III. Tough Talk in the Jungle

(Matt Rota for ProPublica)

After chasing the Firestone managers out in June 1990, Taylor took over the colonnaded grandeur of House 53. The message was unmistakable: The company that had dominated the country for so long, that held power over its leaders and its laborers, had been vanquished. 

The stately mansion was often chaotic and frenzied. Cronies and bodyguards lounged in the hallways. Sycophants waited for an audience. Battle commanders rushed in and out.

Taylor’s goal was to seize Monrovia, which held half the country’s population, most of its major financial and political institutions and most important, the executive mansion – Doe’s presidential residence, a menacing, fortified structure overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Taylor staged his attack from the Firestone plantation. He was confident enough of his success that he announced he would occupy the mansion by early July.

His men battled to within 500 yards of the executive mansion where Doe had holed up with his men. That was as far as he would get. As the two sides traded mortar- and small-arms fire, Taylor suddenly called a halt to the operation. The United States had reached out to him to plead for peace.

Cohen, the State Department’s top Africa hand, talked with Taylor several times by satellite phone to negotiate a ceasefire. He even visited Taylor at a rearguard base in Ivory Coast, where he found Taylor seated on a throne, surrounded by child soldiers. Behind him was a portrait of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline.

“He had visions of being a great statesman,” Cohen said. “He saw himself like that. ‘I’m gonna take over Liberia and make it into a new country.’ ”

The bid for peace failed, and Liberia faded further as a concern for the United States. Cohen said his superiors made that clear to him.

“The feeling was that we didn’t want to have Liberia as our adopted child,” Cohen said. “We were not going to take charge of Liberia.”

Into the void stepped an alliance of West African nations led by Nigeria, the regional heavyweight. In August 1990, the alliance deployed some 7,000 peacekeepers, known as ECOMOG.

The peacekeepers succeeded in halting Taylor. But they did not save Liberia’s president. Doe was captured and killed by the head of a rival rebel faction led by Prince Johnson, one of Taylor’s former generals.

Fighting in the streets of Monrovia. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

A notorious, vicious drunk, Johnson had himself filmed as he ordered his men to torture Doe. While he sat behind a desk with two open cans of Budweiser beer, a young woman fanning him from behind, Johnson ordered his men to strip Doe. The portly president kneeled before Johnson in his underwear, quivering, sobbing, begging. Johnson’s men hacked off his ears. Blood poured down his torso. Doe’s body was later found dumped outside a medical clinic.

Amos Sawyer, a Liberian intellectual, would emerge as the president of an interim government named at a meeting of leading Liberian politicians, activists and religious leaders.

By November, an uneasy ceasefire had settled across the country. Liberians called it “no peace, no war.”

Taylor, unimpressed by the peacekeepers and the new interim president, went about the business of governing.

He now controlled almost all of Liberia. In typically grandiose fashion, Taylor named his territory Greater Liberia — though it was better known by its eponymous nickname, Taylorland. He declared himself president.

As his capital, he chose the village of Gbarnga in the flatlands of northern Liberia, a scruffy regional trading center. 

Children too young to carry rifles were often given grenades. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

Taylor turned a long, low single-story house on an airy hill overlooking the village into his executive mansion. From the outside, it was modest and unpretentious. Inside was rococo furniture and walls of varnished wood.

He formed a legislative body for Taylorland, the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government, or NPRAG. He appointed a Cabinet of ministers (frequently fired, sometimes beaten) and created a judicial system (hardly independent). He even hired a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

He also built his army — eventually amassing perhaps 10,000 fighters and child soldiers armed with machine guns, mortars and artillery cannon.

His dreams stretched wide as Liberia’s sky.

“I’m not a soldier. I’m an economist. I came here believing in the very democratic principles that the United States is built on today,” he told television cameras. “All I want to do is to bring back some sanity, some fair play in the country.”

For a while, a group of Firestone’s Liberian managers worked with Taylor to run the plantation. But they couldn’t maintain the millions of rubber trees. They had no ships to transport the rubber, no sales network to sell it. The farm’s hydroelectric plant supplied electricity only haphazardly.

By February 1991, the plantation was in danger of falling apart. A group of former Firestone workers met Taylor on the veranda of House 53. Their message: They wanted Firestone back. 

“The employees were not benefiting,” said Victor Bestman, the Liberian estates manager. Taylor’s associates “sold the rubber, enriched themselves and how they divided it nobody knows.”

