One of Charles Taylor’s best known and most eloquent defenders is John T. Richardson, a Liberian architect, who continues to speak with the former Liberian President two to three times a week. Richardson, an American trained architect who launched his career in the 1970s, winning contracts from the African Development Bank, USAID, and the World Bank to construct rural schools and hospitals across Liberia, became an international pariah several decades later when he was placed on a UN travel ban during the last years of the Taylor administration, which he served in various capacities.
Today, Richardson operates from a cramped but well decorated office in a gated compound just off Tubman Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of Monrovia. His father, Nathaniel Richardson, was one of Liberia’s greatest historians of the era when the country was dominated by the True Whig Party (TWP) and the descendants of black American immigrants (in which both Taylor and Richardson have their roots). Although the younger Richardson states, “I have no ambitions politically” he came, as a result of a self-described humanitarian impulse, to play a major role in the calamitous struggle to shape post TWP Liberia, serving as a loyal adviser to Taylor throughout Liberia’s 14 years of armed conflict.
On a recent day, at the height of Liberia’s rainy season, I sat down with Richardson for a wide ranging conversation on his opposition to military dictatorship, how he came to know Charles Taylor and his thoughts on incumbent Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Donald Trump.
Before becoming identified with one of Africa’s most notorious warlords, Richardson vehemently opposed the military government of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, who came to power following the 1980 coup that ended 133 years of Americo – Liberian rule. Doe was initially supported to the hilt by the US. In the first five years of his administration, Liberia received more aid from the US than all of its previous administrations combined.
As Richardson explains – “I was an activist during the Doe era [1980 – 1990]. We were very critical of Doe, the election process, military governance. I was outspoken. I went to jail several times.” Richardson was Vice-President of the Liberian Business Caucus, an organization known for its anti-Doe views. Although his brother had been the captain of Air Liberia and was married to Tolbert’s daughter, Richardson says his opposition to Doe did not arise from any sympathies with the TWP. In fact, he was the Best Man at the wedding of G. Bacchus Matthews, an arch opponent of Tolbert who served as Doe’s first Foreign Minister.
Thus, when Taylor launched his invasion of Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989, Richardson was supportive, although he found it “strange” that the rebels pursued conventional warfare to achieve their objectives rather than a traditional coup d’etat.
Several months later, Richardson’s tune was starting to change. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) had ventured to Paynesville, on the outskirts of the capital, where Richardson lived with his family on Duport Road. The NPFL rebels were “terrorizing” the community, making life unbearable to the point where Richardson informed his family: “I’m going to go look for this Charles Taylor guy.”
Richardson had heard of Taylor, but did not know him personally. Although both schooled in the US at roughly the same time in the 1970s, Richardson graduated several years before Taylor and was based in Virginia, well to the south of Massachusetts where Taylor was attending Bentley College.
However, Richardson decided the best way to meet Taylor was to pretend that they were friends. He set out by car with a modicum of protection from several NPFL cadres he recruited to accompany him on his mission. His journey to Firestone, just beyond Monrovia’s international airport, ended up taking four days – Richardson notes that many NPFL fighters manning checkpoints detained him for hours at a time and wanted to kill him due to his Americo – Liberian surname, but were ultimately scared away by his stated connection to Taylor.
Eventually, Richardson was on the road at the same time Taylor’s convoy passed through – leading to his first encounter with the future President:
“He says your Richardson right?”
“I say yes.”
“He says what are you doing with my vehicle?
“I said I’m looking for you”
“There are thousands of us on Duport Road and your people are terrorizing us and I’m sure this isn’t what you are about”
“And he said ok, follow me.”
Richardson quickly became frustrated with his decision to comply. He followed Taylor’s convoy for hours without being allowed to access him again. Eventually he was escorted to the Firestone Guesthouse (on the premises of a major rubber conglomerate operating in Liberia) where he was relieved of his car. Informed he would meet with Taylor the next day, he spent four days at the guesthouse, “scrounging around in the bush eating palm nuts”, until a friend serving with the NPFL happened to drop by the guest house.
