Firestone and the Warlord: The untold story of Firestone, Charles Taylor and the tragedy of Liberia

T. Christian Miller and Jonathan Jones, Firestone and the Warlord: The untold story of Firestone, Charles Taylor and the tragedy of Liberia. ProPublica in collaboration with FRONTLINE, 18 November 2014. From FRONTLINE, Firestone and the Warlord: “Firestone wanted Liberia for its rubber. Taylor wanted Firestone to help his rise to power. At a pivotal meeting in Liberia’s jungles in July 1991, the company agreed to do business with the warlord. In the first detailed examination of the relationship between Firestone and Taylor, an investigation by ProPublica and FRONTLINE lays bare the role of a global corporation in a brutal African conflict.”

Firestone served as a source of food, fuel, trucks and cash used by Taylor’s ragtag rebel army, according to interviews, internal corporate documents and declassified diplomatic cables.

The company signed a deal in 1992 to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel government. Over the next year, the company doled out more than $2.3 million in cash, checks and food to Taylor, according to an accounting in court files. Between 1990 and 1993, the company invested $35.3 million in the plantation.

In return, Taylor’s forces provided security to the plantation that allowed Firestone to produce rubber and safeguard its assets. Taylor’s rebel government offered lower export taxes that gave the company a financial break on rubber shipments.

For Taylor, the relationship with Firestone was about more than money. It helped provide him with the political capital and recognition he needed as he sought to establish his credentials as Liberia’s future leader….

While Firestone used the plantation for the business of rubber, Taylor used it for the business of war. Taylor turned storage centers and factories on Firestone’s sprawling rubber farm into depots for weapons and ammunition. He housed himself and his top ministers in Firestone homes. He also used communications equipment on the plantation to broadcast messages to his supporters, propaganda to the masses and instructions to his troops.

Secret U.S. diplomatic cables from the time captured Taylor’s gratitude to Firestone. Firestone’s plantation “had been the lifeblood” of the territory in Liberia that he controlled, Taylor told one Firestone executive, according to a State Department cable. Taylor later said in sworn testimony that Firestone’s resources had been the “most significant” source of foreign exchange in the early years of his revolt….

At the moment of the October 1992 attack that came to be known as Operation Octopus, Taylor controlled the vast majority of Liberia. He faced a weak interim government in Monrovia, backed by 7,000 largely untested soldiers from allied West African nations.

Operation Octopus effectively plunged the country into five more turbulent, terrible years of intermittent warfare. Taylor turned a civil war between his forces and the Liberian government into a bloodbath as more rebel factions joined in the fight for spoils: diamonds, timber, power. It spilled into neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone, where rebel forces allied with Taylor hacked the limbs off civilians in a terror campaign of unchecked brutality.

In July 1997, Taylor won his war, and not on the battlefield. He was elected president, dominating with 75 percent of the vote. For many Liberians, a vote for Taylor was a vote of resignation. Many believed it was the only way to stop the killing. After Taylor became president, more factions arose, more bloodletting, more revenge. Liberia and its people suffered yet again.

In 2003, Taylor was indicted by an international tribunal for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. He resigned the presidency. He was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison — the first head of state to be convicted of crimes against humanity since the Nazi era.

The path to cooperation was neither direct nor easy for Firestone and its executives, according to interviews and documents. Some company officials actively resisted working with Taylor and his fighters, even in the face of real and implied threats of physical violence. Other senior officers felt the company had no choice but to give in to Taylor’s demands….

Firestone also received conflicting direction from the United States government. One ambassador urged the company to work with Taylor. In Washington, diplomats warned Firestone executives about the dangers of doing business with him.

But in the end, Firestone as a corporation, and as a collection of men, made a deliberate decision to cooperate with a man whose forces were publicly denounced as violent, vicious and rapacious by the U.S. government and human rights groups.

The U.S. State Department had issued a report blaming Taylor’s forces for killing civilians, raping women and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to become refugees. Human Rights Watch said that Taylor’s forces had engaged in a killing campaign that put a targeted ethnic group at “risk of genocide.”…

The decision that Firestone faced confronts American companies operating to this day in war-torn, volatile regions in an increasingly globalized economy. All aim to make money. All must weigh, to one degree or another, their hierarchy of obligations – to their shareholders, to their foreign workers, to their host countries, and to their own sense of right and wrong.

Jonathan Jones, special to ProPublica, and T. Christian Miller, Union Buried Evidence of Firestone Support of Warlord After Labor Deal. ProPublica, 12 March 2015. “During a bitter strike in the 1990s, the United Steelworkers of America found Firestone supported warlord Charles Taylor, but never released its findings.”

Minhee Cho, ‘Firestone and the Warlord’ Wins RFK Journalism Award. ProPublica, 11 May 2015.  “The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights has named Firestone and the Warlord the winner of its 2015 RFK Journalism Award in the new media category.

The collaborative project with PBS Frontline offered the first detailed examination of the iconic tire company’s role in Liberia’s brutal civil war. As T. Christian Miller, Jonathan Jones, Marcela Gaviria and Will Cohen unveiled over a longform investigation and in-depth documentary, Firestone needed Liberia and its rubber while Charles Taylor, an ambitious rebel leader, needed Firestone for his eventual rise to power. Their painstaking reporting brought to light how the killer and the corporation found a way to make peace as war consumed the rest of the country.”