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Michael Kouraba headshot

How Firestone Buoyed the Rise of Convicted War Criminal Charles Taylor


On Nov. 18, PBS aired “Firestone and the Warlord,” the result of a joint Frontline-ProPublica investigation into the relationship between the Firestone tire company and Liberia's former president and convicted war criminal, Charles Taylor.  ProPublica also published a lengthy companion piece under the same title, drawing upon hundreds of interviews and scores of never-before-seen documents.  The result is an exhaustively researched and fresh look at the vital role played by a major international corporation in supporting one of Africa’s most brutal dictators.

Firestone’s history in Liberia

Firestone first came to Liberia in the 1920s, seeking to exploit the country’s vast rubber resources.  In 1926, it opened the rubber plantation that, 66 years later, would serve as Charles Taylor's base for directing his brutal assault on Monrovia, Liberia’s capital.

Firestone’s Liberian rubber plantation was considered to be the world’s largest and was a key asset for a company that, after being swallowed up by Bridgestone in 1988, began to experience cash-flow problems.  So, despite generating just $16 million in revenue in 1989 (the year before the start of Liberia’s civil war), the plantation’s 15 percent profit margin represented a much-needed “bright spot on a corporate ledger drowning in red ink.”  The plantation provided roughly 40 percent of the latex in America at the time.

Taylor arrives, Firestone flees

In the late 1980s, after escaping from a Massachusetts jail and making his way to a Moammar Gadhafii-sponsored military training camp in Libya, Charles Taylor established the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).  The NPFL’s stated goal was the overthrow of then-president Samuel Doe and the establishment of a Taylor government.  Shortly thereafter, Taylor started Liberia’s civil war.

Taylor’s army first appeared at the Firestone plantation in June 1990.  The head of the plantation at the time, Donald Ensminger, reported not being surprised by the NPFL's arrival; many of the Liberian workers even greeted the rebels with cheers, welcoming them as perceived liberators. (Doe was himself a brutal dictator.)

Of course, liberators they were not.  Soon after showing up at Firestone, the NPFL began exacting revenge against members of tribes associated with the Doe regime.  Government soldiers launched reprisal attacks, forcing the NPFL back into the jungle and searching the plantation’s company town for rebel collaborators.  Terror descended upon the plantation, and Ensminger quietly plotted the expats’ escape. (When Liberian workers sought refuge at Ensminger's corporate mansion, where the expats had gathered for safety, the Liberian workers were turned away.)  A U.S. Special Forces team soon escorted the Firestone expats to Monrovia and out of the country.

No sooner had Firestone left Liberia than executives at company headquarters in Akron, Ohio, were planning their return.  According to Gerald Padmore, in-house counsel at Firestone, the company “knew there had been fighting, there had been killing, and there had been some ethnic reprisal killings,” but at the time, “Taylor did not appear to be conducting genocidal activities.”  Ensminger disagrees with that account, telling ProPublica, “Firestone ... knew full well that atrocities and human rights violations were committed.”

It’s hard to buy Firestone’s alleged ignorance.  Even putting aside Ensminger’s statement, there was significant contemporaneous documentation of widespread killing and torture already committed by Taylor’s army.  In October 1990, Human Rights Watch warned that members of Doe’s tribe who remained in the country were “at risk of genocide.”  A ProPublica analysis of data compiled by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission suggests that, by December 1990, Taylor’s forces had committed “nearly 40,000 human rights violations, including more than 6,400 killings, 800 kidnappings and 600 rapes.”

Firestone returns

Yet, in June 1991, Firestone sent its head of HR, John Schremp, to Liberia to negotiate a return to the country.  In July, Taylor summoned Schremp to a meeting and told him that, in order to return to Liberia, Firestone would have to deal exclusively with him and his regime.  Two days later, Schremp communicated Firestone’s acquiescence.  In December 1991, the Firestone board approved Taylor’s proposal and on Jan. 17, 1992, the two sides signed an official agreement to resume Firestone’s operations at the plantation.

In its World Report, published on Jan. 1, 1992, Human Rights Watch observed that “the human rights situation in Liberia continues to be marked by abuses ranging from extrajudicial killing and torture to restrictions on freedom of movement,” particularly “in the 90 percent of the country controlled by Charles Taylor's [NPFL].”  The U.S. State Department’s 1992 human rights report found that between 20,000 and 30,000 Liberians had died over the course of the previous year; more than 600,000 had fled the violence -- spilling, like the war, into neighboring countries.

Nevertheless, according to Padmore, Firestone was not concerned. “The areas under Taylor’s control seemed to be relatively peaceful at that time,” he told ProPublica.

The root of all evil

ProPublica’s investigation turned up previously unreported Firestone records showing that, by the end of 1992, the company had paid Taylor more than $2.3 million -- $1 million of which was paid in rice, buildings and equipment.  Firestone also spent over $35 million to rebuild the plantation between June 1990 and February 1993, and paid more than $12.3 million for “miscellaneous obligations and expenses.”

When presented with the documents, U.S. and Liberian officials who had worked in Liberia at the time expressed surprise at the payments.  Former U.S. Chief of Mission, William Twaddell, called the heretofore unseen account statements "amazing" and questioned the purpose of some of the payments.

At one point, Taylor claimed the relationship with Firestone earned him between $1 million and $2 million every six months, calling it the "lifeblood" of his movement.  The arrangement was clearly seen by Firestone as mutually beneficial.  As a 1992 State Department cable observed, Firestone “has a huge investment to protect and ... seems to have concluded that to be successful they must deal with Charles Taylor now.”

Operation Octopus

By the summer of 1992, Firestone “knew that Taylor’s fighters were using the plantation as a [military] staging area.”  Certain areas of the plantation were off-limits to Firestone employees.  The plantation’s roads were marked with military checkpoints.  Planes landed at a nearby airbase and sent cargo into the depths of the plantation on covered convoys.  As one former Firestone employee put it to ProPublica, “You could tell they were planning to launch a full-scale war. There were weapons moving around.”

In October 1992, Taylor launched his brutal and erratic assault on Monrovia, dubbed Operation Octopus.  Two attacks were staged from the Firestone plantation, aimed at seizing Monrovia’s suburbs and an airport.  In response, West African bombers targeted the plantation, killing some 40 people — none of them combatants -- and injuring 200 more. The dead were buried among the plantation’s rubber trees.  In November, Firestone would once again leave Liberia.

Amos Sawyer, Liberia’s interim president at the time, called the Firestone plantation Taylor’s “command post and nerve center” for Operation Octopus.  ProPublica uncovered a previously unreported rebuttal to Sawyer, from Firestone, sent in July 1993.  In the letter, signed by Schremp, Firestone acknowledged being in business with Taylor but claimed that there was no “practical alternative.”


Taylor’s campaign in Liberia soon spread to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, where his troops were notorious for indiscriminate killing, raping, and dismembering of men, women and children.  Taylor was also a pioneer in the use of child soldiers.  In 2003, Taylor stepped down as Liberia’s president and was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Taylor was taken into custody in 2006 and convicted in 2012, becoming the only former head of state since Nuremberg to be convicted for war crimes or crimes against humanity by an international tribunal.  Nobody has ever been charged with crimes relating to the war in Liberia.

Firestone returned to Liberia in 1996.  In 2005, a class action was brought against Firestone in California, alleging that Firestone’s labor practices at the Liberia plantation amounted to forced labor.  The case was dismissed in 2011 on jurisdictional grounds.  In 2009, an investigation by the Liberian government found that Firestone had polluted local water sources.

Image credit: Flickr/SenseiAlan

Michael Kourabas headshotMichael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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