Insight on the News - World

Release date: July 24, 2003



  Jesse, Liberia and Blood Diamonds

By Kenneth R. Timmerman


Insight on the News - World

Issue dated: 08/05/03


With the Congressional Black Caucus clamoring for President George W. Bush to dispatch U.S. troops to Liberia, after having voted almost unanimously against the U.S. war in Iraq, the president and his national-security team are weighing the costs of joining a multinational peacekeeping force in a nation that has ripped through several of them during the last decade. One thing neither Bush nor the Congressional Black Caucus is talking about publicly, however, is how Liberia began this latest phase of its spiraling descent into chaos.

And for good reason. The current crisis was in part the creation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic Party activist who claims to champion the rights of Africans to self-governance. As special envoy for democracy and human rights in Africa, starting in October 1997, Jackson was President Bill Clinton's point man for Africa. It was Jackson who spearheaded Clinton's 10-day African safari in March 1998, at a cost to taxpayers of $42.8 million. And it was Jackson who legitimated Liberian strongman Charles Taylor and his protégé, the machete-wielding militia leader in neighboring Sierra Leone, Cpl. Foday Sankoh. Without Jackson's active intervention, both leaders were headed toward international isolation and sanction. Thanks to Jackson, both retained power to murder another day.

At Jackson's prompting, Clinton made an unprecedented phone call to Taylor from Air Force One while flying over Africa. Until then the United States had shunned Taylor because of his grisly past. Among Taylor's many "accomplishments" were the murder of American Catholic nuns in Liberia and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia.

The mainstream media has resolutely ignored Jackson's involvement in the diamond wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and he never has been hauled before a congressional committee to account for this behavior [see Kenneth R. Timmerman's New York Times best seller, Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson (Regnery Publishing, March 2002)].

Jackson first met Taylor in Monrovia on Feb. 11, 1998, thanks to the intercession of an old friend, a Liberian named Romeo Horton who had become a close aide to Taylor. Taylor had just been elected president of Liberia after a campaign riddled with intimidation in which he sent his infamous "Small Boys Units" throughout the countryside, waving their machetes at anyone who refused to vote for their man. But instead of hectoring Taylor on human rights and democracy - after all, that was Jackson's brief - Jackson embraced the Liberian strongman, as shown in a State Department after-action memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

"During his 24 hours in Liberia, the Rev. Jackson met several times privately with President Taylor and appeared to establish a strong personal bond with him," the April 29, 1998, memo from the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia reads. "After Jesse Jackson's visit, President Taylor went out of his way to stress that Liberia is America's best friend in Africa, and that it was time to improve the bilateral relationship - a 180-degree change in direction from the public posture of the Taylor government before the Jackson visit."

In neighboring Sierra Leone, Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) militia had massacred tens of thousands of civilians and, teamed with disgruntled military officers, had driven elected president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah into exile. Jackson said in an interview that he considered Sankoh and Taylor to be like the gang leaders in Chicago, who could be "redeemed" by his careful ministrations. Rather than confront them, Jackson befriended them, over the howls of the State Department professionals.

"Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright delegated Africa policy to [U.S. Rep. Donald] Payne [of New Jersey] and the Congressional Black Caucus," Sierra Leone's outspoken ambassador to Washington, John Ernest Leigh, told this reporter. A House International Affairs Committee staffer who followed Jackson's meetings with Taylor put it more bluntly: "The whole effort under Clinton was to mainstream Charles Taylor, and Jesse Jackson had a lot to do with it."

Just two months after his first meeting with Taylor, Jackson played host to a "reconciliation conference" at his Operation PUSH headquarters in Chicago. It was meant to drum up support for Taylor in the United States and to portray him as a modern democratic leader. Taylor appeared on a huge video screen that dominated the stage, while Jackson chirped, "It's morning time in Liberia."

Harry A. Greaves, a Taylor opponent who helped found the Liberia Action Party, called Jackson's conference "a PR exercise by Charles Taylor. The general perception in the Liberian community was that Jackson was a paid lobbyist for Charles Taylor." Jackson insisted to me that he "got absolutely no money from the government of Liberia" to play host to the conference. But Jackson had tried to exclude the opposition from the conference entirely, until Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Howard Jeter telephoned Jackson and insisted otherwise.

"If there are any adversaries who are not ready to reconcile, please leave the room," Jackson told the auditorium. He then demanded that Liberians stop using the Internet to publish information on Taylor's atrocities. "The international community frequents the Internet and takes note of whatever information is disseminated on the information superhighway," he said. "So, please stay off the Net."

In September, just five months after the "reconciliation" Jackson hosted in Chicago, Taylor's Special Security Service went on a killing rampage in an effort to track down and eliminate rival warlord Roosevelt Johnson, an ethnic Krahn whom Taylor accused of plotting a coup. When Johnson sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy, Taylor's men gunned him down in the entryway, wounding two embassy employees. The State Department was not amused, and asked Jackson to reprimand Taylor by phone. No record of what Jackson actually said was released but, in November 1998, during another visit to the region, Jesse again treated Taylor as a statesman.

With help from Britain and Nigeria (but not from Jackson), Sierra Leone's elected president Kabbah managed to return to power in March 1998. Sankoh's RUF guerrillas were forced back into the bush, and Sankoh himself was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to death. It all could have ended there - if it hadn't been for Jackson, who intervened with Kabbah to get the death sentence against Sankoh lifted.

In January 1999, Sankoh's troops went on another killing spree and launched an offensive that brought them into the streets of Freetown. A West African peacekeeping force led by Nigeria managed to drive the rebels out of the capital and fought them to a stalemate. Again, it could have ended there if it hadn't been for Jackson's active intervention.

