Liberia's Taylor: 'I'll Go When the Peacekeepers Come'

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Liberian President Charles Taylor answers journalists' questions July 10, 2003

The man at the center of the Bush administration's dilemma over sending troops to Liberia is the country's controversial president, Charles Taylor. President Bush has said Taylor's departure is a precondition for sending in U.S. troops to help maintain order. Taylor says he'll go, but only after peacekeepers arrive. And, in an exclusive interview with Time, he denies UN charges that he's behind some of the region's worst war crimes.

Time: You've said you'll step down. When will you leave.

President Charles Taylor: As soon as the international forces get here, I think it's time to go. There are thousands of people in this country that are upset, that do not understand this at all. I'm not sure Africa understands this. The African union doesn't understand this. Because these calls, these harsh calls, were not coming from the African continent. So leaving a bloody civil war, leaving a void is not the thing to do. President Obasanjo (of Nigeria) did not take this action (of offering Taylor asylum) alone. This was a decision taken across the continent, and I have received invitations from other countries to come there. But I'll keep those names quiet.

As soon as (international troops) get here, get organized on the ground, then I'll leave.

Time: A force being sent by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is expected in a couple of weeks, but your mother's funeral is later this month. Will you leave as soon as the ECOWAS force arrives?

Taylor: Well, you're not going to want to leave my mother in the funeral parlor. The president of the ECOWAS force — let's say they got here in two weeks, three weeks. I'd say what, there's got to be a few days, not very long. They're not going to meet me at the airport, and say, "Hello guys, bye." No, that's not what I'm talking about. They get here. They meet the government. The defense people, work with them. I'm sure there'll be a little military ceremony. Don't forget there's a turning over. There's a new president that I'm turning over to. He's sworn into office. And he's going to be sworn in while they're here. One would see maybe a good working week, and no more than a good working week. If it's not the work of the devil, I don't know what it is. I mean, can anyone quarrel about orderly transition?

Time: Will you be asking for a immunity from prosecution?

Taylor: I'll tell you this. It's politically motivated and the politicians will have to correct their mess.

Time: Before you leave?

Taylor: No, I'm not worried about it. I think more will be done behind the scenes than on the pages of the newspapers. But there's a lot of work being done. Because how do they deal with a problem where the continent of Africa says we don't like this. It's wrong. Stop it. There's nothing you can do. Nobody can do anything about it. There's no one who's saying, we support it. And Obasanjo said, "I'm not doing this alone to give Mr. Taylor sanctuary." It was a decision taken across the board, even with some major Western countries. It's wrong. Where's the proof from the type of thing that said "Taylor financed?" (A UN-backed court in Sierra Leone has indicted Taylor for allegedly financing and training that country's murderous rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front). Jesus. With what? I came to power. I signed up with a budget of nothing. It grew to about $70 million. How does one fight an internal civil war, total breakdown of infrastructure in the country, no money, and then someone says that Taylor trained and armed and financed... Come on. Let's be serious.

But this whole script that was written. Let's destroy this guy. I would have a billion dollars and the war would still be going on? I would have wiped these guys out the first three months. A billion dollars, and no one can find the money... Where does any human being on this earth hide one million dollars? In a hole someplace? Come on, not in a banking institution anywhere in the world. Come on. It's a sad, sad case.

Time: U.S. officials are on the ground here (assessing the needs of a peacekeeping operation). I don't believe they visited you. I think they had to be forced to visit your defense minister. Are they signaling that, in their eyes, your government doesn't exist anymore?

Taylor: I do not read that into that. I called it the other day a diplomatic boo-boo, because there's no way that America can obscure that Charles Taylor is the elected president of Liberia. America is looked at as a big brother. Does a big brother invade a small brother's house? No. America is a big country, the world's only superpower. The procedure would be that even for the landing of troops, you'd inform us through a diplomatic note. But we don't mind that, we want them here anyway. They made certain moves the other day, that were not very rude — it was not thought of properly. We didn't make a big deal. There's not the time to be fussing about a few American troops coming here. Maybe someone was looking for an excuse not to be here. There will be no excuses. The doors are open. Even with the mistakes that they made. Even with ignoring this government, we don't mind. It's too late for someone to ignore me as president of the country.

Normally, you expect the good guys to win. You don't let the bad guys win. The elected president of this country is being told to leave office, and leave the country. The rebels who invaded, they have killed, maimed and slashed the entire countryside — there are films and videos of rebels eating human being's hearts and carrying on — they're being told you're the guys that we want to come to town. Isn't there something wrong here?

Time: How did the death of your mother affect you during the decisions of the last month?

Taylor: We had expected it for some time. When she left Boston last year, the doctors had given her until December and she lasted until June. She was very comforted over the fact and she passed. So I just intend to give her a good funeral and I'll be out of here. I guess in way she didn't want to be hauled around again, and I guess she just decided I'm going to take the burden off my son. (Taylor says the funeral is planned for the last week of July, and that it will be a state funeral.) I guess that will be one of the last official acts that I carry out as president, and then I guess I'll be out of here.