Taylor grew to realize that he needed Firestone. Symbolically, the company’s return would amount to a bright neon sign indicating that Taylorland was open for business. Politically, its jobs and supplies of food would ensure that residents did not rise up in dissent.

“We needed Firestone to keep people busy,” Richardson said.

When Firestone abandoned Liberia, it made Taylor seethe.

“There’s a little war, and then you run off, and there’s no food, no medicine, complete breakdown,” Taylor would later tell one Firestone executive at a meeting. “That’s inexcusable.”

For its own part, Firestone was in no mood to kowtow to a guerrilla leader who had threatened its managers and killed its workers. 

In October 1990, Ensminger sent a brusque letter addressing Taylor as “Commander-in-Chief” — not President. He requested a meeting, and a guarantee that the Firestone personnel who attended the meeting would be safe. A week later, Ensminger sent a follow-up aide memoire – a term typically used in diplomatic circles to outline discussion points. 

Donald Ensminger, then the general manager of the Firestone plantation, said he tried to take a hard line against Taylor. (Ott Gang/The Akron Beacon Journal)

In it, Ensminger laid out Firestone’s conditions for returning to Liberia. At the top of the list: Firestone “cannot resume operations unless its employees, both Liberian and expatriate, have sufficient assurances that peace, law and order will be restored in Liberia to ensure their own safety and that of the members of their families from physical harm.”

Ensminger demanded better financial terms to lower the company’s tax liabilities. And he noted that Firestone would not recognize the “legitimacy” of any political or military authority so as to avoid “interfering in the internal affairs of Liberia.”

 “The existing situation raises questions as to whether, when and how operations could be resumed in Liberia,” Ensminger wrote.

Today, Ensminger said he thought the company should not have attempted to negotiate with Taylor.

“Taylor was not a recognized government of Liberia. There was no reason or legality for negotiation with Taylor,” Ensminger said in the interview. “It was only that we were trying to figure out a way to get to the plantation and resume operations.”

The missive did little to improve Taylor’s disposition.

Ensminger’s attitude was, “ ‘We want our plantation back. You have no business there. We want everything. Our trucks back. We want this, that and everything else,’ ” said Richardson, Taylor’s adviser. 

Taylor was prepared to wait. If Firestone wanted its rubber plantation back, it would have to bend – and pay.

The Investment

Back in Akron, Ensminger and other managers began strategizing about how to get the plantation running again.

In 1988, the Japanese tire conglomerate Bridgestone had acquired Firestone for $2.65 billion — the largest purchase of a U.S. company by a Japanese one at the time. 

Business analysts judged the deal a disaster. Bridgestone moved too slowly to make necessary cuts. The company hemorrhaged money. Between 1990 and 1992, the new U.S. subsidiary, called Bridgestone/Firestone, lost $1 billion, according to one history of the company. 

On Bridgestone’s balance sheet, Firestone’s Liberian plantation wasn’t a large item, generating about $104 million in revenue and $15.6 million in profits in 1989, the year before the civil war. But the 15 percent profit margin the plantation achieved that year was a bright spot on a corporate ledger drowning in red ink.

Top managers “were under a lot of pressure from Akron to get the plantation going,” said Ken Gerhart, the Firestone manager who ran the company’s soda bottling plant in Monrovia. The plantation “was very, very profitable. It was very efficient.”

The company found alternative sources of rubber in Asia after the plantation’s abandonment, but the latex produced in Liberia was considered to be among the finest in the world, in part because of the company’s tight quality control. The plantation supplied about 40 percent of the U.S. market for latex, and 10 percent of the world market. 

The value of the plantation itself – the land, the trees, the factories, buildings, vehicles and equipment – was estimated at nearly $200 million. If Firestone pulled out for good, those assets would be unsalvageable. Even a temporary interruption posed risks: There was no assurance that Liberia would allow the company back, especially under the favorable conditions of the original deal cut in 1926.

To figure out how to deal with Taylor and return to Liberia, Firestone hired a young Liberian-born lawyer with impressive credentials. Gerald Padmore had graduated from Yale and then Harvard Law School. He had returned to Liberia to serve in President Tolbert’s government. As the acting minister of finance, he sat across the table from Firestone in rubber contract negotiations.

Later, he switched to Firestone’s side and began advising company leaders on whether to return to Liberia. Firestone agreed to have Padmore answer questions for the company about events in the early 1990s.

