Frontline and Pro Publica’s “Firestone and the Warlord” investigates the secret relationship between the American tire company and the infamous Liberian warlord/president/mass-murderer Charles Taylor (pictured). [Photo Credit: © Patrick Robert/Sygma/Corbis]
In the late 1980s, 40% of the latex used in the United States was supplied by a single plantation — a massive operation run by Firestone in the African nation of Liberia. The plantation had survived the 1980 coup that saw the country’s president slaughtered in his bed and cabinet members executed in public. But after an even bloodier uprising began in 1989, Firestone ultimately ended up in bed with one of history’s most evil figures.
“Firestone & The Warlord,” the latest from Frontline and Pro Publica, is an in-depth investigation into the tire company’s decision to fund and help legitimize Liberian mass-murderer Charles Taylor during his insurrection in the early ’90s. It debuts tonight on PBS, while the Pro Publica story can be read in its entirety now.
Following the 1980 military coup led by eventual president Samuel Doe, American-educated Taylor was put in charge of the government bureau responsible for procurement. When he was accused by Doe of embezzlement, Taylor fled to the U.S., where he was eventually jailed.
Mysteriously, Taylor managed to escape custody and make his way back to Liberia (via Libya), where he quickly began building an army, mainly consisting of heavily armed, unskilled boys, often from neighboring nations like Sierra Leone.
Taylor’s army quickly took over large swaths of Liberia, but was unable to take the capital of Monrovia, about 45 miles west of the Firestone plantation in the company town of Harbel.
“It really didn’t affect us much,” says the former Senior Accountant for the Firestone operation, “until we knew that they were getting closer to Monrovia, and therefore, obviously, closer to us. I was hoping the rebels would go around the plantation, not come onto the plantation, and we would be able to continue to operate.”
But the war did come to the plantation on June 5, 1990, when a small group of Taylor’s rebels burst into the plantation’s golf club and demanded vehicles, bags of rice, handheld radios and petty cash.
The rebels also began killing and torturing people in Harbel who belonged to the wrong tribe. Soon, more than 1,000 employees and family members showed up at the plantation manager’s estate looking for some sort of help or protection.
“They told us that he cannot take us in because we are the ones who will be protecting him,” recalls one former worker, “not he protecting us.”
Another former manager who is Liberian says that only the foreign Firestone workers — mostly American — were given shelter.
“He said, ‘It’s Liberians that are coming. You are gonna be safe among your own people. You don’t need to come in,’” says the manager. “So only the expats can come in.”
Those expats tell Frontline that they simply couldn’t protect anyone. And even the manager’s mansion was no longer safe after the ninth day of Taylor’s breach of the plantation. Rebels told the expats they had to leave the house or it would be destroyed with an RPG.
And so, the next day the expat management fled by plane and the plantation stopped operating. But the war continued.
The former head of the Coca-Cola bottling operation (also then run by Firestone) in Harbel says that around 17% of his more than 300 employees were killed by rebels.
“My driver, my secretary,” he recalls, “the story that bothered me the most was my driver because… First time he was beaten; second time they cut the soles off his feet. Third time they shot him.”
In spite of these atrocities, Firestone’s biggest concern was not for the workers at its abandoned plantation who were now subject to the whims of a madman and his army of young killers. Instead, Firestone (which had been purchased by Bridgestone in 1988) was more concerned about the lack of rubber and revenue coming out of Liberia.
“Firestone’s intent was to make money,” says the plantation’s former controller. “Why did we go back? Because we felt sorry for the people that were there? Probably not. We wanted to get the investment earning money again.”
And even though sources both inside and outside the U.S. government were discussing reports of acts of genocide by Taylor’s army, including atrocities in Sierra Leone, where Taylor was cashing in on the lucrative diamond business, the government never openly told Firestone that it would be a bad idea to deal with the rebels.
Making things even more complicated was the fact that the interim government set up in Monrovia was also not recognized as being legitimate. But they didn’t have control of the plantation — Taylor did — and the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) peacekeepers were doing more looting and photo-taking than keeping of the peace.
