This is what I have heard.
We are in the 1980s. Jewel Howard is at the University of Liberia. Enter Charles Taylor. The two begin dating. As it happens, sometimes, a child appears from heaven and Charles and Jewel have one. Later Charles is accused of embezzling 1 million dollars from the government of Samuel Kanyon Doe, Master Sergeant Doe – the Chairman of the People’s Redemption Council and the de facto head of State (1980-1990). Taylor flees to America. America takes Taylor and puts him in the can. By the time Jewel Taylor arrives in America to look for her sweetheart, Taylor is doing time in a correctional facility in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, then he mysteriously escapes from prison.
Decades later, during his trial, in 2009, Taylor would clarify on the ‘mysterious’ escape. He narrated how CIA agents helped him to escape from the maximum security prison in 1985, days after a failed US-backed coup attempt to overthrow the Liberian government. A coup organized by his friend, the Liberian military leader, Thomas Quiwonkpa. Taylor recalled how one night in November 1985, a prison guard unlocked his cell and escorted him to the minimum security area, where, tying a sheet to a window, he climbed out and scaled the prison fence, and led to a waiting car with two men instructed to deliver him to New York. He could not change cars to be with his then wife, who had driven to meet the escape car with money to get Taylor out of the country, to avoid the complications of being stopped along the way.
Meanwhile, Jewel is enrolled at the American Institute of Banking in New Jersey. She completes her studies and works in the United States until 1996 when she returns to Liberia, the same year the civil war ended. She unites with Taylor. We are told that Taylor proposed, she accepted, and the two were married in a fairy-tale wedding, shortly before Charles Taylor was elected the 22nd President of Liberia, winning the election with 75% of the vote. This is how Jewel Taylor became the First Lady of Liberia. This political foundation began bearing fruits a decade later, in 2005.
Taylor rose to power after the vanquishing of Samuel Doe. He was captured, tortured, assassinated, mutilated, and as some say, cooked and eaten by rebels. This was a man who had risen to power through a 1980 military coup that led the assassination of President William R. Tolbert, Jr and public executions of members of the cabinet by a firing squad on the beach. A decade later his own execution would be captured on film. His assassination and succeeding political realignments marked the beginning of Charles Taylor’s presidency, often overshadowed by the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991–2002) and Second Liberian Civil War (1999–2003).
In August 2003, Taylor signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Accra, Ghana, stepped down, and the couple went in exile to Calabar, Nigeria. Taylor was joined by another wife, Victoria; a young Liberian he had married in 2002 in an elaborate Islamic ceremony, an ex-wife and mistresses. This arrangement pushed Jewel Taylor to live separately from the husband. When Jewel traveled to Liberia in 2004, she found that she was also on U.N travel ban, a complication which effectively separated her from the core of the family in Calabar. In her absence, Victoria got pregnant. The strained relationship forced her to file for divorce in 2005, and the two separated in 2006, just months before Taylor was arrested and extradited to Liberia to face charges for crimes against humanity at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). In the end, he was found guilty of all 11 counts of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and crimes against humanity on 26 April 2012 and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Clair Macdoughall talked to Jewel Howard, for Newsweek, a month after the sentencing, asking how she was moving on with life after his incarceration and dealing with the consequences of a Taylor name. On one end, she tried to distance herself with the issues surrounding his involvement in the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia; on the other, she was aware that Taylor had support at home, one that could be translated into a political fortune. She maintained contact with Taylor, an act she justified as a family necessity: “I’m a mother of two children to Taylor and a member of the Taylor family. It is to be expected that we talk.”
To create the necessary distance, Jewel denied knowledge of her husband’s crimes. She maintained that she knew nothing since she was schooling and working in the United States during the pre-Taylor-presidency years. She got news about the war atrocities through mainstream media channels like the CNN, like everyone else. On Taylor’s exploits in Sierra Leone with the Revolutionary United Front, Jewel was categorical: “I have never been to Sierra Leone before. I don’t know what happened, and the issues were during the war, when I wasn’t here. So it was a little bit difficult for me.”There is a possibility that she may not have known the details of her husband’s involvement in atrocities. Peter Jallah, Taylor’s former Justice Minister depicted him as “the sort of man who could send people to have one of your family members killed and make you feel like he had done nothing.”
