‘Dad didn’t hack people up, he didn’t rape’
Liberia’s jailed warlord Charles Taylor’s son talks about politics and gangster rap
Philip Taylor, son of former African warlord Charles Taylor: considers himself to be clan chief, charged with clearing the family name. Photograph: Lorraine Mallinder
Liberia’s president Charles Taylor: his son Philip believes his father should shoulder blame for atrocities during the two Liberian wars, spanning 1989 to 2003. Photograph: Pewee Flomoku
Philip Taylor is losing patience with the chickens. They peck at his feet, flapping their wings and clucking furiously. “I’m gonna freakin’ . . .” he says, lifting a foot, as if to kick them off the patio. But he thinks again, takes a deep breath and recomposes himself.
Over the course of the evening, the 34 year old takes a few deep breaths. Being the son of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s jailed warlord president, and Jewel Howard-Taylor, who may become the country’s next vice-president, has not exactly been plain-sailing.
That very morning, his father had called from his prison cell at HMP Frankland in England to dispense some Zen wisdom. “Dad reminded me to be focused. He said: ‘Always be calm, don’t lose your temper, analyse the situation,’” says Philip. “When I talk to him, he sounds like he’s in a six-star hotel.”
Unlike his once-flamboyant father, Philip prefers to keep a low profile. Ensconced behind the high walls of his Monrovia residence, the political science graduate pursues his passion for gangster rap, a creative outlet for his pent-up frustrations.
As “Bentman the Don”, he rolls out the standard gangster tropes, but there are also some clues to his real-life identity. “Come on baby, you can roll with government plates/Ain’t my money, you can spend that government cake,” he raps on Don’t You Baby.
If Philip resents his parents, it only shows in occasional flashes. One of Charles Taylor’s 15 children with “maybe six or seven women”, he now considers himself to be clan chief, charged with clearing the family name.
“I’m all my dad has. I have to take his place,” he says. As a boy, hanging out briefly with rebel forces in the bush, he would have readily taken a bullet for his father. “He never showed fear. I wanted to be like him,” he says.
Philip barely saw his parents, but considers their 1997 wedding as “the most ecstatic day” of his life. He was 13 at the time and remembers the Mercedes, fully loaded, that Charles bought Jewel as a wedding present. The champagne flowed, but not for the teetotal Charles, whose flunkies kept topping up his glass with 7-Up.
It was a rare moment of happiness in a lonely childhood. Philip’s mother left him in Ivory Coast with relatives when he was a baby, heading stateside to join his father. “Mum was crazy about Dad,” he says. “I didn’t see her until I was eight. As a child, you feel you’re being punished.”
Later he was sent to the US for more punishment – in this case, a military education. “My dad thought it was important. It didn’t suit me well,” he says.
Worse was to come when he returned to Liberia in 2003, just after his father resigned from office and headed into exile in Nigeria. “Wherever I went, people were attacking me,” says Philip. “I have a bad temper. I was always getting into fights. It took me a long time to settle.”
He admits that he should have sought help. “That’s where I messed up,” he says.
One area where he can really let rip is US foreign policy. Like many Liberians, Philip thinks that Charles Taylor’s knotted-sheets-from-window escape from a maximum security prison in Massachusetts in 1985, where he was detained under a Liberian extradition warrant, was fishy. He believes his father was released to serve US designs for regime change in Liberia.
“They fed him and they connected him,” he says, referring to the satellite phone that the US gave Taylor, used for communications with Washington DC and the BBC during his 1989 invasion of Liberia. “The western world are all hypocrites.”
Philip says he believes his father should shoulder blame for atrocities during the two Liberian wars, spanning 1989 to 2003, that followed that invasion. “The boys were out of control. Dad didn’t hack people up, he didn’t rape. But he has full responsibility,” he says.
It’s an unexpected admission that he goes on to contradict several times throughout the interview.
Many are those who have been blindsided by Charles Taylor’s hypnotic blend of wild charisma and ruthless ambition. Even today, surprising numbers of Liberians remain fond of their former president, who swept to power in 1997 under the slogan “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him”.
Those who fell the hardest were Charles Taylor’s women. Take Philip’s mother, Jewel Howard-Taylor. She may have divorced Charles in 2005, shortly before Nigeria handed him over to a UN-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone, but she still stands by her man.
Jewel, who is running for vice-president alongside former soccer star George Weah, has spoken of putting her ex’s agenda back on the table, words she later retracted. But the cat was already out of the bag.
“Even to this day, my mum loves him,” says Philip. “The women my dad has relationships with, he keeps them forever.”
An early release from Her Majesty’s Prison Service, where Charles Taylor is imprisoned for war crimes in Sierra Leone, seems a political impossibility. But, any cosying up to him, even if it amounts to no more than vote-catching opportunism, is controversial in Liberia.
The presidential run-off between George Weah and incumbent vice-president Joseph Boakai has been indefinitely halted by Liberia’s supreme court until the country’s electoral commission examines allegations of fraud in the first round.
It’s dark now and the chickens are still clucking, seemingly disoriented. Philip Taylor is done with talking about the past. Having recently graduated, he’s looking forward to a future in politics. “I believe Dad wanted to make me like him. But he wanted me to figure it all out myself,” he says. “Politics is in my blood.”