In May 1999, Jackson decided it was time to reinvent Sankoh, whose troops now controlled Sierra Leone's rich diamond mines. By this point, the United Nations and private investigators had published detailed reports on how Sankoh and Taylor were using "blood diamonds" to fuel West Africa's civil and regional wars, leading to international controls on the diamond trade. On the margins of a conference in nearby Ghana, Jackson "kidnapped" Kabbah, according to Kabbah advisers I interviewed for my book, and flew him to neighboring Lomé, Togo, where Jackson forced him to sign a cease-fire with Sankoh. "We had not expected or planned that agreement," former assistant secretary of state Susan E. Rice tells Insight, "or that Jackson would have a role in it." The impression among African policymakers at State was, she says, "Where did this come from?"

In July, under the terms of a power-sharing agreement that Jackson helped negotiate and which Kabbah vigorously resisted, Sankoh was released from house arrest, made a vice president in a new national-unity government and put in charge of Sierra Leone's diamond mines.

Now in government, Sankoh began smuggling out thousands of diamonds, many of which he sent to Taylor in Liberia in exchange for weapons. Jackson repeatedly raised the issue of the illicit diamond trade and the clandestine arms supplies with Taylor, who simply denied the charges, the State Department transcripts show. Jackson never pressed him further.

Jackson maintained direct contact with Sankoh after the Lomé accords were signed, telephoning him repeatedly with words of encouragement and promising him a "full pardon." Braced by Jackson's support, Sankoh and his RUF fighters built up their forces, thanks to the diamond trade, ignoring Jackson's pleas to disarm and give peace a chance. New fighting broke out in January 2000 in the hinterland. The cease-fire Jackson brokered lasted less than six months. By May the fighting took on crisis proportions when Sankoh's fighters murdered U.N. peacekeepers and took 500 of them hostage. Meanwhile Liberia, which produces no diamonds, reported that it had exported $300 million worth of the precious stones the previous year.

Jackson made one final attempt to halt the bloodshed in mid-May 2000. He tried in vain to cajole Taylor to "negotiate" an end to the hostage crisis, since Taylor was widely (and correctly) viewed as godfather of the RUF and as Sankoh's arms and diamond broker. In one telephone conversation with Taylor, on May 7, 2000, Jackson gushed: "Brother Taylor, word is coming through that you are playing a constructive role. Two or three wire-service stories. Congratulations! Your public leadership is important."

When challenged by African reporters during a May 12, 2000, press conference as to why he was relying on Taylor and Sankoh to get the U.N. hostages released, when in fact they had orchestrated the hostage crisis themselves, Jackson said, "There is blood on everybody's hands and no clean hands. If Charles Taylor can talk to the [RUF] commanders and they hear that, that would be positive. It would be different if he were encouraging fighting, but he is not."

Then Jackson made a blunder that would make him an object of ridicule and scorn across Africa: He compared Sankoh to former African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, who went on to become president of South Africa. On May 16, Jackson was all set to take off for Sierra Leone when an urgent message came into the State Department, warning that Jackson could be assaulted physically should he attempt to land. Foreign Minister Sama Banya even went on state radio in Freetown, urging Jackson to stay away. "When people in Freetown heard Jesse Jackson's statement comparing Foday Sankoh to Nelson Mandela, they were up in arms," recalls Sierra Leone Ambassador Leigh. "Comparing Nelson Mandela to a guy who was ripping arms off of babies was the biggest insult to Africa you could think of. Jesse Jackson destroyed the credibility of the United States."

During a conference call to leaders in Freetown, Jackson tried to retract his earlier statements but was openly attacked as a RUF "collaborator." One local journalist wrote bitterly that Jackson was known as a civil-rights leader in the United States, but that in Africa he was better known as a "killer's-rights" leader.

Arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, on May 17, 2000, Jackson declared, "President Taylor has been doing a commendable job negotiating for the release of the hostages. All the hostages should be freed and freed now. There is no basis for delay, there is no basis for negotiations." Jackson's comments would have been laughable were it not for the quantities of innocent blood that had been shed, thanks to his self-serving misbehavior.

By this point, the State Department had suffered enough of Jackson's alleged diplomacy and the failed agreement he had brokered. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker declared on June 5, 2000, that the United States was "not part of that agreement." Jackson summarily was fired as Clinton's special envoy shortly afterward.

But the Clinton State Department is not innocent in this affair. In a series of dispatches and briefing documents stamped "Secret," which the State Department declassified at this reporter's request, it is clear that Assistant Secretary of State Rice, an Albright protégé, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jeter primed Jackson with intelligence, talking points and background papers throughout the entire three-year period he was Clinton's envoy. Indeed, the entire bureaucracy of U.S. diplomacy was put at Jackson's disposal with tragic results.

However, it also is clear that Jackson repeatedly took initiatives on his own, especially when it came to forging that strong personal bond with the Liberian dictator.

The United States and the citizens of West Africa now have a historic opportunity with the war-crimes indictment against Taylor that was released in June by the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Taylor is seeking asylum in neighboring Nigeria, but already voices are being raised among Liberian opposition politicians and their U.S. supporters that he should not be allowed to escape prosecution.

Among the first questions they believe prosecutors should ask Taylor is who he paid off using Sankoh's diamonds. U.S. intelligence officers and their assets on the ground in Liberia reported back to Washington concerning these payoffs at the very moment that Jackson was negotiating a favorable role for Taylor and for Sankoh in Lomé, former CIA officers and other sources have told this reporter.

Who received the diamonds, how they were brokered onto the international marketplace in Europe and where the cash proceeds went remain mysteries. Charles Taylor knows many of the answers.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.

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