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History and weak opposition put Liberian warlord in power

July 22, 1997

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) _ Seven years ago, fighters loyal to warlord Charles Taylor killed five of Samukah Corneh’s brothers as they tried to flee Liberia at the start of its civil war.

Yet when he went to vote for a president Saturday, Corneh firmly pressed his inky thumb onto the ballot space next to Taylor’s picture.

So did most Liberians, according to results that show Taylor headed for a landslide victory in this tortured land that his fighters helped destroy.

Despite his bloody past, Taylor benefited from a fractured opposition that underestimated his appeal. Many Liberians view him as the man who had the guts to end the dictatorship of Samuel Doe in 1990, and who has the muscle to prevent another war in a country founded by freed American slaves in 1847.

That image, along with a well-organized campaign that Taylor had years to hone, and a strong dose of fear and ignorance among Liberia’s mainly illiterate electorate, combined to give Taylor 75 percent of the vote, according to results released Tuesday by the Independent Elections Commission.

His closest rival, former United Nations official Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, had 9.5 percent with nearly 75 percent of the vote counted. Further results were expected Wednesday.

Taylor, 49, was a favorite from the start but had been expected to face Johnson-Sirleaf, 58, in a runoff next month. Those who voted for him, however, and even some of those who didn’t, say his trouncing of the 12 other contenders in the first round shouldn’t have been a total surprise.

``Mr. Taylor had done his homework,″ said Daniel Gbardoe of the Center for Democratic Empowerment, a Monrovia-based group that seeks to promote democracy in Africa. ``In the past seven years he had been able to impress upon people that he was their leader. When election time came, he had the means, the resources, the radio communications to spread his propaganda. He had a better-organized political machine.″

Like many Liberians, Corneh, 33, welcomed Taylor’s Christmas Eve 1989 incursion to oust Doe, who had seized power 10 years earlier in a military coup and imposed a dictatorship that favored his Krahn tribe above all others.

Even though Corneh and his brothers were Krahn, Doe was one of Africa’s most brutal dictators and many _ even from his own ethnic group _ desperately wanted to see him go.

``We could not succeed through politics to get rid of Doe. The best alternative was through some military uprising, which is what Taylor did,″ Corneh said.

His brothers died when Taylor’s men, seeking revenge for Doe’s abuses, rounded up Krahns in northern Lofa County, tortured and killed them as they tried to flee across the border to Sierra Leone shortly after the war began. Corneh escaped and lived off roots and relief aid in the bush for years until settling in the capital, Monrovia, where he voted Saturday for the National Patriotic Party leader.

``People believe that even though he’s the man who started the war, he’s the only man who can take care of them. And mind you, he had the largest number of fighters, and those fighters were registered voters also,″ said Francis Manneh, who voted for Johnson-Sirleaf but admits that he and other Taylor opponents ran poor campaigns by failing to reach out to voters like Corneh.

Johnson-Sirleaf, who has spent more than the past 10 years in the United States, quit as Africa director for the U.N. Development Program in May to return and run for president. By then it was too late to win over a population that for seven years had known Taylor as the country’s most formidable leader.

While Taylor was handing out T-shirts and promising jobs and security _ language easily understood by impoverished and war-weary Liberians _ Johnson-Sirleaf, with her Harvard MBA and high-paying Western career, was seen by many as a virtual foreigner with no understanding of the average Liberians’ problems.

The benefit of having a well-educated, Western-oriented leader with strong international support as their president was lost on voters who were for the most part uneducated and familiar only with civil strife, Gbardoe says.

Johnson-Sirleaf may have had a lot of support among women and intellectuals, but they represented a minority of the country’s 751,000 registered voters. Most voters were males between the ages of 18 and 30 _ the same gender and age as most of Taylor’s fighters.

``They saw security in Mr. Taylor, because he’s the one who stood by them for so many years,″ Gbardoe said.

Better nationwide voter education might have tilted the outcome, although not necessarily enough to have forced a runoff, said Gbardoe and international observers including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who led a 40-member observer team.

They noted that Taylor’s private KISS-FM radio station was heard nationwide throughout the campaign, providing pro-Taylor messages to voters everywhere and convincing the intimidated and uneducated that Taylor was the only acceptable choice.

Liberian national radio broadcast messages aimed at eliminating the fear factor and encouraging people to vote for whomever they wanted, but they didn’t extend beyond the outskirts of Monrovia.

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