Firestone and the Warlord
The untold story of Firestone, Charles Taylor and the tragedy of Liberia.
HARBEL, Liberia — The killers launched from the plantation under a waning moon one night in October 1992. They surged past tin-roofed villages and jungle hideouts, down macadam roads and red-clay bush trails. More and more joined their ranks until thousands of men in long, ragged columns moved toward the distant capital.
Men in camouflage mounted rusted artillery cannon in battered pickup trucks. Thin teenagers lugged rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Children carried AK-47s. Some held long machetes.
The killers wore ripped jeans and T-shirts, women’s wigs and cheap rubber sandals. Grotesque masks made them look like demons. They were electric with drugs. They clutched talismans of feather and bone to protect them from bullets. In the pre-dawn darkness, they surrounded Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
They loosed their attack on the sleeping city. Artillery slammed into stores and homes. Mortars arced through thick, humid air that smelled of rot. Boy soldiers canoed across mangrove swamps. As they pressed in, the killers forced men, women and children from their homes. They murdered civilians and soldiers. Falling shells just missed the U.S. Embassy, hunkered on a high spot overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
A new phase of Liberia’s civil war had begun. It would whip savagely out of control over the next decade. More than 200,000 people would die or suffer terrible injuries, most of them civilians — limbs hacked off, eyes gouged out. Half the country’s population would become refugees. Five American nuns would be slaughtered, becoming international symbols of the conflict’s depravity.
Orchestrating the anarchy was Charles Taylor, a suave egomaniac obsessed with taking over Liberia, America’s most faithful ally in Africa. For the attack that October morning, he had built his army of butchers and believers in part with the resources of one of America’s most iconic businesses: Firestone.
Firestone ran the plantation that Taylor used to direct the October 1992 assault on Monrovia. In operation since 1926, the rubber plantation was considered to be the largest of its kind in the world, a contiguous swath of trees, mud-brown rivers, low hills and verdant bush that at the time splayed across 220 square miles – roughly the size of Chicago.
Firestone wanted Liberia for its rubber. Taylor wanted Firestone to help his rise to power. At a pivotal meeting in Liberia’s jungles in July 1991, the company agreed to do business with the warlord.
In the first detailed examination of the relationship between Firestone and Taylor, an investigation by ProPublica and Frontline lays bare the role of a global corporation in a brutal African conflict.
Firestone served as a source of food, fuel, trucks and cash used by Taylor’s ragtag rebel army, according to interviews, internal corporate documents and declassified diplomatic cables.
The company signed a deal in 1992 to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel government. Over the next year, the company doled out more than $2.3 million in cash, checks and food to Taylor, according to an accounting in court files. Between 1990 and 1993, the company invested $35.3 million in the plantation.
In return, Taylor’s forces provided security to the plantation that allowed Firestone to produce rubber and safeguard its assets. Taylor’s rebel government offered lower export taxes that gave the company a financial break on rubber shipments.
For Taylor, the relationship with Firestone was about more than money. It helped provide him with the political capital and recognition he needed as he sought to establish his credentials as Liberia’s future leader.
“We needed Firestone to give us international legitimacy,” said John Toussaint “J.T.” Richardson, a U.S.-trained architect who became one of Taylor’s top advisers. “We needed them for credibility.”
While Firestone used the plantation for the business of rubber, Taylor used it for the business of war. Taylor turned storage centers and factories on Firestone’s sprawling rubber farm into depots for weapons and ammunition. He housed himself and his top ministers in Firestone homes. He also used communications equipment on the plantation to broadcast messages to his supporters, propaganda to the masses and instructions to his troops.
Secret U.S. diplomatic cables from the time captured Taylor’s gratitude to Firestone. Firestone’s plantation “had been the lifeblood” of the territory in Liberia that he controlled, Taylor told one Firestone executive, according to a State Department cable. Taylor later said in sworn testimony that Firestone’s resources had been the “most significant” source of foreign exchange in the early years of his revolt.
In written responses to questions, Firestone acknowledged the agreement with Taylor, but said it had never willingly assisted Taylor’s insurrection.
The company said Taylor rebels had used Firestone’s trucks, food, medical supplies, fuel and tools under the “obvious threat of violence to anyone who considered stopping them.”
“Firestone had no role in the rise of Charles Taylor. It had no role in his ability to hold power in Liberia,” the company said.
“At no time did Firestone have a collaborative relationship with Charles Taylor,” the statement said. “The company’s activities were focused on protecting its employees and property. The company had no ability to stop Taylor’s forces from using the plantation for any purposes.”
At the moment of the October 1992 attack that came to be known as Operation Octopus, Taylor controlled the vast majority of Liberia. He faced a weak interim government in Monrovia, backed by 7,000 largely untested soldiers from allied West African nations.
Operation Octopus effectively plunged the country into five more turbulent, terrible years of intermittent warfare. Taylor turned a civil war between his forces and the Liberian government into a bloodbath as more rebel factions joined in the fight for spoils: diamonds, timber, power. It spilled into neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone, where rebel forces allied with Taylor hacked the limbs off civilians in a terror campaign of unchecked brutality.
