From first lady to vice president of Liberia: meet Jewel Howard Taylor
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Jewel Howard Taylor is set to become Liberia’s next vice president after her successful campaign alongside George Weah. She claims that she never knew about the atrocities ordered by her ex-husband, Charles Taylor, during Sierra Leone's civil war.
When George Weah won the Liberian presidential election on December 26, 2017, his running mate Jewel Howard Taylor, became the most powerful woman in the country. The 54-year-old politician, former wife of Liberian ex-leader Charles Taylor, had won her ticket to the vice presidency. As jubilant crowds celebrated outside their campaign headquarters in Monrovia, Howard Taylor may have reflected on her first steps in politics exactly 20 years before, when she was the country’s first lady.
Howard Taylor divorced Charles Taylor in 2006, after he fled to exile in Nigeria. Despite her ex-husband's reputation as a ruthless warlord, Howard Taylor went on to build her own political base in a central region north of Monrovia. In 2005, she was elected senator of the Bong county, the nation’s third most populous, for the National Patriotic Party (NPP). She then chaired the Senate Health and Social Welfare Committee on Gender, Women and Children. Howard Taylor is a devout Christian who is said to begin every morning with a prayer. In 2012, she tried to push through legislation that allows homosexuality to be punished with the death penalty.
"I have made promises I have fulfilled in education, healthcare and infrastructure development, and so I hope over the past 12 years Jewel Howard Taylor has become her own person working for peace, working for prosperity and working for development," she told the AFP news agency in an interview shortly before the presidential election.
Longtime grassroots support from the people of Bong county is what helped Howard Taylor reach the country’s vice presidency, not her past marriage with Taylor. Her political alliance with Weah allowed the former football star to increase four-fold his share of the vote in Bong county: he went from 10.7 percent of the vote in 2005 to 40.6 percent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election’s first round. In the second round, Weah received about 70 percent of the vote.
Howard Taylor has repeatedly praised the new president-elect, Weah, insisting that each of them had complementary characters and skills.
“Both partners bring their best to the table (…) Sometimes I’m like a firecracker, running to get things done. [George Weah] will wait, he will listen to all of the sides of the issue, and then take a consensus decision,” she told BBC radio on January 2, 2018.
Despite her efforts to distance herself from Taylor, her new position as vice president is raising old questions over what knowledge she had about all the heinous crimes committed by her ex-husband’s forces.
Taylor is the first former head of state to have been convicted by an international tribunal since the Nuremberg trials. In April 2012, the former warlord was sentenced by the special court for Sierra Leone to 50 years in jail for his support for the country's rebellion, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Besides their widespread use of amputations as a way of terrorising civilians, Taylor’s forces were known for turning young boys into ruthless foot soldiers.
'He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him'
Howard Taylor has repeatedly denied being aware of these well-documented atrocities.
“Mind you, they were talking about Sierra Leone,” she said. “It was not a Liberian issue. I have never been to Sierra Leone before, I don’t know what happened, and the issues were during the war, when I wasn’t here. So it was a little bit difficult for me," she told Newsweek in 2012.
Charles Taylor and Jewel met in the early 1980s, when she was a first-year student at the University of Liberia. She then spent several years in the US, studying at the American Institute of Banking in New Jersey and working in banking until 1996. When she returned to Liberia, Taylor was about to run for president with his infamous campaign slogan "he killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”. The former warlord became president in 1997 with about 75 percent of the vote in an election that was widely reckoned as free and fair by international observers.
Two decades later, the former first lady is about to open a new chapter in her already eventful political life.
“I believe I should be given the chance to be who I am based on my record," said Howard Taylor in the BBC interview after her electoral success.
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