseat Doe. On Christmas Eve, 1989, his National Patriot Front invaded Liberia from neighboring Ivory Coast, and although his coup attempt failed, a rival warlord lured the general outside the capital, and killed him by hacking him to bits.
Thus began the civil war that turned Liberia into a land of utter ruin. Over the next seven years Liberia was a veritable killing field, where soldiers dressed in wigs and wedding dresses (or, in the case of the Butt Naked Brigade, nothing at all), waged war not only against competing factions, but also against civilians. The most bizarre fighting squad was the Small Boys Unit, which consisted of children mainly between the ages of nine and 12, but sometimes as young as six, who were forced into service and reportedly injected with amphetamines and then sent out to hack and maim whoever they encountered.
By the mid-90s, with Taylor in control of most of the country save Monrovia, a cease-fire was reached with all sides agreeing to hold elections. Subsequently, Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997, with 75% of the votes. While the elections were technically "free", Taylor had threatened, if not elected, to return Liberia to the violent civil war that had already claimed 150,000 Liberian lives. A weary and wounded populace bowed to his demands. Reportedly, a mock campaign slogan at the time went, "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, but I will vote for you."
The reign of terror that brought Taylor to power did not end with his election. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported human rights abuses in Liberia throughout his presidency. In October 16, 2001, a detailed Amnesty International report documented a March 21, 2001, incident in which "[m]ore than 40 Liberian students were arbitrarily detained and tortured and female students were raped after forces of the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) and the Special Operation Division (SOD) stormed the University of Liberia campus to stop a peaceful rally." Dozens of students and professors were reported beaten and at least 20 students were taken by the SOD to police headquarters where they were tortured. The most disturbing section of the report detailed a beach in front of the ATU base that "was turned into a rape field." One female student told Amnesty International that she was arrested at a university exit, forced into a truck and driven to the base, where she was dragged to the beach, stripped naked, and gang-raped by at least four members of the security force. "Over 15 girls were raped on the beach with me," she told her interviewers. "After they did what they wanted to do to us, they decided to set us free." According to Amnesty International, this type of treatment, "rape, beatings, and other forms of torture," is common.
Entrenched in power, Taylor immediately set his sights on enriching his fortunes. As a mere rebel, he had already profited by selling the timber rights to territories he controlled. As president, Taylor was able to use an entire country's assets as a means of reaping financial gain. He initially began trading arms for diamonds with the RUF in Sierra Leone, who were in the midst of a ten-year civil war. Run by his old friend Foday Sankoh, the RUF became known for hacking off the hands, legs, lips, and ears of civilians who did not support them, and for their own compulsory child armies. In 2001, the U.N. imposed hefty sanctions on Taylor's regime for his role in Sierra Leone's conflict, banning the sale of arms to Liberia, the import of its diamonds, and the ability of its senior officials to travel internationally.
The RUF gained control of Sierra Leone's diamond fields in 1997, and immediately formed a business partnership with Taylor. In a November 2, 2001, Washington Post article, Douglas Farah reported that Monrovia served as a conduit for a lucrative diamond trade that by 1998 counted al Qaeda as one its biggest customers. Fresh off two separate U.S. embassy attacks in Africa, al Qaeda was desperate to find a new source of revenue after the U.S. froze $240 million in Taliban and al Qaeda assets. "Small packets of diamonds, often wrapped in rags or plastic sheets, are taken by senior RUF commanders across the porous Liberian border to Monrovia, according to sources," Farah wrote. "There, at a safe house protected by the Liberian government, the diamonds are exchanged for briefcases of cash brought by diamond dealers who fly several times a month from Belgium to Monrovia, where they are escorted by special state security through customs and immigration control." Taylor allegedly received a commission for each transaction that took place in his country.
Thirteen months later, the Washington Post reported that a year-long European investigation into al Qaeda financing revealed that Liberia and neighboring Burkina Faso had harbored senior terrorist officials for two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The covert asylum allowed the terrorists, fearing the imminent freezing of more assets, to purchase $20 million in diamonds as recently as last summer. In exchange, they paid Taylor $1 million for arranging their shelter. Taylor strenuously denies his involvement in any of these scenarios.
In 1998, the same year that Charles Taylor entered into business arrangements with al Qaeda, Freedom Gold Limited was incorporated in the Cayman Islands with Pat Robertson listed as its president and sole director. In May 1999, Robertson signed an agreement with Charles Taylor and select members of his cabinet to allow Freedom Gold the mining rights to explore for gold in southeastern Liberia.
According to Washington Post columnist Colbert King, Liberia received 10 percent ownership of Freedom Gold with the option to buy 15 percent more shares after an exploration period. And in an interview with King, Joseph Mathews, a senior official with Freedom Gold, confirmed that Robertson's company had committed to spend $15 million during the exploration phase, and also to pay rental fees and other dues. In return, the company received exploration rights for five years, with an additional 20 years of mining rights.
