Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

No place like Liberia

Charles Taylor's extradition from Nigeria to his native Liberia is replete with ramifications for other African leaders accused of human rights violations and war crimes, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Clockwise from top: Taylor at the funeral of his mother in Monrovia in July 2003; waving farewell to his people just before his departure to a life of exile in Nigeria; at prayer in Liberia (2003); the young Taylor as rebel leader in Buchanan, Liberia, 1990 (photos: AP and AFP)

Dictatorship may be the third rail of contemporary African politics, but trying democratically-elected leaders for war crimes is surely the Gordian knot. On Saturday, and in an unprecedented development, Nigeria announced that the Liberian authorities were welcome to extradite former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was democratically elected in 1997 -- those elections, incidentally, were pronounced free and fair by international observers.

"The government of Liberia is free to take former President Charles Taylor into custody," a Nigerian presidential statement read.

Taylor is not charged in Liberia itself, but is rather indicted with war crimes and crimes against humanity and recruiting child soldiers in Sierra Leone and in all probability will be tried in Sierra Leone and not in Liberia, where his supporters may take to the streets in angry protests and acts of violence.

Smooth-as-molasses Taylor today faces 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor is also accused of having twice tried to assassinate President Lansana Conte of neighbouring Guinea because the latter sponsored anti-Taylor groups. His reaction was typical of the man: "My return could spark chaos," his spokesman said. The Nigerian authorities initially vowed never to hand Taylor over to the Liberian authorities. He later changed his mind and said that Taylor would be extradited if a democratically-elected Liberian government requested his extradition. A spokesman for Taylor, Sylvester Paasewe, warned that Nigeria's decision was in breach of the 2003 Liberian peace deal. "African leaders cannot renege on that agreement," Paasewe protested.

Meanwhile, the Liberian authorities have arrested members of Taylor's National Patriotic Party. Moreover, there is speculation that Taylor would be sent directly to the UN war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, rather than to his native Liberia.

Taylor has had to endure more than his fair share of woes, some would say self-inflicted wounds. The Liberian strongman's latest scrape is more serious, though. Taylor, no doubt, feels badly treated by his Nigerian hosts -- betrayed. Taylor has been living, virtually under house arrest, in the southeastern Nigerian city of Calabar ever since the signing of the Liberian peace deal. Calabar is a stone's throw away from the politically volatile oil-rich Niger Delta region where insurgents kidnap foreigners, destroy oil installations and are struggling to secede -- Taylor might yet escape.

Hitherto, the Nigerian authorities had resisted extraditing Taylor, on the grounds that he was given political asylum under the internationally-brokered Liberian peace deal that ended 14 years of civil war in the resource-rich West African nation.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo offered Taylor political asylum in 2003. Taylor was not allowed to reside in the capital, Abuja, or in Lagos -- the economic hub of the country. Obasanjo, a former military ruler himself, wants as little as possible to do with the Taylor saga. He cannot make any political capital out of the extradition of Taylor. Still, Nigeria is a nation of outstanding influence in Africa -- and the entire continent is watching the way in which Nigeria would handle the Taylor affair.

"It would be a disgrace if Nigeria allowed Taylor to flee," warned Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Programme at Human Rights Watch. "Urgent steps need to be taken to tighten security around his Calabar villa, and to take him into custody immediately," Dicker added. Security is rather lax in the country. Indeed, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, news of Taylor's disappearance from his Calabar residence hit the headlines. This would not be the first time Taylor escaped from his captors.

Taylor was detained under a Liberian extradition warrant in the United States -- in Plymouth County House of Correction, Massachusetts. The riddle of his subsequent escape in extremely mysterious circumstances has never been resolved.

Taylor had become closely associated with his mentor, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. But he also had excellent working relationships with conservative, Western-leaning West African leaders such as the late Houphouet Boigny of Ivory Coast, Gnasingbe Eyadema of Togo and Blaise Compaore of Bourkina Faso.

Indeed, Taylor's gravest sin seems to be his embroilment in the brutal civil war of neighbouring Sierra Leone. Taylor is accused of illegally selling Sierra Leonean diamonds and arming Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by the one-time close Sierra Leonean associate of Taylor Foday Sankoh.

