The Moment Firestone Teamed Up with a Warlord

Below is an excerpt from ProPublica and Frontline’s investigation into how the U.S. tire and rubber company Firestone ended up partnering with warlord Charles Taylor, who was taking over Liberia during the civil war in the early 1990s. In 1992 the company agreed to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel government, and “over the next year, the company doled out more than $2.3 million in cash, checks and food to Taylor”:

“We knew that Firestone support could fuel the war. And we didn’t think that would be a good idea,” Sawyer said.

U.S. diplomats watched warily. In September 1991, Firestone executives spoke with State Department officials in Washington. The diplomats warned the company about the “difficulties and dangers of doing business in Taylorland” and of “potential legal problems,” according to one cable.

Firestone is “reluctant to write off huge investments in Liberia but shows increasing frustration over efforts to conduct business ‘by the book,’ ” the cable continued.

On December 17, 1991, almost two years after Taylor’s invasion, the board of directors met in Akron to discuss Taylor’s demands.

Schremp delivered the presentation.

In exchange for being able to return to its operations, Firestone would work with Taylor’s government. It would make a “significant” capital investment to restore plantation assets that had been damaged and looted. The company would turn Buchanan, Taylorland’s biggest port, into a “viable entity.” Firestone managers would also be allowed to re-occupy homes that Taylor’s ministers and followers had taken over.

The board, led by Chairman and CEO Yoichiro Kaizaki, approved everything, Schremp told Taylor in a letter.

Firestone is “willing to commit the time and money to do so and respectfully request your assistance for us to move forward together,” Schremp wrote. “By doing so, we both make a great contribution to Liberia.”

Schremp closed his letter by wishing Taylor the peace of the Christmas season, and hope for the new year.

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