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Charles Taylor's Arrest: A Message to the Continent

Dr. Nivedita Ray was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 04, 2006

    Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, wanted for war crimes by the international tribunal in Sierra Leone, was arrested on Wednesday in northern Nigeria on the Cameroon border. He was deported to Monrovia and from there transferred to UN custody in Sierra Leone. Just a day before his arrest he had disappeared from the villa in south-eastern Nigeria, where he had been living in exile since stepping down from power in 2003 as part of an arrangement brokered by AU, ECOWAS and other key international actors including the US to end 14 years of civil war in Liberia. He had disappeared after Nigeria announced that Liberia was free to take Taylor into custody. His disappearance caused an international outcry and raised concerns that he could be in a position to disturb the young democracy of Liberia, given his influence in Liberian politics and economy. In fact, immediately following Nigeria's announcement, the Liberian authorities arrested a number of Taylor's supporters from his National Patriotic Party amid fears that they may stage an armed uprising. But his capture by the Nigerian authorities averted this situation, which could have reignited the civil war in that country.

    Ever since he granted Mr. Taylor asylum, the Nigerian president Mr. Obasanjo has been under immense US pressure to send Taylor to be tried for alleged crimes against humanity. But he had resisted sending Mr. Taylor to Sierra Leone, arguing that the terms of agreement stated that he would only extradite him following a request from an elected Liberian leader. Perhaps he wanted to avoid setting the precedent of a former African head of State facing war crimes charges in an international court. However, after the formal request of the newly elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Nigerian President agreed to hand over Taylor to the UN backed special court in Sierra Leone. Even the Liberian President was under great American pressure to ask Nigeria to hand over Taylor to a Sierra Leone court. When Johnson-Sirleaf first came to power, putting Taylor under trial was not a priority; instead, reconstructing Liberia was uppermost in her agenda. But she had to succumb to the pressure of US, which is the source of aid needed to rebuild Liberia.

    The US had been issuing warnings for a long time about its determination to extradite Taylor. It has been in the forefront of the move to have the former Liberian leader repatriated to answer war crimes charges at the tribunal in Sierra Leone. The special tribunal in Sierra Leone is different from other war crime tribunals. It has been set up with Sierra Leone's agreement and operates under both Sierra Leone domestic law and international humanitarian law. The court is beyond the control of the UN Security Council and is managed by countries - led by Britain and the US - which are funding it.

    The tribunal had indicted Charles Taylor on 17 charges, which carried a sentence of life in prison. The indictment says he is responsible for the devastation of Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone as well as for the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of more than a half million Sierra Leoneans. He is accused of starting a 14-year civil war in his country and unleashing mayhem on its citizens. He actively supported armed opposition groups in Sierra Leone, which included child fighters accused of committing multiple war crimes. He allegedly started the Sierra Leone war to obtain for his fighters access to its rich diamond fields. He later controlled the diamonds, timber and rubber-producing areas straddling the Liberian/Sierra Leonean border and substantially enriched himself. Even as an "elected" president, he used his control of the diamond trade to continue funding campaigns of destabilization in countries bordering Liberia. More importantly, his illegal diamond trade was also taken advantage of by the Lebanese and Arab community in Liberia and elsewhere to launder money used in financing major terrorist operations. He is also accused of harbouring the al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

    Now his arrest and subsequent trial seem to have brought his 16-year bloodstained life to a close and averted a feared renewal of conflict in Liberia. His rise and fall highlight the painful struggles of West African people who are determined to strive for peace in their countries despite their leaders. His trial would perhaps be welcome to the Liberian people, since for years they have been longing for peace and reconciliation. Liberia, once among the richer countries in West Africa, is now among the poorest. Long years of crisis have made the country a failed state, with 15,000 UN peacekeepers providing security for the new administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Stability is very crucial for the new Liberian president. With Taylor's imprisonment, the worries that his presence could have destabilized the country have been warded off for the time being. Presently the UN backed Sierra Leone court wants the Hague based ICC to host the trial since, according to the Liberian president, the court in the Hague would be a more conducive environment for Taylor's trial rather than Liberia's neighbourhood.

    Taylor's trial sets a precedent in that it is the first time that an African head of state has to face an international war crimes tribunal for crimes against humanity - another step in growing efforts to make leaders accountable for their actions. So far no African leader has raised his voice to call for Taylor's surrender to the UN special tribunal. Many African leaders are apprehensive of trying former presidents or dictators, apparently worried that they could be the next to be accused of human rights abuses or other crimes. Others fear that a push to try toppled leaders would encourage those in power to more fiercely resist democratic change. But as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out, Taylor's capture and trial do not only close a chapter but also send a powerful message to the region that would-be warlords will ultimately pay a price. Charles Taylor's case is thus loaded with implications for African presidents including coup leaders and others accused of human rights violations.