When Sankoh was captured in Freetown a mob seized him, hit him repeatedly and knocked him about, and got into a vengeful frenzy tearing off his clothes. He was paraded naked in the Sierra Leonean capital for hours until he was taken into military custody. Sankoh subsequently received amnesty in return for signing the July 1999 peace treaty.

It is highly unlikely that Taylor, accused of financing RUF by illegal diamond sales, will meet the same tragic end as Sankoh. Taylor is popular and his party survived his departure from Liberia. Presidential polls are won not just by charismatic leaders, but by their supporters who spend their lives propping up said leaders. Taylor's constituency in Liberia is huge. There are many who co-ordinated his presidential campaign and fine-tuned his political agenda. Taylor's wife Jewel, an accomplished economists for one, stood by his side. And, blood diamonds have sadly become a development trajectory. So where does the truth lie?

Immediately after Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration in January, she had said that Taylor's trial would not be top priority for her government. She was more interested in the economic reconstruction of the war-battered Liberian economy. So what changed her mind?

Apparently, Johnson-Sirleaf made a formal request soon after an official visit to Washington where she was feted by US President George W Bush and high-ranking members of the Bush administration. In any case, Johnson-Sirleaf is no stranger to Washington -- she was, after all, Senior Loan Officer at the World Bank. Johnson-Sirleaf, a former vice-president of Citibank, must have been given the green light in Washington to ask for Taylor's extradition. And, though many of her people can see the sense of what she is trying to do, their heart is not really in it.

It is impossible to find anybody in Washington, Democratic as well as Republican, who doesn't think that Taylor is a brutish criminal who must be brought to book.

"Certainly African leaders, members of the good old boy network, are under notice that you cannot destroy your own citizens for your own personal gain and you don't go after women and children and you don't rape women, don't turn children into monsters," said David Crane, the American prosecutor who drew up Taylor's indictment. Crane said that Taylor's extradition would send a "powerful message" and "crack the wall of impunity".

Such language has a hollow ring to it. There always seems to be something flawed in this clever-clogs analysis. The US is not exactly a paragon of moral perfection.

Forgotten in the trans-Atlantic flurry, however, is the fact that Taylor was willing to make whatever compromise was necessary with the expediencies of world powers -- and especially Washington -- to keep himself in power.

To his supporters, Taylor is the very embodiment of piety and patriotism. He has a genius for religious rhetoric, too. He is a preacher, after all. He is a man of the people. Taylor's supporters argue that they have both history and public opinion on their side.

Taylor is widely feared and loathed for supposedly instigating conflict and strife in West Africa. In the US, Taylor is even suspected of harbouring Al-Qaeda suicide bombers who attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

If indicted, Taylor would be the first African head of state to be tried for crimes against humanity. There was a similar, if not identical, brouhaha about the former Chadian president, Hissène Habré, a few months ago. Habré, who has lived in Senegal since he was driven out of Chad in 1990 by current Chadian President Idriss Deby, has been kept under house arrest in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and was indicted by a Belgian judge who is seeking his extradition from Senegal. In 1999, the Chadian Association for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights asked Human Rights Watch to help Habré's victims bring him to justice. Taylor's alleged victims have not called for his trial. Indeed, the irony is that Taylor -- unlike Habré -- is very popular in his native Liberia. However, in both the Habré and the Taylor cases, the New York-based Human Rights Watch was deeply involved in the legal proceedings.

The parallels end there. Other African leaders with a questionable past must be quaking in their boots. Born in 1948, Taylor launched his armed struggle in 1989 and soon the iron discipline necessary to keep his unruly army together was all too apparent.

Taylor slowly built up an army of dedicated and die-hard supporters. He required an inordinate amount of control, faith in his cause and tremendous self-discipline. Taylor's rising power and popularity crushed his opponents. The 1995 Liberian peace deal was signed and Taylor was duly elected president two years later.

Liberia was badly in need of boldness and Taylor was a bold adventurer with a political vision. Like Milosevic, Taylor could suffer a fatal cardiac arrest while in prison. But, his country is in no danger of balkanisation -- Serbian-style.

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