Families were often short of food during Liberia's years of internal strife. (Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis)

“It was a real dilemma for the company,” Padmore said. There was “a lot of, I would say, soul-searching, and really tough, tough decision-making that had to be done.”

As Padmore saw it, there were two competing governments in Liberia, neither of which had been formally recognized by the United States. Firestone’s operations straddled the lines of control. The plantation sat in Taylorland. But the company shipped its rubber and latex from Monrovia. To move from the plantation to the port, company employees had to pass through numerous roadblocks and withstand entreaties for bribes at each stop. Who made the rules? Who got the company’s taxes? 

Padmore said much of Firestone’s determination to return to Liberia was driven by concern for its Liberian workforce. Firestone had stopped making rice shipments to the plantation in June 1990, and so men, women and children were surviving on sugar cane and rotting bananas. During one period that fall, the company’s medical director was recording 10 to 15 deaths a day, according to a sworn deposition. 

The plantation and its trees were also a worry. Rubber trees must be very carefully tended and harvested to prevent them from dying. Firestone had received word that Liberians had descended on the plantation to illegally harvest latex from the company’s trees. They were “slaughter tapping” — an industry term for extracting so much sap that the tree dies.

“We’re hearing stories from our employees that they’re distressed,” Padmore recalled. “We’re hearing stories that our assets are being looted or destroyed. It’s a question of do we abandon Liberia, as many other major businesses had done, or will there be a future, and how do we get back on?”

Padmore said the “easy answer” for Firestone would have been to abandon the plantation. Several companies fled Liberia at the start of the war. Others had chosen to stay, according to a State department cable. 

Padmore said it was tempting for Firestone to say, “ ‘We’re out of here. It’s risky. It’s scary. Economically, it doesn’t make any sense.’ ”

“In a sense, that would have been morally satisfying, that you could safely be back in the United States. But if you felt a sense of responsibility to Liberia, and, most importantly, to the workers, your teammates, really, the people you’ve worked with for years, who were distressed—some of them were killed—you’d say, ‘Well, let’s go back and see if we can help them,’” Padmore continued.

The raw latex that helped build an empire. (From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)

“I think those were all good decisions, because, for me, Liberia outlasts the temporary rulers it may have. It’s a country. It’s ordinary people whose lives are terribly important. They don’t have the ability or the means, as I fortunately did, to fly off to the United States and be safe. They’ve got to worry about their kids. For me, it’s the right choice. Stay as long as you can,” Padmore said.

Padmore acknowledged that Firestone’s employees had experienced Taylor’s violence. His soldiers had threatened Ensminger. Gerhart was put on a hit list, and his personal driver had the soles of his feet cut off with machetes by Taylor’s men. Firestone expats witnessed Taylor’s fighters savaging people in Harbel.

“We knew there had been fighting, there had been killing, and there had been some ethnic reprisal killings,” Padmore said. “But at that time, from the information available to me, and, I think, to Firestone, Taylor did not appear to be conducting genocidal activities.”

In the interview, Ensminger said that was “laughable.”

“Firestone knew full well and was getting reports from the State Department and from the ambassador and from Liberians,” he said. “They knew full well that atrocities and human rights violations were committed.”

In October 1990, Human Rights Watch reported that Taylor soldiers had committed widespread killing and torture. Two-thirds of Doe’s tribe, the Krahn, had fled the country. Those who remained, the report said, were “at risk of genocide.”

In early 1991, the U.S. State Department released its report on human rights violations in 1990, a congressionally-mandated assessment for every country in the world. For Liberia, it read like a gore novel.

All the warring factions, including government soldiers, had committed atrocities. Each time Taylor took over a new province, his forces hunted and killed hundreds of men, women and children from the Mandingo and Krahn ethnic groups, which were seen as sympathetic to Doe. Emergency food centers set up to feed starving Liberians became grotesque snares. Those in line were forced to produce identity cards. The Krahn were killed. In one particularly nasty practice, Taylor’s men set up a highway checkpoint called “No Return.” More than 2,000 people were killed there.

“The overall human rights situation in Liberia in 1990 was appalling,” the report read. “All combatants routinely engaged in indiscriminate killing and abuse of civilians, looting, and ethnically based executions.”

“Leaders of all the armed groups did little or nothing to stop the killings

and, in some cases, may have encouraged them or been directly responsible for the abuses.”

