Charles Taylor - preacher, warlord and president
By: Mark Doyle - BBC World Affairs Correspondent
© BBC International

Charles Taylor believes he is misunderstood Charles Taylor is a frustrated showman.

There is nothing this naturally confident man would like more than to strut the African stage playing the flamboyant statesman.

But thanks to a United Nations travel ban on him and his ministers, he has in recent years remained largely at home dealing with rebels and sulking about a world that in his view misunderstands his contribution to Liberian history.

The publication on Wednesday of a UN indictment for war crimes against him worsens his plight considerably.

The charges relate to his role in the recently-ended war in neighbouring Sierra Leone where he backed rebels responsible for widespread atrocities.

The indictment was published in Freetown by the UN Special War Crimes Court for Sierra Leone, while Mr Taylor was in Ghana for peace talks with Liberian rebels.

The Chief UN Prosecutor David Crane said he expected Mr Taylor to be arrested by the Ghanaian authorities.

The showman has been on display many times.

When he was a rebel in the early nineties, controlling most of Liberia apart from the capital, he turned up at a West African regional conference in Burkina Faso in full military combat gear.

Dramatic gestures

His equally well protected bodyguards jogged alongside his car from the airport to the centre of the capital, Ouagadougou, in a show of strength and loyalty.

When, as president in 1999, he faced accusations from the United Nations that he was a gun runner and a diamond smuggler, he addressed a mass prayer meeting clothed from head to foot in angelic white.

Taylor's third wife, Jewel, is a trained economist

The showman, who is also a lay preacher in the Baptist tradition, prostrated himself on the ground and prayed forgiveness before his Lord - although he also denied the charges.

And even when he cannot be seen by his public, the showman finds a stage: throughout the 1990s Mr Taylor conducted a series of dramatic telephone interviews with the BBC's Focus on Africa programme.

The first, from the then-relatively unknown warlord, announced his invasion of Liberia.

In one famous exchange with Focus Editor Robin White a few years later, Mr White suggested that some people thought him little better than a murderer.

Mr Taylor bellowed with a flourish to the effect that "Jesus Christ was accused of being a murderer in his time."

Charles Taylor was born in 1948 to a family of Americo-Liberians, the elite group that grew out of the freed slaves who founded the country in the 19th century.

For what are suspected to be political reasons - broadening his appeal to the indigenous African majority - Taylor added the African name 'Ghankay' in later years, becoming Charles Ghankay Taylor.

Like many Americo-Liberians he studied in the United States.

He returned home shortly after Master Sergeant Samuel Doe mounted Liberia's first successful coup d'etat in 1980.

Rogues' gallery

Mr Taylor landed a plum job in Doe's regime running the General Services Agency, a position that meant controlling much of Liberia's budget.

He later fell out with Doe, who accused him of embezzling almost $1m, and fled back to the US.

Mr Taylor denied the charges, but ended up in the Plymouth County House of Correction in Massachusetts, detained under a Liberian extradition warrant.

Taylor has been indicted for supporting Sierra Leone rebels

Some reports say he managed to escape the prison by sawing through the bars; others that there was some collusion in his departure from Americans who wanted him to play the role he then proceeded to carve out for himself - overthrowing the corrupt, violent and generally disastrous regime of Samuel Doe.

Mr Taylor's rebellion succeeded partly because of Doe's incompetence. But it was also the fruit of Mr Taylor's building of sometimes surprising alliances.

His friends over the years have included the once-radical Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, the conservative former ruler of Ivory Coast Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the current President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, and a rogues' gallery of businessmen, local and foreign, prepared to flout UN disapproval to make money in Liberia.

After winning power militarily, Charles Taylor won elections in 1997.

Although the polls were probably the most democratic the country has ever seen, Mr Taylor's critics say he bullied and bought the electorate.

Charles Taylor has been married three times and has several children. His current wife Jewel is an economist who used to work for international institutions.

He enjoys table tennis and lawn tennis which he plays behind the high walls of his Monrovia residence - or, to bring the story up to date, he used to play behind those walls.

If the indictment for war crimes is interpreted in the way the UN wishes, the Ghanaian authorities may be obliged to prevent him from returning to Monrovia by arresting him.

Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK

added by: Robert W. Kranz  09-06-2003