By Jennifer O’MAHONY*
Monrovia (AFP) – Liberian presidential candidate George Weah on Friday denied contact with ex-leader Charles Taylor as controversy erupted over the former warlord’s alleged behind-the-scenes role in the country’s politics.
After stepping off a helicopter on his return to the capital, Monrovia, from a nationwide tour ahead of elections on October 10, Weah categorically denied speaking with Taylor, who is serving a 50-year prison term in Britain for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“I am not in contact in Charles Taylor, I repeat, I am not,” Weah told AFP and France 24 journalists. The BBC quoted him this week as saying he had taken a phone call from Taylor recorded in January.
Weah’s vice-presidential pick is Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard-Taylor, who told AFP “Liberia needs to move on” when asked if she maintained a correspondence with her ex-husband.
The union of Weah and Howard-Taylor’s parties into the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) for the vote was seen as an unexpected but astute move as the footballing superstar turned politician makes his second attempt at the presidency.
Howard-Taylor is a respected senator in her own right and has built her own political reputation beyond that of Taylor’s First Lady during his 1997-2003 rule.
However, the international community remains preoccupied by Taylor’s ongoing influence on public life.
The US Congress passed a resolution in late September which “condemns any external interference in the elections, including any communication or action by convicted war criminal and former armed faction leader Charles Taylor to influence the elections from prison.”
A UN-backed court convicted Taylor in 2012 of war crimes, crimes against humanity and several other offences for his role in neighbouring Sierra Leone’s 1991-2001 civil war in which an estimated 50,000 people died.
– ‘Agenda’ question –
Howard-Taylor has also faced questions over whether she is fully estranged from Taylor.
But on Friday she said a widely-circulated remark that she wanted to bring back Taylor’s “agenda” had been taken out of context.
“That’s not what I said, and maybe that’s what people wanted to hear. I said the NPP has an agenda, and when the NPP joined the coalition they went with a mandate, our plan of action.”
The NPP was Taylor’s former party, and Howard-Taylor now represents the NPP in the Liberian Senate.
Taylor rose to power on the back of the rebellion he launched in 1989 against Liberia’s then-military ruler Samuel Doe.
In 1997 after seven years of Liberia’s own civil war, Taylor was elected president. One of his campaign slogans was: “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.”
His National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) earned a reputation for extreme violence and was among the first to force children, some as young as 10, to carry guns.
He kept a low profile, living in a seaside villa in Nigeria and having a luxury car with diplomatic plates, until the Nigerian government in March 2006 bowed to international calls to extradite him.