Official data, painstakingly compiled years later by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission from the testimony of thousands of Liberians, attempted to quantify the human damage. By December 1990, Taylor’s forces alone had committed nearly 40,000 human rights violations. The toll included more than 6,400 killings, 800 kidnappings and 600 rapes, according to a ProPublica analysis of the data.

Mary Pollee's family was decimated by both government and rebel forces. (Ashley Gilbertson for ProPublica)

Mary Pollee said she was one victim of Taylor’s fighters. From the Firestone plantation, she fled to a city held by Taylor’s rebels. The fighters stole her food. They took her clothes. They threatened her with guns. And then one day, they grabbed her 13-year-old daughter and raped and killed her.

Pollee — her husband, a son, and a daughter now buried — went mad.

 “I was like somebody going crazy,” said Pollee. She began weeping at the memory in her living room, the cicadas outside whirring, the sun beating. “I was not to myself, oh.”

In Ohio, Firestone executives continued to discuss what to do. Initially, they decided to wait to see if the conflict would resolve itself. But as those hopes faded, Firestone made its final decision. 

The company would go back to Liberia. 

“Completely justifiable,” Padmore called the decision.

“Had I had a crystal ball and an ability to say that’s going to happen, I would have told Firestone in January of 1992, ‘Don’t go back,’ but we didn’t know that would happen. We were hopeful that good things were going to happen.”

He added: “Had [Firestone executives] not taken those decisions, I think Liberia would be much the worse for it today.”

America Works for Firestone

In February 1991, Ensminger flew to Liberia to reach out to Taylor. Over the coming months, the company resumed feeding its workers. It sent shipments of rice to Taylor and to the interim government. It even hired Taylor forces to guard House 53.

Taylor ignored the entreaties.

Said Richardson: “They just wanted what’s for Firestone to be for Firestone.”

John T. Richardson was one of Taylor's top aides.(FRONTLINE)

In April 1991, U.S. Ambassador Peter Jon de Vos secured a meeting with Taylor in Gbarnga. He invited Ensminger along for the journey.

De Vos was a proponent of Firestone and Taylor reaching an accommodation. After the meeting, a cable noted that “De Vos pressed Taylor” to talk with Firestone officials.

“We are encouraging (Taylor Labor Minister Nyundeh) Monkonmlah and Firestone to reach accommodation since inactivity at the plantation benefits no one,” one embassy official wrote in another cable.

A news broadcast from the time showed that the meeting disintegrated quickly. With cameras rolling, Taylor received De Vos in an anteroom furnished with a gilded white and gold Louis XV couch and chairs covered in plastic. Dark wood paneling rose above red carpet. Impeccable, Taylor wore a dark suit, with a white pocket square and red tie. 

De Vos, dressed in a rumpled suit and bow tie, and large, square glasses, was sweating profusely. He greeted Taylor. Then, he introduced Ensminger, tan, fit and mustachioed.

“This is Mr. Ensminger, the director general of Firestone,” De Vos said.

Taylor looked puzzled. “Oh, he works for the embassy now?”

“No, America works for him,” De Vos replied.

Within minutes, Taylor began to harangue Ensminger. He questioned why Firestone was using the port in Monrovia rather than the port that he controlled.

 “My biggest problem with Firestone is that instead of trying to play economic games, they’ve been trying to play political games,” Taylor told the U.S. ambassador at one point. 

The camera panned to Ensminger. He sat silently. He wore a tight smile on his face. 

In behind-the-scenes talks, Richardson discussed matters directly with Ensminger. Richardson recalled asking Ensminger to provide back pay to the workers. Richardson said Ensminger denied the request.

 “He was a very arrogant son of whatever,” Richardson said.

Ensminger told a different story. He said that he and his team had repeatedly tried and failed to meet with Taylor. The reason? Taylor’s ministers demanded a bribe even to see the guerilla leader.

“They wanted money before they would talk to us,” he said.

Ensminger said he refused to pay.

“Look we are a concessionaire of the country of Liberia. We’ve been here for many years. We’ve operated and made taxes and given every other means of support that’s legal,” he said he told the rebels. “Now you come in and try to take over the government and want us to recognize you and receive all the dues that a government should receive. If that happens, we’ll be glad to work with you. But that hasn’t happened.”

By summer 1991, Ensminger had arrived at an impasse. 

That’s when Firestone executives from Akron decided to pay a visit.

Comments powered by Disqus