With the advent of direct dial, we could talk directly to murky figures within seconds, and my Rolodex quickly came to read like a Who’s Who of cold war and post-cold war warriors: UNITA leader and one-time US ally, Jonas Savimbi of Angola; Renamo leader, Afonso Dlakama, of Mozambique; Rwandan Patriotic Front leader, Paul Kagame; Somali warlords, and more.
These phone relationships were professional but intense, and these leaders made strong impressions, both in person or just over the phone. Savimbi was brilliant, personally imposing, and ruthless. Dlakama appeared meek and unprepared for media scrutiny. Kagame was highly intelligent and calculating. And Taylor seemed coarse and shifty to me over the phone.
Taylor would call me weekly or biweekly to give me updates on battlefield accomplishments or peace overtures. Sometimes I would interview him myself, but as our stable of top-notch reporters with intimate knowledge of African reality grew, I would hand Taylor over to them for interviews.
One day, I received a call with an unfamiliar voice on the other end. My memory tells me that his voice was somewhat shrill as he announced, “I am Corporal Foday Sankoh, and I am leader of the Revolutionary United Front, which has launched the liberation of Sierra Leone. I am calling you on satellite phone from RUF-liberated territory inside Sierra Leone.” Sankoh proposed an interview.
My mind raced: “The only one who could have given Sankoh my phone number was Charles Taylor,” and I imagined Foday Sankoh speaking on Taylor’s satellite phone somewhere in neighboring Liberia with the shifty Taylor at his side.