Volume XXVIII Number 1
Photo © Nick Kapke
The President and the Professor
It was supposed to be only six months. When Amos Sawyer accepted the presidency of Liberia in 1990, he did so intending to hold office just long enough to restore peace in what had become one of the most violent places on earth. But six months became four years. Attempts on Sawyer’s life were frequent. And everywhere, every minute, there was war.
Now a research scholar at Indiana University Bloomington, Sawyer says he had no great ambition to become, or stay, president: “I was motivated by what I thought was an opportunity to reconcile and reform,” he says. “Our thinking was, the sooner we can work ourselves out of business, the better.”
But the greedy and the power-hungry would undermine that dream, as they have undermined it in Liberia since the 1970s.
Sawyer is all too familiar with the abuses of the three regimes that have blocked Liberia’s progress toward peace for more than 30 years. He reserves his greatest anger for Charles Taylor. “Taylor brought to Liberia the greatest tragedy in its history,” he says.
“The U.N. called him a sociopath,” Sawyer continues. “I think that’s right. Taylor has been motivated by absolute power . . . a total despot. He completed the destruction of all our institutions.”
When Taylor moved to seize control of the Liberian government in 1989, the countries of West Africa decided something had to be done. The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent in troops and named Sawyer interim president, but “Taylor still controlled 90 percent of the country,” Sawyer says. As ECOWAS fought back Taylor’s forces in Liberia, Sawyer was allowed to enter the country and establish some semblance of a government.
“We had no illusion that this was ideal,” he says of the situation. “What gave me the encouragement to hang in there was that Monrovia was an oasis from the fighting. And Liberia had never had such a vibrant free press. I’m really proud of that.”
Even as Sawyer tried to bring the warring factions in Liberia together, Taylor was plotting to have him assassinated.
“I would get calls from the CIA telling me I’d better do something fast,” Sawyer says now with a laugh. “Thanks to the peacekeeping force and good intelligence, nothing happened.”
According to Sawyer, Taylor had very little interest in stability. “Over the course of four years, we negotiated 13 agreements,” he says. “He broke all of them. He’s a savvy, street-smart, confidence-type character. Take his dealings with Jimmy Carter. He knew Carter was a Baptist. So he took care to put a Bible on his desk when he met Carter.”
One of the agreements convinced nearly everyone that Taylor was ready to participate in a democracy. Elections were held in 1997, and Taylor won in a landslide. Accusations of fraud were immediate and furious.
“There is an abundance of evidence that the election environment in 1997 was not conducive to fairness and openness,” says Elwood Dunn, former Liberian secretary of state. “This is essentially why Taylor ‘won.’”
With Taylor as president, things went from bad to worse for the Liberian people. Sawyer was particularly vulnerable.
“I was trying to run the Centre for Democratic Empowerment until November of 2000,” Sawyer says. “Then Taylor had my office raided. I was beaten. The director was stabbed. They tried to rape the women. This was the clearest of the signals to leave.”
Having given a few guest lectures at IU in the 1980s, Sawyer had a standing invitation to return and participate in the IUB Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. It was plainly time to accept that offer.
“It’s a wonderful place to be,” Sawyer says. “Right now, IU has the largest collection of Liberian political literature in the world. Our intellectual history has been terribly diminished by war. Clearly, as Liberians reconstruct their society, those resources will be called upon.”
According to Michael McGinnis, professor of political science and co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, the greatest resource may be Sawyer himself. “IU is uniquely positioned to help Liberia,” he says. “Amos plays an absolutely central role. His contacts in the international community are critical.”
Charles Taylor was deposed in August 2003 under pressure from U.S. forces, and no one could be happier than Sawyer. “His leaving was a prerequisite for peace,” he says. “The way forward must be democratic.”
And then, with a hundred-watt smile, he adds, “I can go back now.”
Daniel S. Comiskey is a writer and editor for the Indiana Alumni Magazine. This story is excerpted and printed with permission from the IAM; a longer version of the story appeared in the January/February 2004 issue and is available online at alumni.indiana.edu/magazine/200401/presprof.html. Amos Sawyer's book Toward Democratic Governance in Liberia will be published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2006.