In July 1997, Taylor won his war, and not on the battlefield. He was elected president, dominating with 75 percent of the vote. For many Liberians, a vote for Taylor was a vote of resignation. Many believed it was the only way to stop the killing. After Taylor became president, more factions arose, more bloodletting, more revenge. Liberia and its people suffered yet again.
In 2003, Taylor was indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. He resigned the presidency. He was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison — the first head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity since the Nazi era.
The path to cooperation was neither direct nor easy for Firestone and its executives, according to interviews and documents. Some company officials actively resisted working with Taylor and his fighters, even in the face of real and implied threats of physical violence.
Other senior officers felt the company had no choice but to give in to Taylor’s demands. They believed that working with Taylor was the only way to protect the thousands of impoverished Liberians who lived and labored on the plantation.
Firestone also received conflicting direction from the United States government. One ambassador urged the company to work with Taylor. In Washington, diplomats warned Firestone executives about the dangers of doing business with him.
But in the end, Firestone as a corporation, and as a collection of men, made a deliberate decision to cooperate with a man whose forces were publicly denounced as violent, vicious and rapacious by the U.S. government and human rights groups.
The U.S. State Department had issued a report blaming Taylor’s forces for killing civilians, raping women and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to become refugees. Human Rights Watch said that Taylor’s forces had engaged in a killing campaign that put a targeted ethnic group at “risk of genocide.”
Today, Firestone maintains that at the time it struck its deal with Taylor, the guerrilla leader had “no well-established record” of human right violations. It said that many other companies and world leaders had treated Taylor as a legitimate political figure. Other companies operating in Liberia at the time chose to leave. But some stayed on through the violence.
“Does Firestone believe it did the right thing? Yes,” Firestone said of its decisions in Liberia. “Do we, along with former U.S. presidents, the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and many leaders around the world who worked with Charles Taylor regret the war criminal he became? Yes.”
The decision that Firestone faced confronts American companies operating to this day in war-torn, volatile regions in an increasingly globalized economy. All aim to make money. All must weigh, to one degree or another, their hierarchy of obligations – to their shareholders, to their foreign workers, to their host countries, and to their own sense of right and wrong.
Donald Ensminger served as the managing director of the Firestone plantation when Taylor invaded Liberia. He witnessed the violence first hand. Taylor rebels killed and imprisoned his workers. They threatened Ensminger with death at the point of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
Ensminger was let go from the company in October 1991. For the next 23 years, he kept silent about Firestone’s choice to do a deal with a warlord. Now, he told Frontline and ProPublica, he wanted to explain.
He said that he warned Firestone that Taylor was a killer. He told the company that working with him might be a crime. He urged them to avoid deals that might legitimize the guerilla leader as the ruler of Liberia.
For him, the decision was clear. And Firestone got it wrong.
“Certainly on behalf of our employees, the ones that were killed and suffered, it was immoral that we should now recognize the guy that caused all this,” he said in an interview.
Gerald Rose, who served as the deputy chief of mission in Liberia at the time, holds an equally unsparing view of Firestone’s choice.
“Do I think they have blood on their hands? Yes,” Rose said. “I would not have made the decisions they made. I believe they facilitated a warlord in his insurrection and in the atrocities that he created.”
Through the years, Liberia has been hesitant to examine its past. Taylor, for instance, was tried only for harm he caused in Sierra Leone, not Liberia. In 2009, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended sanctions for scores of perpetrators. It cited Firestone for having aided Taylor in carrying out his rebellion and called for more investigation. The Liberian government never acted on those recommendations.
The stunning truth is that nobody has ever been punished in Liberia for the civil war that destroyed the nation. In fact, some of the people who helped to wreck the country are now the same people responsible for rebuilding it.
Top officials of formerly warring factions are now politicians passing laws in the legislature. They are pastors preaching from the country’s pulpits. They are executives running some of the country’s largest businesses.
The damage they inflicted on Liberia haunts the country even today. Liberia’s shattered infrastructure and weakened health system have struggled to cope with the spread of the Ebola virus, which has killed thousands of Liberians.
In an interview with Frontline and ProPublica, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged that Liberia had not yet succeeded in shaking the Taylor regime or the devils of its history.
“The effect of that regime and regimes of the past are still with us today,” she said. “Today we have a traumatized nation.”
Efforts over many months to reach Taylor through his lawyers and family were not successful.
Johnson Sirleaf looked thoughtful when asked to describe Liberia’s relationship with Firestone. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, Johnson Sirleaf said the company had benefitted Liberia with jobs and revenue.
In fact, during its decades of operation, Firestone had built a nation within a nation. The company provided housing, schools, food and health care to workers and their families. Some 80,000 Liberians lived within its borders. Firestone introduced currency, built roads and opened up the rural interior.
At the same time, Johnson Sirleaf said, Firestone has sometimes failed to live up to its obligations to the country whose people have provided it with so much over so many years. Over the decades, the company has faced accusations that it exploited its laborers, received unfair concession deals, despoiled the environment and exacerbated corruption.
Said Johnson Sirleaf: “It is a mixed story.”