For a country wracked by internal strife, an investment of this sort would normally be great news. Except in Liberia, where the funds first go through Taylor and seem to end there. In 2001, Republican Congressman and House Africa subcommittee chairman Ed Royce condemned Taylor during a public hearing: "Charles Taylor has waged a continuous assault on the democratic dreams of the Liberian people. He rules by decree, he suppresses the press ... and he sanctions, if not directs, the murder of political opponents. He and his so-called 'inner circle' control virtually all the nation's significant trade... Liberia has been described as Charles Taylor Inc. This corporation is corrupt to its core."
After four columns by Colbert King in the fall of 2001 lambasting Robertson for Freedom Gold's involvement in Liberia, the religious leader responded. In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, Robertson denied that Liberia owned any stock in Freedom Gold or that there was any cash flow between the two. "Consequently, there is no money to the Liberian government, no money to Charles Taylor, no money for diamonds, or any corollary diamond interests... in fact, nothing except the fantasy of your writer," Robertson wrote. "I personally have never visited Liberia. I have never met President Charles Taylor," he avowed. "I have absolutely no knowledge of the activities in Liberia during the bitter civil war which toppled the ruthless dictator, Master Sergeant Doe. I have no firsthand knowledge of the revolutionary activity in Sierra Leone."
King issued a rebuttal to Robertson's letter the next day in a column called "Bunkum From Pat Robertson." Responding to the denial of Liberian ownership of his company's stock, King quoted a July 2000 press release from Freedom Gold. "Freedom Gold Limited concluded a Mineral Development Agreement that was signed by the president [Taylor] and key members of his Cabinet on May 18, 1999," the press release states. "The agreement provides the Government of Liberia an equity interest of ten percent of the company." Elsewhere, the document stated: "After securing the agreement, Freedom Gold paid the Government of Liberia the surface rental fees required in the license."
Other than this response, Robertson has been unusually tightlipped when it comes to his Liberian business affairs. But when asked about it by the Washington Post in their July 10, 2003, piece on his support of Taylor, Robertson said that he had "written off in [his] own mind" an $8 million investment in the gold mining venture with Taylor. Then he added: "Hope springs eternal. Once the dust has cleared on this thing, chances are there will be some investors from someplace who want to invest. If I could find some people to sell it to, I'd be more than delighted."
So why is Pat Robertson in cahoots with a man who is by all accounts a totalitarian murderer, and the first sitting head of state to face war crimes charges since Slobodan Milosevic? If it is not for the potential gold profits that some speculate could be worth as much as $1.7 billion, then what? One must keep in mind some of his previous business ventures. Beginning with Kalo Vita, a failed scheme in the early '90s to sell vitamins, the lubricious Robertson has mined for diamonds in the former Zaire (now the Congo), briefly become a chairman of the Bank of Scotland, opened an Internet portal in China, and purchased an oil refinery in California. These are not taking into account his CBN empire, the sale of the Family Channel to Rupert Murdoch for $1.7 billion, or the Christian Coalition.
Robertson consistently maintains that his investment in Freedom Gold, currently at $8.4 million, was meant to help pay for humanitarian and evangelical efforts in the country. In his 2001 letter to the Washington Post, Robertson declared that Freedom Gold had hired 130 Liberians, and had installed a Russian geologist as well as Joseph Mathews, "a graduate of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology." He continued: "We are in touch with citizens, government officials, many Christian pastors, and others inside and outside the country. During that time, Freedom Gold has assisted the people of Liberia to gain a better life. It has found freedom of religion, freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and what appears to be a judiciary dedicated to the rule of law."
Only days after his letter to the editor, Liberian TV's two channels broadcast Christian programming created by CBN for eight consecutive nights in December 2001. According to an account in Fortune magazine, programs included a Nigerian retelling of the Prodigal Son parable, animated Bible tales, stories about out-of-body experiences and face-to-face encounters with God—in other words, standard CBN programming. Two nights featured testimonials from Liberians recounting how Jesus had changed their lives.
Two months later, in February 2002, after an official proclamation by Charles Taylor, CBN News reported that all businesses and churches were closed for three days of "prayer, praise, and repentance." Tens of thousands of Liberians poured into the national sports stadium "to declare the sovereignty of Jesus over their war-ravaged nation." The penultimate moment of the Robertson-funded three-day revival came when [Charles] Taylor addressed the crowd. "When the President says, 'I cannot help you,' and that all help comes from God, you better believe it," he said. "I say to you above me is a higher... higher...higher authority... and that authority is Jesus Christ. I am not your President, Jesus is." Taylor then lay facedown, and proclaimed, "We shall confess our sins before God, ask him to heal our land." The Liberian leader was on a roll: "I can see the angels moving through this stadium. And they went back to God and said, 'Lord, Liberia is knocking on the door.' And I can hear Him say, 'Open the door and let Liberia in!'"
While it is unclear what effect the revival had on the country's fortunes, it clearly meant a great deal to Pat Robertson. "There are people who say that's phony baloney, but I thought it was sincere," he later told the Washington Post. "He definitely has Christian sentiments, although you hear of all these rumors that he's done this or done that."
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.