The ceremony kicked off late. The president had scheduled the transfer of power to his vice president for 11:59 a.m. Monday. But when the appointed time came, he was returning from the airport, where he had gone to meet South African President Thabo Mbeki. Vice President Moses Blah had entered, exited, and had to return before the ceremony could start.
In many ways, Taylor got what he wanted. The Liberian leader has been fighting to redeem his image since June, when he was indicted by a war-crimes court backed by the UN. On Monday, he was dressed in white, headlining a ceremony that included three other African heads of states: Mbeki; Mozambique's Joaquim Chissano, chair of the African Union; and Ghana's John Kufuor, the head of the Economic Community of West African states, which has sent peacekeepers to Liberia. The three had come to see Taylor off, hoping his departure would bring peace to the country.
Taylor held little back. He told jokes, blamed his country's troubles on foreign meddling, challenged the U.S. to help in Liberia and painted himself as a martyr who would be exonerated by historians. "Because Jesus died, we are saved today," Taylor said. "I want to be the sacrificial lamb. I am the whipping boy. It's easy to say 'It's because of Taylor.' After today, there will be no more Taylor to blame." With Blah sworn in, Taylor placed his green presidential sash on the bigger man and hugged him twice. Then Blah sat on the presidential throne, and Taylor took a place with the other African heads of states.
Even before he left, there was a change of mood in Monrovia. Nigerian peacekeepers had taken over checkpoints. Instead of gun-wielding teenagers begging for money, there were uniformed soldiers and white armored personal carriers. Less than an hour after the transfer of power, American warships sailed by the coast, and Liberians gathered on the beaches to stare. "I think they can see us from here," said Harry John, 24. "When Taylor leaves they will come." Two helicopters flew closer and the streets filled with cheers.
Still, the bridges that formed the frontline remained a bitter zone. Rebels had come out to taunt the government soldiers, stripping naked to call them monkeys. Waves of civilians had tried to cross three times, only to be turned back by the fighters. On the far side, rebels drove up and down between looted, bullet-pocked shops, laughing and singing rude songs about Taylor. Celebratory shots rang from the streets. "There will be no fighting again," said Lahar Kiazulu, 21, his Klashnikov spray-painted white. "Because if he leaves the country, he is the only man we are fighting against." By then, the ex-president was flying to Nigeria, where he has been offered asylum from his indictment. His parting words had been, "God willing, I will be back."