Ousted Taylor Still a Force in Liberia

Charles Taylor used fear, patronage and state monopolies to control what diplomats and business leaders estimate amounted to 90 percent of Liberia's economy -- everything from imported rice to diamonds, timber and lucrative shipping registry fees.

Tracking that money, and breaking Taylor's control of what's left, is crucial to rebuilding war-ruined Liberia. But diplomats say Taylor, working the phone from his new villa in exile in the jungles of southern Nigeria, isn't letting go easily.

These officials, citing intelligence reports, paint this picture of the ousted warlord-president's attempts to keep his hand in the pot:

Within days of his Aug. 11 acceptance of asylum in Nigeria, Taylor began making multiple calls each day to successor Moses Blah — violating his exile agreement — and Foreign Minister Lewis Brown. He also is trying to collect debts from Liberian business figures in Monrovia and attempting to solicit donations for unknown purposes.

"We don't know why he's raising money. What's clear is that he's keeping contact with the remnants of his government," Geoff Rudd, the European Union's top diplomat in Liberia, told The Associated Press.

Taylor, a longtime rebel leader who won the presidency in 1997, yielded power and flew out in a Nigerian presidential jet last month, bowing to pressure from the United States, African leaders and rebels laying siege to his capital.

He left behind a country in ruin from 14 years of power struggles.

Liberia, once sub-Saharan Africa's most prosperous nation, today has no electrical system, a train system that runs on back-powered hand carts, and a water plant operated as a charity by the EU.

Taylor never made good on promises to repair Liberia — but not for lack of funds, Liberians and Western diplomats say. There are estimates he has up to $1 billion stashed in Swiss bank accounts.

"Taylor was into everything," Rudd said.

Taylor's regime had dealings in gold, diamonds, gas and rice imports, timber exports, printing and Liberia's shipping registry business, which is among the worlds largest.

Diplomats and Liberian business figures describe a system in which six or seven prominent Liberians close to Taylor control all but 10 percent of the country's export and import businesses.

The Liberians speaking out insist on anonymity for fear of retribution. Longtime international officials in Monrovia, also unwilling to give their names, confirm the accounts.

Gasoline — an essential commodity powering generators in a country without electricity since 1992 — is offloaded at the government-controlled port for less than $1 a gallon.

At the pumps, it sells at the state-dictated price — around $3.20 a gallon.

Rice — Liberia's staple — is charged import duties and other taxes totaling $5.50 per 110-pound sack, much higher than in other West African countries, said Georges Haddad, a Lebanese businessman who Liberians say is the nation's sole rice importer.

Haddad said he imports about 1 million bags of rice a year but does not run a monopoly.

Taylor at one point took ownership of 52 percent of the country's sole printing company for free. "He made them an offer they couldn't refuse," the EU's Rudd said without elaborating.

Seventy percent of the world's container ships fly Liberia's star-and-striped banner under a so-called "flag of convenience" arrangement that lowers shipping lines' taxes. Diplomats say that generates about $24 million annually.

"Which bank account is that money going into? We'll need to figure that out," Jacques Klein, an American serving as the U.N. envoy to Liberia, said.

How much the country's mineral and natural reserves netted Taylor's government may never be known. For years, Liberians watched Taylor accrue lavish mansions and plantations.

One businessman said anyone who spoke about Taylor's take from gold and diamonds might not live long. With government forces specializing in torture and summary execution, rights groups said, few dared speak out.

With Taylor gone, they are starting to.

"We're endowed with such great resources," said Philip Wesseh, publisher of Liberia's The Inquirer newspaper. "It's in the way it is managed. We shouldn't be a poor country."

An EU study said Liberia had about $172 million in revenues in 2002. That year, the government budgeted expenditures of $62 million — but received less than 45 percent of that, the study said.

"Where the balance went, we don't know," Rudd said.

Taylor refused outside audits of government ledgers.

It also is not known exactly how much money Taylor has in Swiss bank accounts.

"He had to buy weapons, keep his people happy and get all those Mercedes-Benzes for his girlfriends," said Robert Ferguson, a U.S. Embassy official who tracks Liberia's business community.

Switzerland promised in June to freeze all assets linked to the indicted war-crimes suspect, who was the target of U.N. sanctions concerning arms, travel and timber.

Taylor's exile agreement with Nigeria prohibits him from any dealings with Blah or from influencing the peace process, diplomats said. Full terms of the exile deal have not been disclosed.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo — credited with taking the lead in persuading Taylor to leave — has been asked by foreign officials in Liberia to shut off Taylor's phones, Rudd said.

"He's just trying to destabilize the situation. I think he's trying to prove that he's not the problem, that this place is insecure, that people will always fight," Rudd said.

Obasanjo summoned Taylor to his own farm last week to discuss the pro-Taylor militias in Liberia that Nigerian-led peacekeepers want reined in, a Nigerian government official said on condition of anonymity.

Diplomats and other observers say Liberia's financial success depends on abolishing Taylor's influence, unraveling Liberia's jerry-built economy and directing revenues into government coffers and the pockets of civil servants — many of whom have not been paid for two years.

"The solution is open markets, competition and a strong legislature to check the executive," said Wesseh, the publisher. "We need accountability and not patronage. We need a new system."