The Liberian civil conflict entered Firestone Natural Rubber Company on June 5, 1990, when the rebels of Charles Taylor’s NPFL crossed the Farmington river at Owensgrove and crossed into the Firestone farm.
Employees still recall those first furious, confusing days. When they heard the gunfire and noise, some of the workers went to the Farmington River to watch, still not fully believing the war would come to them. Then the rebels started to cross the river and the workers fled to their homes and waited to see what would happen.
When conflict overtook Liberia and Firestone Natural Rubber Company in 1990, we had to make a decision on what to do, based on little information and no precedent. We decided to try and maintain the operation, care for our workers and their families, and return at the first opportunity to resume full production.
That is what we did. It was the right decision.
Firestone attempted to navigate the difficult situation in Liberia for a long time without taking sides. Unfortunately, the Firestone concession was located entirely in territory controlled by the Charles Taylor government. At one point, we were forced to accept the reality that we would either have to deal with the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Goverrment (NPRAG) of Charles Taylor or abandon the concession — and all Liberians who depended on it — without any guarantee that we could ever return. We chose to stay and see if we could work with the NPRAG government.
Our role was to produce rubber. We believed it was up to the political leaders to determine the future of Liberia. There was a process in place, and the negotiators considered the NPFL to be a part of it. It was our hope that a solution would emerge while we continued to operate our business and support the people in Liberia who depended on us.
Because we kept operating, our employees and families had work, and we were able to return and rebuild. The Firestone operation is critically important to the economy of Liberia and to the lives of thousands of people who depend on it for wages, healthcare and education. Firestone made an objective and clear-headed decision to preserve it.
On June 17, 1990, Firestone was forced to abandon the farm as violence escalated as a result of the impending civil war. Firestone officials would make forays over the next 18 months to deliver supplies, check on employees, and attempt to return and resume production. During this period, our employees through the union made several written appeals to Charles Taylor to allow Firestone to reume operations. Firestone reached an agreement with the NPRAG and returned in February 1992, only to shut down operations again when the war resumed in late October 1992.
Firestone could not return until April 1996, with full production not returning until 2000.
For several years after 1990, Charles Taylor’s forces occupied Firestone’s facilities against the wishes of the company and its employees. They looted equipment, trucks, food, medical supplies, fuel, tools and many other items from our farm under the obvious threat of violence to anyone who considered stopping them. They occupied many buildings and lodging areas at Firestone Natural Rubber Company during various times of the fighting.
Once Firestone decided to maintain the facility for as long as possible, it worked with all relevant parties to ensure there was minimum damage to the factory and facilities, that its employees received food, medicine and other crucial items, and that the Firestone Medical Center at Duside received supplies. It assisted NGOs in transporting vital goods to Liberia. In fact, a U.S. State Department cable of July 29, 1991, praises Firestone as a “NGO” playing a major role in relief operations as it worked with such groups as Catholic Relief Services and MSF International in providing food for months to at least 70,000 pesons.
All of our activities during this period were focused on protecting our employees and property. As a company, we have to rely on guidance from people who do foreign policy for a living. And we consulted with U.S. government regularly throughout this period
The accepted understanding was that the Yamoussoukro agreements provided, in effect, that both the Interim Government and the Taylor-led NPRAG would continue to administer territory under their respective control pending elections in late 1992. This development suggested a regularization of the status quo for the interim until elections. Additionally, a Joint Elections Commission was formed, a Joint Economic Commission contemplated and joint nominations made to a unified Supreme Court. In the view of international organizations and nations, the door appeared to be open to an early resolution of the Liberian crisis and both entities were being dealt with on the same level.
From 1997 to 2003, Charles Taylor was the elected president of Liberia, Firestone (as did all other foreign corporations) functioned under his administration.
Here is the sequence of events during this part(1990 to 2003) of our history:
When the NPFL rebels entered the concession area on June 5th 1990, most of the residents expected the war to pass by to Monrovia, since that is where the seat of Government is located. To our dismay, that did not happen. The rebels settled in and began to harass people and there were even instances of tribal killings. Firestone operations were suspended as of this date.
Firestone management stayed on the farm until June 17th 1990 hoping that things would settle down and we could start operations again. Unfortunately, after repeated physical threats and an instance where an NPFL rebel pointed a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) at the MD and demanded a vehicle and cash, they decided that it was time to leave the farm. For the next 18 months Firestone management tried repeatedly to get back on the farm to help our employees and safeguard the assets. But to no avail. The NPFL simply refused us entry. We also found out that people were slaughter tapping the trees on our farm and that the farm was being massively looted.
During this period our employees, through the Union and Staff Associations, made several written appeals and representations to Charles Taylor to allow Firestone management to come on to the farm to resume operations.
Finally in January 1992, Firestone officials and the NPRAG government signed a Memorandum of Understanding to resume operations on the farm. The MOU’s terms included tax payments to the government ruling the part of Liberia where Firestone’s farm is located, and the requirement that Firestone increase standards of living for workers, such as improved housing, safe drinking water and electrification. In exchange, the ruling government promised to provide security during a time of conflict. In February 1992, Firestone Management commenced repairs to the factory and housing areas.
Don Weihe, a well respected former general manager returned to head the operations of the company. All appearances indicated that normalcy was returning.
Then, on October 15, 1992, Taylor’s forces launched Operation Octopus, an attempt to take Monrovia. The impact on the farm was devastating: airstrikes from ECOMOG – the West African peacekeeping force – began on November 2, resulting in many deaths and destruction. The Medical Center at Duside was struck, despite a huge Red Cross banner that was displayed on the roof. The rubber processing plant was also damaged.
Operations stopped immediately. The Medical Center at Duside though, continued to function.
A decision was then made to evacuate the farm. Management could not go to Monrovia since the fighting was still raging on the road to Monrovia. They had to go to Cote de Ivoire through Taylor held territory.
In mid November Don Weihe and all members of the management team departed by road for Cote de Ivoire.
Subsequently, the Medical Center at Duside also had to close down. Dr. Mabande and his staff left in January 1993.
In February and March 1993, ECOMOG captured Harbel. Conditions deteriorated quickly on the farm. On June 6, 1993, the Carter Camp massacre took place, with nearly 600 killed or missing. Firestone management were not on the farm through these times.
By 1994, there was a lull in the fighting. Charles Taylor was now based at Gbarnga and had no control over the Firestone area. A Transitional Government based in Monrovia was now in charge. Firestone now dealt with the government in Monrovia. Since all the housing was destroyed by the looting, Firestone management could not take up residence on the farm. A skeleton staff resided in Monrovia and commuted to the farm on a daily basis. Damage assessments were being done at this time. There was no resumption of operations yet.
By the end of 1996, security conditions were settled enough for Firestone to begin repairing the facilities. By February of 1997, we had started operations on a very small basis. In July 1997, general elections were held in which Charles Taylor was elected President of Liberia.
Firestone Natural Rubber Company continued to gradually rebuild and by 2002 we are at about 90% of capacity and employed over 6000 people.
In 2002, fighting started again and there were several periods when operations had to be suspended because of hostilities. In 2003, Charles Taylor left Liberia and a new transitional government was put in place.