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You Only Get One Chance to Meet the Devil

My Search for Charles Taylor

by CHARLES R. LARSON

My friend, who’s a Nigerian academic, says, as we’re tootling around Calabar, “That’s where we keep Charles Taylor.”

“Hey, I taught his daughter a couple of years ago at American University. Let’s go over there and see if we can meet him.” The villa is posh by any standards, but particularly by those of the area—picturesque, overlooking the Cross River, at a historical location.

We were at the National Museum in Calabar, where I was attending a conference, and I’d completely forgotten that Charles Taylor was in asylum in Nigeria; but I thought this might be my opportunity to look Mr. Death in the face and maybe I’d be the last American to interview him.

I taught Charen Taylor twice at American University. Immediately after 9/11, she disappeared from class and explained to me a month later when she returned that she was frightened to death about living in the United States. “Things don’t happen like this in Monrovia. I’m much safer there than in Washington, D.C.” No doubt true.

Moments earlier she had informed me that her father was the President of Liberia and my mouth had dropped because of my astonishment. I covered up my surprise by pointing to a framed sheet of Liberian postage stamps hanging in my office. They were stamps of Al Gore, who was identified as the 43rd President of the United States under his portrait. Only a country like Liberia would issue postage stamps for both Bush and Gore, making money no matter who won the election. Charen looked at me as if I were quite mad. What better response about a country which at the time had no functional mail service. Electricity. Running water, etc. Except in her father’s compound.

So I have my friend drive us down the private road leading to Taylor’s pad, surprised that the guard at the top of the hill made no attempt to stop us. I’m in the back seat with another American professor who is attending the conference with me.

This is going to be a snap. I pull out a calling card and attach a note to it: “Dear Mr. Taylor: I taught your daughter, Charen, at American University. I’m attending a conference in Calabar and thought I’d stop and say hello.” And I sign my name.

A second guard with a rifle stops our vehicle, and I tell him why we’ve driven down the road. He’s clearly chagrined since the guy at the top hasn’t stopped us. I explain my intent and Guard #2 departs, with another one keeping watch over us, and I’m convinced that it’s only a matter of minutes and I’ll meet the Devil himself.

Then #2 returns and calls #3, who comes down the hill behind us and asks why I want to see Charles Taylor. He calls someone with his cell phone and then Tony, my Nigerian friend, is ordered to turn the car around and follow another vehicle that has appeared behind us. Everybody carries guns and cell phones.

#2 rides along with us as we follow #3 in the vehicle in front of us, and we drive for ten minutes through Calabar and then leave the city for a remote area, down another hill, passing through a gate. There are security guards all around us, toting guns and exhibiting menacing expressions, but I’m convinced the intimidation is worth it.
We enter a building and are questioned by #4 (a woman), who asks me in much more detail why I want to see Charles Taylor. The room is full of other security guards, most of whom are watching a soccer game.

#5 takes us into another room, with posh sofas, and tells us to wait while he disappears, as #6 watches us. My assumption is that Lucifer will come to the room where we are waiting.

After a lengthy period of time, #5 returns and takes me alone into a separate room, leaving my friends behind. So I’m going to meet with the Prince of Darkness by myself.

All the questions I’ve been asked several times are now asked repeatedly again, checking me out. I’m also given several pages of forms to fill out with spaces for just about everything that’s ever happened to me, including my passport number, age, date of birth, family (father and mother [deceased], my brother, his address, my job, my colleagues, and my tribe, which I leave empty). After #5 reads what I’ve written, he asks why I’ve left the space for tribe empty, so I tell him I’m Swedish, which he asks me to write on the form.

Then I’m asked to write a detailed account of my reasons for wanting to see Charles Taylor. #5’s telephone rings constantly as he reports back to others, presumably Beelzebub himself.

More questions. Do I know Charles Taylor? No. Was I ever in Nigeria before? Yes. What was I doing at that time? I tell him I was in the Peace Corps from 1962-1964.

More delays. #5 constantly appears and disappears as #7 watches over me.

Do I understand that President Taylor is in asylum in Nigeria? Yes. And then the clincher: Do I understand that the United States is trying to take over the world? The guy won’t look away from me for a minute. Yes, I agree, or at least answer that it certainly looks that way. What political party do I belong to? Democrat. Did I vote for George Bush? Are you kidding?

Finally—after menacing glares from guards #5 and #7—I’m taken back to the room with the couches but my companions are nowhere in sight. I’m told that they are being questioned by others. When they return much later, we’re told that our statements have been faxed to Abuja, the capital, but since it’s a Saturday, a weekend, and I didn’t make my request in advance, that no one can visit Charles Taylor without advance notice.

After three hours of questioning, we’re released, and Tony says that we’ve not been questioned by Charles Taylor’s guards but by Nigeria’s State Security System. As we drive through the gate, Tony points out that the building is unmarked. There is no sign identifying it—but everyone knows what the building houses.

The next day I learn that Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo was in Washington talking to President Bush the day before I stupidly attempted to see Charles Taylor. Bush demanded that Obasanjo turn Taylor over to the United Nations Tribunal in Sierra Leone, but the Nigerian President said no since he had told Taylor that his asylum would be guaranteed and wouldn’t go back on his word.

Charles Taylor is undoubtedly one of the most repugnant monsters of the last half century, but somehow I found myself siding with President Obasanjo and not with the American President who believes that the entire world bends to his will.

Hadn’t I actually assumed the same of myself? That by being a pushy American I could wheedle my way into the Devil’s inner sanctum and get the scoop of a lifetime? •

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email address: clarson@american.edu.

This essay originally appeared in Worldview, in 2005.