Insight on the News - World

Release date: July 24, 2003



  Jesse, Liberia and BloodDiamonds

By Kenneth R. Timmerman


Insight on the News - World

Issue dated: 08/05/03


With the Congressional Black Caucus clamoring for President GeorgeW. Bush to dispatch U.S. troops to Liberia, after having voted almostunanimously against the U.S. war in Iraq, the president and hisnational-security team are weighing the costs of joining amultinational peacekeeping force in a nation that has ripped throughseveral of them during the last decade. One thing neither Bush northe Congressional Black Caucus is talking about publicly, however, ishow Liberia began this latest phase of its spiraling descent intochaos.

And for good reason. The current crisis was in part the creationof the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a Democratic Party activist who claims tochampion the rights of Africans to self-governance. As special envoyfor democracy and human rights in Africa, starting in October 1997,Jackson was President Bill Clinton's point man for Africa. It wasJackson who spearheaded Clinton's 10-day African safari in March1998, at a cost to taxpayers of $42.8 million. And it was Jackson wholegitimated Liberian strongman Charles Taylor and hisprotégé, the machete-wielding militia leader inneighboring Sierra Leone, Cpl. Foday Sankoh. Without Jackson's activeintervention, both leaders were headed toward international isolationand sanction. Thanks to Jackson, both retained power to murderanother day.

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

The mainstream media has resolutely ignored Jackson's involvementin the diamond wars of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and he never hasbeen hauled before a congressional committee to account for thisbehavior [see Kenneth R. Timmerman's New York Times best seller,Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson (Regnery Publishing, March2002)].

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

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

In neighboring Sierra Leone, Sankoh and his Revolutionary UnitedFront (RUF) militia had massacred tens of thousands of civilians and,teamed with disgruntled military officers, had driven electedpresident Ahmad Tejan Kabbah into exile. Jackson said in an interviewthat he considered Sankoh and Taylor to be like the gang leaders inChicago, who could be "redeemed" by his careful ministrations. Ratherthan confront them, Jackson befriended them, over the howls of theState Department professionals.

"Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright delegated Africapolicy to [U.S. Rep. Donald] Payne [of New Jersey]and the Congressional Black Caucus," Sierra Leone's outspokenambassador to Washington, John Ernest Leigh, told this reporter. AHouse International Affairs Committee staffer who followed Jackson'smeetings with Taylor put it more bluntly: "The whole effort underClinton was to mainstream Charles Taylor, and Jesse Jackson had a lotto do with it."

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

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

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

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

With help from Britain and Nigeria (but not from Jackson), SierraLeone's elected president Kabbah managed to return to power in March1998. Sankoh's RUF guerrillas were forced back into the bush, andSankoh himself was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced todeath. It all could have ended there - if it hadn't been for Jackson,who intervened with Kabbah to get the death sentence against Sankohlifted.

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

In May 1999, Jackson decided it was time to reinvent Sankoh, whosetroops now controlled Sierra Leone's rich diamond mines. By thispoint, the United Nations and private investigators had publisheddetailed reports on how Sankoh and Taylor were using "blood diamonds"to fuel West Africa's civil and regional wars, leading tointernational controls on the diamond trade. On the margins of aconference in nearby Ghana, Jackson "kidnapped" Kabbah, according toKabbah advisers I interviewed for my book, and flew him toneighboring Lomé, Togo, where Jackson forced him to sign acease-fire with Sankoh. "We had not expected or planned thatagreement," former assistant secretary of state Susan E. Rice tellsInsight, "or that Jackson would have a role in it." The impressionamong African policymakers at State was, she says, "Where did thiscome from?"

In July, under the terms of a power-sharing agreement that Jacksonhelped negotiate and which Kabbah vigorously resisted, Sankoh wasreleased from house arrest, made a vice president in a newnational-unity government and put in charge of Sierra Leone's diamondmines.

Now in government, Sankoh began smuggling out thousands ofdiamonds, many of which he sent to Taylor in Liberia in exchange forweapons. Jackson repeatedly raised the issue of the illicit diamondtrade and the clandestine arms supplies with Taylor, who simplydenied the charges, the State Department transcripts show. Jacksonnever pressed him further.

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

Jackson made one final attempt to halt the bloodshed in mid-May2000. He tried in vain to cajole Taylor to "negotiate" an end to thehostage crisis, since Taylor was widely (and correctly) viewed asgodfather of the RUF and as Sankoh's arms and diamond broker. In onetelephone conversation with Taylor, on May 7, 2000, Jackson gushed:"Brother Taylor, word is coming through that you are playing aconstructive role. Two or three wire-service stories.Congratulations! Your public leadership is important."

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

Then Jackson made a blunder that would make him an object ofridicule and scorn across Africa: He compared Sankoh to formerAfrican National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, who went on tobecome president of South Africa. On May 16, Jackson was all set totake off for Sierra Leone when an urgent message came into the StateDepartment, warning that Jackson could be assaulted physically shouldhe attempt to land. Foreign Minister Sama Banya even went on stateradio in Freetown, urging Jackson to stay away. "When people inFreetown heard Jesse Jackson's statement comparing Foday Sankoh toNelson Mandela, they were up in arms," recalls Sierra LeoneAmbassador Leigh. "Comparing Nelson Mandela to a guy who was rippingarms off of babies was the biggest insult to Africa you could thinkof. Jesse Jackson destroyed the credibility of the UnitedStates."

During a conference call to leaders in Freetown, Jackson tried toretract his earlier statements but was openly attacked as a RUF"collaborator." One local journalist wrote bitterly that Jackson wasknown as a civil-rights leader in the United States, but that inAfrica 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 forthe release of the hostages. All the hostages should be freed andfreed now. There is no basis for delay, there is no basis fornegotiations." Jackson's comments would have been laughable were itnot for the quantities of innocent blood that had been shed, thanksto his self-serving misbehavior.

By this point, the State Department had suffered enough ofJackson'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." Jacksonsummarily 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 Albrightprotégé, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jeterprimed Jackson with intelligence, talking points and backgroundpapers throughout the entire three-year period he was Clinton'senvoy. Indeed, the entire bureaucracy of U.S. diplomacy was put atJackson's disposal with tragic results.

However, it also is clear that Jackson repeatedly took initiativeson his own, especially when it came to forging that strong personalbond with the Liberian dictator.

The United States and the citizens of West Africa now have ahistoric opportunity with the war-crimes indictment against Taylorthat was released in June by the U.N.-backed Special Court for SierraLeone. Taylor is seeking asylum in neighboring Nigeria, but alreadyvoices are being raised among Liberian opposition politicians andtheir U.S. supporters that he should not be allowed to escapeprosecution.

Among the first questions they believe prosecutors should askTaylor is who he paid off using Sankoh's diamonds. U.S. intelligenceofficers and their assets on the ground in Liberia reported back toWashington concerning these payoffs at the very moment that Jacksonwas negotiating a favorable role for Taylor and for Sankoh inLomé, former CIA officers and other sources have told thisreporter.

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

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