And so, in Oct. 1990, only months after being run off their own property by rebels, Firestone contacted Taylor to request a meeting, saying that the company “continues to incur major losses as a result of hostilities.”
In early 1991, Taylor invited Firestone officials back to Liberia to assess the plantation. By then, all but the manager’s mansion had been gutted and destroyed, chunks of land ruined, and the streets so strewn with dead bodies that the Coca-Cola manager says you couldn’t drive down the road without running over human bones.
At the time, Taylor admitted to officials that his forces would probably have no choice but to surrender if the U.S. military were to send in soldiers to quash the fighting, but with American soldiers already busy in the first Gulf War, Liberia’s bloody conflict took a backseat.
By the end of 1991, the board of Firestone agreed to work with Taylor, who demanded that the company recognize his government as the rightful ruling power in Liberia, even though he still didn’t control Monrovia.
As part of the terms of its agreement with Taylor, Firestone not only agreed to recognize him as the president of Liberia and use a shipping port controlled by Taylor, but that it would also pay more than $2.3 million in taxes to his government, which would also remain on the land alongside the plantation workers to provide “security.”
A former advisor to Taylor tells Frontline that getting the Firestone plantation reopened and allied with the rebels gave credibility to the insurrectionists.
“For every employee at Firestone… they have about a secondary and tertiary family of eight people,” he explains. ” So for 1,000 people you’re affecting the lives and providing sustenance for 8,000 people. We needed Firestone to keep people busy.”
A U.S.-based Liberian attorney for Firestone at the time says the company did what it had to do.
“For Firestone, it was either you don’t go back or you have to acquiesce and pay taxes to the government in control of that area,” he claims. “They did the right thing.”
But Amos Sawyer, the then-president of the interim government in Monrovia, tells Frontline he believes this is nonsense.
“They had a choice,” he claims. “I don’t understand this notion of not having choice over the corpses of Liberians. What is that supposed to mean? Choice to become a launch pad to rain war on Liberians? I don’t accept it.”
And Taylor was about to truly rain down war on his fellow Liberians, with the help of the Firestone money and using the Firestone plantation as a base for his prolonged attack on Monrovia.
That attack began in Oct. 1992, not even a year after Firestone returned to Liberia and invested millions in rebuilding the facility.
The company claims that it had no idea that Taylor was using the plantation as a staging ground or storing weapons on the property, but employees at the plantation believe there is no way that Firestone management did not know what was going on.
“The plantation had been turned into a major military installation,” claims Sawyer. “Firestone provided the backdrop for this. Provided the rear base, the rear guard base. Provided the ammunition depot from which ambushes could be set and all of this could happen.”
And it could have continued to go on like this, with Firestone harvesting sap and Taylor launching attacks on Monrovia, if ECOMOG had not decided on an aerial strike against the rebel camp in Harbel.
“There were guys on the football field playing,” remembers one worker of the bombing that killed around 40 people. “And then the next thing we saw, they started releasing bombs and people started running.”
This was too much for Firestone’s expats to take, so they pulled up stakes again and fled the plantation.
But not before sending an apology note — not to its workers — but to Taylor.
“I wish to personally thank you for your kind understanding,” wrote the plantation’s manager. “I look forward to being able to quickly return to restart our operations.”
And Firestone would restart that relationship in 1996, when it returned to Liberia, which would eventually elect Taylor to the office of president in 1997.
While the tire company downplays its complicity in abetting Taylor’s actions, claiming the millions it provided to the rebels were insignificant in the big picture of a rebellion that lasted nearly a decade, Taylor’s own words paint a different picture of the company’s role in his rise.
More than a decade later, when tried for crimes against humanity at The Hague, Taylor explained the importance that Firestone in the early years of his insurrection.
“You had immediately a means that would provide the needed financial assistance that we needed for the revolution,” explained Taylor about being allied with the plantation, which “became at that particular time our most significant principal source of foreign exchange.”
For the full story, watch Frontline tonight (and check out the Frontline site for videos and huge amounts of supplementary material), and read the story on Pro Publica.