The Secret Hand Behind West Africa’s Regime Changes

By Charu Sudan Kasturi |

Former Liberian leader, Charles G. Taylor during his war days

Why you should care

The U.S. and the Soviet Union weren’t the only ones trying to change regimes during the Cold War.

Armed with AK-47s, the rebels sneaked into Liberia on Christmas Eve in 1989 to overthrow the country’s President Samuel Doe. As the ensuing civil war escalated, ultimately killing 400,000 people, the world’s attention turned to rebel leader Charles Taylor, and Libya, which had trained his men. But the man whom diplomats and experts hold responsible for the invasion was watching calmly from Yamoussoukro. At 84, Ivory Coast President Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s appetite for regime change hadn’t waned.

West Africa’s longest-serving leader, Houphouët-Boigny led Ivory Coast from its independence in 1960 till his death in 1993, turning the former French colony into a rare pillar of economic success and stability. An ally of the West during the Cold War, Houphouët-Boigny had a Peace Prize instituted in his name by UNESCO in 1990. But there was a more manipulative side to the man popularly known as Papa Houphouët or Le Vieux (The Old One), say experts and diplomats who worked with him.

The planning, financing and logistical assistance [for the 1989 Liberian invasion] was orchestrated by [Ivory Coast].

Herman Cohen, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for West Africa

Senior American diplomat Herman Cohen recalls meeting at the Ivorian leader’s house with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the Angolan rebel group UNITA that through the 1980s tried to overthrow the U.N.-recognized government of José Eduardo Dos Santos. Former Liberian warlord Prince Johnson, once Taylor’s ally, has told Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Houphouët-Boigny was involved in the 1987 assassination of Burkina Faso’s Marxist leader, Thomas Sankara. And though the Ivorian leader denied a role in these interventions, he was behind Taylor’s Christmas Eve Liberia invasion, according to Cyril Obi, a West Africa researcher at the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn. Taylor and his fighters entered Liberia through Ivory Coast, says Cohen, who is convinced about Houphouët-Boigny’s role.

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