Jewel’s presumed non-knowledge of these atrocities has been beneficial in her political maneuverings, but she is said to have visited Taylor, in 1992, for three days in rebel-occupied territory. She admitted seeing heavily armed fighters dressed in wigs and women clothing, but when she asked why the fighters were in macabre costumes, he told her that “they are just security people, and they dress like that, because we are not sure if this rebel territory is ours.”
When talking about the Small Boys Units, the famed child soldiers, she argued that Taylor loved children and that the child soldiers were “people who did not have access to their parents, because they had been killed” and that “they saw Taylor as a father figure. And if you visit areas of Monrovia and talk to a lot of ex-combatants, they call him papay – ‘our father’ – somebody who came to their aid when there was no one else.” To explain away the gruesome details of atrocities, Jewel intimated that “things that happen during war are evil spirits that take control of men.”
Ironically, Taylor’s campaign slogan was “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I’ll vote for him.” The dim slogan spread fear and made everybody know that war would resume if they did not vote for him. The other irony is that while her husband was being accused of torture and extrajudicial killings during his presidency, Jewel was in charge of the National Humanitarian Task Force. From 2000 to 2003 she was involved in distributing food, clothing, and aid. It is, perhaps, this role that would lay the foundation for her future political mobilization strategies.
At the GSA slum, Jewel met one of the former combatants, a 24-year old prostitute, who was forced to fight for Taylor in 2000 to survive after her parents were killed. The words of that ex-combatant captured the identity Jewel was carving for herself. She said, “I blame Charles Taylor … (but) Jewel Howard Taylor is not a bad woman. She good. She take care of children and of people when the war is fighting … Charles Taylor did bad things, but Jewel Taylor did good things.”
Charles Taylor’s relationship with his foot soldiers was complicated. Other ex-combatants continue to revere him. In an interview with one of the ex-soldiers, by Colin Freeman, for the Telegraph, in the months leading to the 2017 election, William Sumo rolled up his shirt sleeves to show the journalist the scars and bullet wounds earned from his role during Liberia’s 14-year civil war. However, Mr. Sumo does not feel shame for having been a foot soldier, instead, he glows with pride and says Taylor’s crimes and sentencing were fabricated. He believes Taylor should not be in prison in Britain but as a free man in Liberia. “If Taylor was to come back tomorrow he would win straightaway,” he says. Mr. Sumo, now 44, lives in Gbatala, a town in Bong County, the heart of Jewel’s political power base.
On the day after Taylor’s sentencing, a reporter caught up with Jewel in Bong County, about her opinion of the trial. She said, “Let me be frank with you: whatever I say, one group will feel marginalized, so as senator I will stand in the middle” … “The Charles Taylor issue is not a Liberian issue, it was an issue concerning the international community and Sierra Leone.” A day later in a church service, she added, “I think from the beginning, we have seen that it is a politically motivated case,” … “all the key things have not been proven, yet he has been found guilty for aiding and abetting on all counts.”
Jewel also opposed the institution of a mechanism to prosecute war crimes in Liberia, arguing that “it would only break us apart and deepen the divide.” “We must forgive one another and move forward.”
For such a devastating occurrence to a family, Jewel Taylor succeeded in building her own political voice. She won the Senate elections in Bong County with a landslide victory in 2005, and has become the second-most-powerful woman in Liberian politics, only less powerful than President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. However, it has not been easy to shake off the shadow of Charles Taylor.
An Editorial in the Washington-leaning mouthpiece, the Globe Afrique speculated, in November 2016, that Charles Taylor was influencing the political developments in the country, by giving or promising the top leadership for Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) millions of dollars to recruit her as a presidential or running mate.
Others have accused her of using the proceeds from the divorce to influence politics. It is estimated that Charles Taylor looted between $280 million and $3 billion during his years as the President. During the hearings at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for economic crimes, Jewel was asked whether she got money from the divorce, to which she replied, “I didn’t get a thing. I didn’t ask for it” … “I didn’t marry him for property, and if he can’t love me, I don’t want anything.”
