Mar 2006

Charles Taylor to face trial

I must admit to having mixed feelings to the news that former Liberian president Charles Taylor is being repatriated to face war crimes charges. This is despite the fact he’s almost certainly guilty of widespread atrocities in two nations in West Africa. Despite the fact that when Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor of the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, describes Taylor as “one of the three most important wanted war crimes suspects in the world”, there’s probably not a lot of hyperbole involved.

My family lived in Nigeria for a couple of years, and I tend to take a slightly greater interest in news involving that nation than I might take in news from other places. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that… for a period of my life, events in Nigeria affected me directly. Much more than events in – say – Angola or Ecuador or New Zealand. So I kept abreast of the Nigerian news, and as happens with a politics junkie like myself, I became quite interested in the subject so that even now – after my family have left the country – I tend to keep an eye on the major developments.

Also, the fact that Nigeria is a politically unstable major oil exporter puts it on the map for anyone interested in energy issues.

Anyways, a brief summary of the Charles Taylor situation for those who aren’t familiar with recent West African affairs: Taylor led a rebellion against the government of Liberia throughout the 1990s. By 1995 the nation was in a state of all-out civil war. By mid-96 the government could no longer be described as “governing” in any sense, and – with the backing of the major regional power, Nigeria – called elections. In 1997 Charles Taylor was elected. The poll was a sham. It’s hard to say which side did the most voter-intimidation… though in the end Taylor seemed most effective at it.

Which brings us to Taylor’s tactics, and the fact that during the entirety of his Liberian rebellion, Taylor was spending at least as much of his time plundering diamonds from neighbouring Sierra Leone (a nation in a near-permanent state of civil war thanks, largely, to the diamond mines). During his longtime involvement in the conflict diamond trade (which dates back at least until 1991, but probably started even earlier), Taylor inspired fear by ordering his fighters to hack off the hands and feet of anyone in an area suspected of collaborating with his enemies.

This often extended to entire villages.

Needless to say, the international war crimes tribunals currently in session with regards to Sierra Leone consider Charles Taylor to be their most important suspect. He, more than anyone, escalated the civil war in Sierra Leone… in order to fund his civil war in Liberia. He, more than anyone, is associated with the committing of widespread atrocities. And his involvement in his neighbour’s war didn’t end when he’d seized power in Liberia either. For the next half-decade, until French-led international forces intervened and things degenerated into all-out civil war at home again, he continued to plunder diamonds and fan the flames of conflict.

So it seems rather perverse to hold mixed feelings about his extradition to face these charges. And I should point out that I’m not suggesting that there’s some kind of ‘stitch-up’ of Taylor in the Western media. There’s not much doubt that this is a man guilty of some truly terrible crimes.

However, and here’s where I have the problem, the long civil war in Liberia would almost certainly still be going on had Taylor not agreed to exile in Nigeria. Certainly he had lost his grip on power by then, but there’s no reason to imagine he wouldn’t simply have become a rebel leader again – a role he exulted in for more than a decade – and continued to spread conflict throughout the region. Indeed he threatened as much… demanding a cushy exile in exchange for a promise not to plunge the area in further chaos.

And despite the arrest warrant from the Sierra Leone tribunal, the Liberians and Nigerians agreed that – from a purely pragmatic standpoint – letting the man live out his years in silent exile was the best option. They didn’t want him to return to being a rebel and probably didn’t much relish the idea of giving him an international platform like the tribunal either. So they made a promise. Taylor got a lovely villa in Nigeria and all the imported luxuries his ill-gotten diamonds will buy.

And for the first time in almost two decades the conflict in both Liberia and Sierra Leone began to ease off. To describe the situation in either country as far from perfect is akin to describing the sun as far from cold. But it’s getting better. Slowly, painfully it’s getting better.

I certainly don’t think that Taylor deserves to get away with it. And yes, it is a staggering injustice that he should live out his life lighting cuban cigars with burning hundred dollar bills, when he helped cripple two entire nations in order to do so. And I agree fully with the argument that such a fate for Charles Taylor sends all manner of destabilising messages to the region and the wider world.

Yet part of me still believes that a deal is a deal. And when the outcome results in progress towards ending two terrible conflicts, then perhaps there’s an obligation to hold up your side of the bargain?

Posted in: Opinion