Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taylor Arrest Could Herald Change for West Africa

West Africans hold their breath to see whether Liberia’s ex-leader Charles Taylor will be brought to trial.
By Eric A.
Fear has tempered the jubilation felt by Liberians and Sierra Leoneans after Nigeria agreed to the extradition of former Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Barring an embarrassing escape from Nigeria, Taylor will either go directly to Sierra Leone to face charges at the war crimes tribunal there, or will be sent there via Liberia.

Following the Nigerian government's March 25 decision to extradite him, Taylor issued a threat through his “spiritual advisor” who promised that transferring the former Liberian leader would precipitate “chaos”, “tens of thousands of people fighting”, and “bloodshed”.

The Liberian capital Monrovia has been rife with rumours that Taylor’s former commanders are conspiring to incite violence and overthrow the reformist president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, elected last November as Africa's first female head of state.

The political rump of the Taylor-sponsored Revolutionary United Front, RUF, rebel group in neighbouring Sierra Leone has warned that his detention could destabilise that country, too.

It should not surprise anyone that such threats terrify both Liberians and Sierra Leoneans. Both nations emerged only recently from years of brutal and devastating war for which Taylor was largely responsible.

Over the past week, even as civil society organisations across West Africa continued to call for Taylor’s delivery to the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, fear of the repercussions has led other West Africans to issue pleas to let sleeping dogs lie. Since President Johnson-Sirleaf has just put together a capable government, an ambitious development plan, and the necessary international financing for it, some argue that now is not the time to focus on the past.

The historical record suggests that West Africa has a pattern of caving in to threats from Taylor, that it has been encouraged to do so by the wider international community, and that the consequences have always been fatal.

After first invading Liberia from Ivory Coast in 1989 and launching his forces into Sierra Leone in 1991 to seize its diamond fields, Taylor quickly learned that negotiations and diplomacy were useful tools for buying time, rearming and planning the next attack. Threats of a return to mayhem were a good way to get what he wanted.

In 1996, Taylor’s 14th peace agreement with rival warlords and West African peacekeepers paved the way for elections the following year. During the election campaign, Taylor openly threatened to return the country to war if he lost. Liberians, desperately hoping for an end to the butchery, chanted, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I will vote for him.” They gave Taylor’s party 75 per cent of the vote and made him president, and western countries deemed the election free and fair.

In Sierra Leone, Taylor increased his support to the RUF in Sierra Leone, rearming it for its “Operation No Living Thing”. Memories of that offensive from January 1999 still haunt residents of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown. RUF members killed 6,000 people, conducted mass amputations, rape, and looting, and abducted hundreds of women and children destined for lives of sexual slavery or combat.

Taylor and the RUF were rewarded by a 1999 peace treaty that elevated a Taylor protégé to Sierra Leone’s vice presidency and gave him oversight of its diamond resources. The treaty included a general amnesty to prevent the past interfering with the country’s new-found peace.

But when a UN mission deployed into Sierra Leone’s diamond-rich east in accordance with the peace agreement, the Taylor-sponsored RUF took 500 peacekeepers hostage. This prompted a British intervention and a strengthened UN presence, which quickly brought the conflict to an end.

Meanwhile, war still raged in Liberia as rebel movements sponsored by Guinea and Ivory Coast moved against Taylor’s regime in retaliation for his sponsorship of guerrillas on their territories. With enemy forces closing in on Monrovia in June 2003, Taylor agreed to negotiations that would pause the fighting while his forces regrouped and rearmed.

But when Taylor arrived for peace talks in Ghana, he was greeted with the news that the prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone had indicted him three months earlier on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The prosecutor said Taylor was among those bearing the greatest responsibility for grave crimes during the Sierra Leonean conflict.

Just when it appeared that Taylor’s career as a warlord could be brought to a definitive end, the diplomatic community rescued him. Ghana sent him back to Liberia instead of arresting him.

Taylor then led his forces in fierce fighting against rebels who had arrived in the capital. Although the indictment made his continued presence unpalatable, international negotiators proved willing to overlook Taylor’s past if doing so could end the devastation of Monrovia.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan joined the United States, Britain, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States in prevailing upon Nigeria to grant Taylor asylum, in exchange for an agreement to relinquish power.

Taylor left Liberia on August 11, 2003, promising, “God willing, I will be back.”

Nigeria made it a condition of Taylor’s asylum that he avoid engaging in Liberian matters and stay away from the media, but he broke those conditions repeatedly. As detailed last year in a report by the Coalition for International Justice, the exiled president asserted control over the Liberian embassy in Nigeria, maintained his own business network in Liberia, and used couriers to dole out cash to supporters.

Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo warned Taylor on at least three occasions that he was in breach of the terms of his stay. Yet Obasanjo was understandably annoyed at the pressure he came under to hand Taylor over after the international community had foisted the warlord upon him. He refused to send Taylor to Sierra Leone for trial.

Since August 2003, President Obasanjo has said he would only relinquish Taylor at the request of an elected Liberian government. When President Johnson-Sirleaf made such a request earlier this month, he complied.

Taylor used his influence to finance candidates for last October’s parliamentary election in Liberia, in a bid to place cronies in key positions. That strategy succeeded, and now President Johnson-Sirleaf faces a legislature dominated by Taylor allies. These include the speaker of the House of Representatives, and Taylor’s top battlefield commander and his semi-estranged wife in the Senate.

There is concern that Taylor loyalists may be plotting disturbances in response to his arrest. Some former child soldiers – traumatised and ostracised after serving in Taylor’s army – could heed calls for violence from the man they called their “Papay”.

However, unless Nigeria allows him to escape, none of Taylor’s threats will allow him to re-enter the struggle for power and plot an opportunistic return to coincide with the eventual departure of the 15,000 peacekeepers now in his country.

Johnson-Sirleaf - a 67 year-old, Harvard-educated economist - has ambitious plans for Liberia, including reclaiming control of the country’s natural resources from cronies of Taylor and other warlords, and putting the revenue to work for a nation devastated by nearly a decade and a half of war.

She also wants to establish the rule of law to end chronic human rights abuses and give Liberia a foundation for economic development.

This progressive agenda has put the president on a collision course with hard-line Taylor supporters. But ensuring Taylor is brought to trial could have the added benefit of weakening this opposition by removing the central figure in their network.

Success could set a standard for neighbouring countries, in a region still waiting to see whether the cycle of misrule and violence can be broken.

Sierra Leone remains plagued by a kleptocratic elite. Liberia’s other neighbours are also in fragile shape - not least because of the corrosive influence Taylor has continued to exert from exile. A tenuous cease-fire holds in Ivory Coast, while Guinea is braced for potential upheaval as rival factions manoeuvre to succeed ailing dictator Lansana Conté.

In Taylor’s West Africa, atrocities and the threat of war were rewarded with power and exile in luxury. But President Johnson-Sirleaf is the leading architect of an effort to build a new West Africa - one in which mass murder leads not to power but to criminal prosecution.

While she is cooperating with the United Nations Mission in Liberia to contain potential troublemakers and violent disturbances, and Nigeria is deciding whether to follow through in facilitating Taylor’s arrest, people in Sierra Leone and Liberia are waiting nervously before celebrating the execution of justice.

"In Africa there is a belief that the rich and powerful always escape accountability, so this is an important moment to show that those who do commit horrendous crimes will be brought to account,” said Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

President Johnson Sirleaf has refused to let threats from Taylor deter her from embracing justice. And that has given West Africans a genuine chance of an enduring peace.

Eric A. Witte is a Luxembourg-based senior associate of the Democratisation Policy Council. He is former political advisor to the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

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