Taylor in Exile

Former Liberian president's home in exile is more prison than palace

October 11, 2003


CALABAR, Nigeria (AP) _ Nigerian police armed with cold stares and automatic rifles stand guard outside former Liberian President Charles Taylor's new home in exile: A drab, onetime government office block refitted with air conditioners to ward off the tropical heat.

The cream-colored lodge, perched on a hillside overlooking the Calabar river and a lush mangrove forest, is more prison than palace for Taylor _ an indicted war-crimes suspect banned from speaking publicly and ordered to keep a low profile by his Nigerian hosts.

"How many times has he gone out? Maybe twice," Taylor's spokesman, Vaanii Paasawe, said over midday drinks in a dank hotel bar.

It's an extraordinary change of pace for a man who was once the most powerful and feared in man in Liberia _ until he was forced to step down as part of a peace deal to end his nation's civil war two months ago.

"He's just a normal person now. What's absent from his routine is making decisions about Liberia," Paasawe said, adding to accounts from neighbors and townspeople on the warlord in exile.

"And tennis," Paasawe added. "He's no longer playing tennis as he would love to."

Taylor, a Boston-educated economics student who launched an insurgency in 1989 that plunged Liberia into 14 years of conflict, resigned Aug. 11 under intense pressure from rebels at home and critics abroad.

Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo, who was instrumental in brokering Taylor's asylum agreement, compared Taylor to an "elephant in a china warehouse," arguing he had to be removed to preserve Liberia _ and his own life.

It wasn't a hard decision to make, if late 20th century Liberian history is anything to go by. In 1990, one of Taylor's predecessors, President Samuel Doe, was captured, tortured and slain on orders from another notorious warlord, Prince Johnson _ now living in Nigeria as an evangelical preacher.

In exile in this jungle town 400 miles (640 kilometers) southeast of Lagos, Taylor has turned his attention to less pressing affairs _ like reading, watching television, getting his children into school. He also wants to write his memoirs, aides said.

"He's moved away from managing a state to managing his family. That's a great reduction of activity," Paasawe said.

Home meals are prepared as they always were: By a Liberian cook serving up Taylor's favored diet of cinnamon buns, stewed cassava leaves and fresh fish.

In Calabar, Taylor's presence has drawn mixed reviews _ sharpened by Nigerian media reports the government is spending US$30,000 daily to care for Taylor, his 36-member family and an army of cooks, cleaners and former bodyguards who occupy two adjacent lodges. Taylor, known for keeping a valet even in the bush as a rebel, has always traveled large.

"Why should we spend any money on him? He's an embarrassment," said Allen Ibe, 36, who runs a camera store.

"He should be sent to face trial. The man has caused a lot of atrocities," said another in her 40s, Elizabeth Ijong, who works in a government building beside Taylor's house.

"I've seen him a few times standing out on the balcony, looking around," Ijong said of Taylor. "He doesn't stay long, though ... I think he's afraid for his own security."

A U.N.-backed war-crimes court in Sierra Leone indicted the ex-warlord in June for his alleged role in fueling that country's own civil war.

Taylor has hired a team of lawyers to defend himself, but the former president is deeply concerned about the indictment, which Paasawe said was "hanging like a sword over his head" and "beclouding his personality."
Taylor is largely unable to travel outside Nigeria for fear of arrest.

On Bogobiri Street, black-market money-changers shrug off allegations of Taylor's misdeeds, saying his arrival has been a business boon, at least for them. "Taylor's boys" come to change between US$50 and US$5,000 a day, said Tejani Hassan, 25.

Many people claim to have seen Taylor cruising in a mini-convoy of four-wheel drives with tinted windows. Two people said they saw him at an upscale nightclub in trademark sunglasses and white safari suit. Another said he once attended a Baptist church.

Most of the sightings appear to have been Taylor's family, though, who've been out to buy ice cream and visit the Drill Ranch, a sanctuary for endangered primates on the edge of town.

What Taylor really does all day, though, is anyone's guess.

Diplomats and U.N. officials have accused him of trying to steer Liberia's ship of state from abroad _ with liberal use of a cell phone. Obasanjo has warned Taylor not to meddle in Liberian affairs.

Paasawe confirmed Taylor had been in contact with Moses Blah, his hand-picked successor, and others, but denied he was giving orders or interfering in politics.

Taylor still holds sway over thousands of loyal Liberian soldiers, and could help _ in his capacity as an "elder statesman" _ to disarm them, Paasawe said.

The ex-president has voiced occasional regrets about stepping down, Paasawe said. And he might have other regrets, too.

Taylor, who regularly sent child soldiers into battle and is accused of plundering his country's wealth while Liberia grew poorer, believes God may have punished him, according to Paasawe.

"He has used the words that God has chastised him _ not to my liking _ but he uses it very much. He says, 'Maybe I'm being chastised by God for a purpose,'" Paasawe recounted.

And then, after a pause: "He keeps saying, 'If God agrees, I might want to return to Liberia.'"

Copyright 2003 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.