Enter George Weah – full name, George Tawlon Manneh Oppong Ousman Weah – into the presidential race. Weah ran unsuccessfully against President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005. He ran again, unsuccessfully, as the running mate of Winston Tubman in 2011. He opted for a different approach in 2017.
Jewel was a strong supporter of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf before they fell out. President Sirleaf supported the prosecution of war crimes at home, an idea Jewel was against. Jewel reminded her that Taylor’s guilty verdict was also a guilty verdict for everyone who had played key roles during the country’s civil war. This was an indirect attack on President Sirleaf who has admitted giving Taylor $10,000 to help to overthrow John Doe in 1990, in an interview with The Perspective. Nonetheless, an alliance with Weah as the running mate was an unlikely development, but Weah has been quick to dismiss misgivings. He was full of praises, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, saying, “She’s my colleague in the Senate. She’s a hardworking woman. Now, she’s a former wife of Charles Taylor. She is a Liberian, capable, qualified, and Liberian people love her. I also believe in gender and equality, so I think having a woman as my vice president is a good thing.”
Her strategy is paying off. Today, she has cemented her position in Liberia’s politics. She is one of the most highly educated political leaders, with two bachelors in banking and economics and a graduate degree in banking. Her decades in humanitarian work and the call for national healing, reconciliation, and inclusiveness has been a constant. Still, she is a product of her former husband’s popularity.
According to Uriah Mitchell, Head of Programs and Production at Radio Gbarnga in Bong County’s capital, “her name is Jewel Howard-Taylor, so it has a very thin line between the separation as a first lady and a separation as a senator, for the fact that most people (here) still owe Charles Taylor so greatly.”
During Jewel’s 2014 senatorial election campaigns, an audio purported to be the ex-President’s emerged urging residents to vote for her. The recording –“I am Charles Ghankay Taylor, your former President speaking to you from The Hague. If you still love me, please vote for my former wife Jewel Howard-Taylor because when she is re-elected, she would ensure I am released from prison” – fuel the belief that she is benefiting from his political base.
The Liberian activist and scholar, Robtel Neajai Pailey, disagrees, “I think it’s unfair for people to assume that because she has kept the Taylor first name that she hasn’t built her own political empire.”
Lucinda Rouse of Al Jazeera posed this question to her in a recent interview: “Why should people believe that you are not pursuing the agenda of your ex-husband, former President Charles Taylor?”
She replied, “If someone says that Senator Taylor wants to bring back the Taylor agenda, I ask: “What is the Taylor agenda?” During the crisis I was not in the country; I was away at school. If I wasn’t here, there’s no way you can say I was involved. All I know is that my country ended up in flames and I think it’s unfair when people try to blame me for things about which I had no idea. I go out every day and try to do my best. But others continue to say, “There’s a problem with this woman”. If there was a problem with me, I never would have been elected as senator in 2005. Even as first lady, I created a humanitarian task force for people in the displaced camps. Did I have on military gear fighting and killing? No. I decided that I would spend my time providing whatever support I could to help alleviate the suffering of people.”
Perhaps the words that best capture this delicate balancing act in Jewel’s political strategy were uttered nearly five years ago before the Weah-Jewel ticket by her senior political advisor and the Chairman of the National Patriotic Party in Bong County, Marvin Cole. He said, Jewel has “a responsibility to satisfy the Charles Taylor constituencies in the Republic of Liberia. And she also has a responsibility to appease the minds of the international community that are watching her, to be dissociated from Mr. Taylor.”
We don’t know whether she will agitate for bringing Charles Taylor back home. We don’t know whether Charles Taylor pulled this election’s strings from prison. We also know that she has established a formidable political reputation, on her own right, and perhaps it is not too soon to predict her ascendancy to the presidency in the future.
Most importantly, we know that Jewel Howard Taylor is the first female (and new) Vice President of Liberia – “the jewel that George wears.”