The friend immediately took Richardson to see Taylor and a much more productive second conversation followed. The man who absconded with his car was ordered arrested and Richardson was given an escort to the port city of Buchanan to collect 400 bags of rice to take back to the Duport Road community – which Taylor’s commanders told him had been evacuated.
Taylor requested that Richardson return to his base at Harbel to see him after distributing the rice, a request with which he complied against his family’s wishes. From there, his friendship with Taylor flourished.
Richardson recounts that his role as a trusted NPFL advisor evolved naturally: “I started bringing food, I started going to communities finding they needed medicine, I started realizing the heavy-handedness of some of his fighters, I would bring these reports back to him. He started taking action, they [other NPFL functionaries] started realizing I had his ear.”
Richardson was a ham radio enthusiast, a talent he notes also helped endear him to Taylor and which served the NPFL well. He states that it was “from monitoring the ham radio we could hear the US Embassy giving instructions to Prince Johnson [the commander of a breakaway faction of the NPFL which captured and executed President Doe].” Richardson notes that it was not long before “we got to a point where I became his right-hand man.”
While Richardson says that he and Taylor shared a “common vision” for Liberia’s development – one that promoted nationalism and the preservation of sovereignty through a lean and efficient government – he adds, “we had disagreements, I was always accused of being from Mars.”
Richardson served as Minister of Public Works at the beginning of the Taylor administration and returned to government as head of the National Security Agency in 2002 when anti-Taylor forces began to get the upper hand following the renewal of the civil war.
Richardson laments Taylor’s poor living conditions following his 2012 conviction for war crimes in Sierra Leone and excoriates the British prison authorities for charging Taylor 71 pence/minute to call Liberia but connecting his calls via Viber, a free service.
While Richardson believes that Taylor was convicted in The Hague “for simply suggesting that he didn’t escape from jail in America for free”, he remains outspoken about the dominant role of the US in shaping Liberian politics. He notes that US Ambassadors in Liberia have traditionally felt “authorized to walk into presidents’ bedrooms and give instructions…[but] Taylor would never accept that.” Richardson notes that Taylor complied with some of these requests – such as the creation of a Ministry of Gender, but that the Embassy “constantly make[s] requests that sooner or later you cannot fulfill.”
He also recalls the hypocrisy of US officials, such as Howard Jeter, Bill Clinton’s envoy to Liberia who told him on the eve of Liberia’s 1997 polls that ‘Liberians are not ready for a democratic election.’
While a number of Taylor’s ministers have been embraced by the current government, Richardson is weary of President Sirleaf. He warns, “Ellen has no trusted friends and pity the fool who trusts her.” Many of the autocratic tendencies that are routinely ascribed to Taylor, Richardson sees in Sirleaf. He calls her “a vengeful person” and in reference to a number of tensions plaguing the country says the President is “stirring up the water so bad it almost looks like she’s fostering an insurrection.”
While elections are slated for next year, Richardson, uttering the disclaimer that he’s coming from Mars, thinks a handover of power is unlikely as Sirleaf will not want to give up the security of her job.
Richardson’s view of Donald Trump is not that different from his perspective on Sirleaf. As a Liberian patriot however, he’s a bit more optimistic about a Trump presidency. “The Americans deserve Trump. It’s about time somebody fu*ks them. We’re tired of them fu*king everybody else in the world. We honestly believe if you have Trump you’ll have less time to screw up the rest of the world.”
Looking back on his service to Taylor, Richardson says that he’s “proud to have been a member of the cabinet” and believes that “you will find people looking back [at the Taylor era] and saying we were better off.”
As Liberia struggles to provide the most basic of necessities and is currently embroiled in a controversial pilot project to privatize its education system, Richardson asks, “the largesse of the international community, billions of dollars, look around you, where do you see it?” From the schools with no electricity to the countless impassable roads in the rainy season, Liberians are indeed still looking for the fruits of this investment.
Brooks Marmon lived in Liberia for two years and is an incoming doctoral student at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He tweets @AfricaInDC.