CNN and the True Faces of the Titans of Terror

NPFL rebels, now Govt. soldiers without training
are among the most atrocious Africa has known.
Checkpoints were docorated with the remains of their
victims as shown above

18 February 2002

If the CNN report on Liberia, shown last week, was meant to generate sympathy for Charles Taylor and  international interest in the country’s continuing terror, then it succeeded in one key aspect, and that is showing the true faces of the competing Armies of terror.

The power of television is that to a significant extent, it leaves the viewer to render judgment. The camera. nevertheless, refused to conceal reality, and was adamant in distinguishing between facts and fiction. 

A similar report by news agencies, papers or radio would have left a different impression. There were Taylor’s much described “elite troops” singing their famous song “Anybody nor wan Taylor we  kill you like a dog,” as the camera gave them a close-up, their manacing song buried in the reporter's description of their "valour" past and present. The reporter talked about their “absolute loyalty,” but  perhaps his  measurement of absolute loyalty is based on another song by the same choir, “You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I’ll vote for you…”

Such songs in many counties would lead to bewilderment, but Taylor has defined the confines of terror to such an extent that singing “Anybody nor wan Taylor we kill you like a dog" is normal. Did the CNN reporter understand the lyrics or was he simply transfixed by the terror on their apparently drugged faces? In truth, though, the rebels, called elite troops, were just singing truth. They have killed those who “nor wan Taylor”. and continue to do so.

There they were, the “elite troops” in ragtag uniforms, posing for the camera, and rekindling memories of how they butchered women’s bellies to settle bets on the gender of children inside. These are “elite and better trained troops” the media refer to very often. But in reality, distinguishing them from the rebels is difficult, if not impossible, for they come from the same roots. In fact, the “elite troops” have become more notorious, now that they are licensed, as “Government troops”, to execute suspected enemies with rewards and to loot properties with impunity.  They know that pronouncements against atrocities and looting are only meant for public ears. Secretly, Taylor tells them, "don’t mind what I say in public…” This is a pact he had with his unpaid rebels now extended, as he is a “democratically" elected leader

Then there was the Minister of Defence, a former rebel commander named Daniel Chea. There he was on camera, struggling with concepts, justifications  for his war, and words. He could not have passed for degraded night watchman, but so are many of Taylor's officials, most of them society's wretched who took their chances with the warlord to reap benefits later. 

It was a clear case of difference between facts and faction, perhaps inadvertently portrayed. For those thinking what Liberia is like, it has not changed. There was the band of old, haggard, hungry-looking men matching in uniforms that swung on them as if they were borrowed for the occasion. The music sounded as if they were singing different tones, and perhaps they were. But this is not surprising, knowing the psyche of those in power and their iron determination to recreate the Liberia of their great grandfathers now found only in museums in the deep American South were most of the slaves came from to settle in what is now Liberia as rulers.  

It was a comical scene. Reading about the "peace match by survivors of the war" as carried on CNN Mobile  created a different impression—that of mammoth peace match. This was until CNN showed the demonstrators, uniformed, despondent tired looking school children dragging lazily behind an equally lazy military band. It is as if they were coerced into matching, a practice well-known behind Taylor rebel lines when people were dragged out of their homes at gun point to demonstrate against ECOMOG.       

The CNN report was also striking for the reporter’s choice of interviewees who seemed carefully positioned. There was not a single member of civil society, church or the opposition. All three persons interviewed were well-fed and staunch government loyalists or beneficiaries with carefully prepared and rehearsed scripts of wanting "peace", the now mundane mantra of Taylor's open and closet supporters who see no evil in his orgy of executions and theft, only crying "peace" when his victims fight back as cronies fear losing their criminally acquired properties and privileges.

Then there was chieftain of terror himself, on camera mimicking Liberia’s autocrat William Tubman in speech. To him, every event, however ghastly,  is an act, and there he was pretending to be a statesman while devising Machiavellian schemes for business as usual against foes. He was shown indicting the international community for his self-inflicted wounds. Although one would have expected some balance, such as Taylor's attacks on Sierra Leone for its diamonds, and on Guinea to extend his criminal  conquest, there was none of that. For the uninformed, the impression left was of a  betrayed man left to defend himself against the odds. It was the callous international community, not his regional criminal exploits, causing the horrors..

Despite Taylor's vow to continue stealing Maritime and other resources     to “defend my people”, it is now clearer that the people are more afraid of his “elite” troops. Tubmanburg was looted not by the rebels, but his "elite troops." Series of reports continue to indict them for the spree of looting in   other towns. A teacher, in note, explained how a government soldier from his neighbourhood  came from Tubmanburg with dozens of chickens. He was searching for buyers.

There are those still blinded by Taylor's near-mystical success, and therefore see him as invincible. But what they miss is the fact that this success was made possible only by hundreds of Burkinabes, Libyans, Ghanaians, Gambians, Sierra Leoneans, French military experts, etc.,  who wanted a  staging post to be like him. There is nothing magical about a man full of show and no substance as he has shown sitting in that condemned seat of the Liberian prsidency.  "Da Cha Taila morale" indeed, as his loyalists say. It will subside just as it rose. 

But it is evident that we have not yet seen the best of Taylor’s US-based pr teams, among them former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, allegedly paid US300,000 to give a killer and thief a human face.  For the hundreds of thousands of dollars received from a country of no water, electricity or health service, it is certain the pr teams  will do much better. But they must try harder, for facts cannot always be buried by fiction.

© Robert W. Kranz  23-02-2002