9. Liberia’s Double Civil War 1989–1996, 1999–2003
Throughout the 1980s, Liberia was a boiling pot of simmering ethnic resentment. The indigenous president Samuel Doe had finally overthrown the political stranglehold that the Americo-Liberians, a group descended from freed American slaves, had held since the country’s formation. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to promote his own ethnic group over all others. It was into this volatile situation that Charles Taylor stepped in 1989.
A former preacher, Taylor had fled to Libya after being indicted by Doe’s government for embezzlement. He trained a guerilla army, came back, and overthrew his old enemy. Most of Liberia welcomed him with open arms . . . until a group allied with Taylor executed Doe in 1990. At that point, Taylor turned on his allies, sparking a war that engulfed the entire country.
Over the next decade or so, Taylor would end one civil war, start another, and make a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone much worse. He even managed to become president of Liberia, running under the slogan, “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” During the two wars, over 250,000 Liberians died—around 7.5 percent of the entire population. In addition, 25,000 people were raped.
What made Taylor’s wars stand out wasn’t how brutal they were, but how disturbingly surreal. Taylor liked to rule through fear, using units like his Butt Naked Battalion to freak people out. Despite the weird name, the Battalion was far from amusing. Children were fed amphetamines, shot full of hallucinogens, given guns, and told to kill anyone who crossed their path. They went into battle either naked or wearing lurid women’s wigs and ball gowns.