US Congress & Liberia: Fixation on Charles Taylor Could Endanger Stability


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 14, 2006


A few weeks after the 2005 elections, the US Congress passed a resolution commending both Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on her election and the Liberian people for their peaceful conduct in the electoral process. In the same resolution, the US Congress “pledges its continued support to lasting peace and democracy in Liberia to the further development of Liberia.”

But from positions taken at a recent hearing of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, it seems that “the support” of Congress is narrowly defined and could indeed even cripple the emerging democratic culture in the war torn country. In a footnote to his extensive submission to the hearing, Professor David Crane, founding prosecutor of the Special UN Tribunal in Sierra Leone thanked the committee for writing a letter to the Bush Administration tying up any future aid to Liberia to the handing over of Charles Taylor to the special tribunal.

On Monday, February 13, an article on the testimony of Dr. Jendayi Frazer of the US States Department stipulates that there was an “agreement between Nigeria and Liberia for Nigeria to hand Taylor over to a duly elected government of Liberia once that government makes the request.” This is a surprising development, since neither the NTGL of Gyude Bryant nor the new government of Mrs. Sirleaf said they entered such an agreement with the Nigerian government. When was this agreement made? Who signed it?

In another footnote to his submission to the Committee, Mr. Crane said: “President Obasanjo of Nigeria was induced by the United States, the United Kingdom, with the concurrence of the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to take Taylor out of Liberia and place him in Calabar…” Was any Liberian group or political party or individuals party to these negotiations?

After a meeting at the White House in the summer of 2003, President Obasanjo said that he was accepting to remove Mr. Taylor from Liberia and provide him with sanctuary for the sake of regional peace but added that he did not expect to be harassed by anyone over this issue in the future. What were the terms agreed to between Bush and Obasanjo?

The extradition of Mr. Taylor to the war-crime tribunal in Sierra Leone could turn out to be the one issue that would throw Liberia back into instability, breaking down the fragile peace and taking the country and the sub-region into another round of mayhem. Many influential members of the US Congress, including Ed Royce, (R-California), and now Chris H. Smith (R-NJ) strongly believe that Mr. Taylor must be turned to the Court “right now” before anything positive can happen in Liberia. They want President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to publicly ask Nigeria to surrender Mr. Taylor to the War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone.

Congressman Ed Royce was instrumental in helping Liberians get rid of Mr. Taylor. His many interventions on the subject educated his colleagues in Congress and finally the Liberian president was forced out of Monrovia and given asylum in Nigeria, after negotiations that included Nigeria, ECOWAS, the UN and the US government. The only condition set publicly was that Mr. Taylor would refrain from meddling in Liberian affairs. That was three years ago.

As peace progressively took hold in Liberia, prosecutors at the Special UN Tribunal in Sierra Leone started to call for the turning over of Mr. Taylor for trial. Some 300 international justice and human rights groups echoed their message. The US Congress also got into the game and Nigeria felt the pressure. On the eve of the Liberian elections, and in various instances, the Nigerian President who had repeated his stand on the issue, including during a visit to the US in 2005, finally said that he would only turn over Mr. Charles Taylor to an elected Liberian president. In reaction to that call, we wrote here that Mr. Obasanjo was highjacking the elections by making Mr. Taylor a central point.

Last week, the four-hour Congressional hearing on Liberia turned into a debate on the surrender of Mr. Taylor to the war crimes tribunal. There was clearly a major difference between the Bush administration and the leadership of the committee. In as much as there is a general agreement on the fact that Mr. Taylor must one day face the special tribunal, the two branches of government seemed to differ on the timing. For the administration, the only outstanding order is that the UN Mission in Liberia would arrest Mr. Taylor if he ever showed his face in that country.

Among those testifying at the hearing, notably, was Professor David Crane. In his presentation, he noted that he could see Mr. Taylor back in Monrovia, riding into the Executive Mansion if the former president was not transferred to Freetown as soon as possible. In the “road map” he suggested for “successful beginning for Liberia,” he says that the first priority was to take Taylor out of the “local and regional dynamic,” insisting “this must happen first and now…” He also suggested that any financial and political support to good governance in Liberia must be tied to the Liberian government handing Taylor over to the UN Court.

The problem is that President Sirleaf is not the one holding Mr. Taylor.

The hearing on Jan 8, 2005, to a certain point turned into a back and forth exchange between Donald Payne (D-NJ) and Professor Crane, each trying to make his case. Payne got a support from Mrs. Vivian Lowry-Derrick from the Academy for Educational Development who was also testifying. She cautioned Congress against pushing too hard on this matter. She said that the government of President Sirleaf was fragile and vulnerable, for many reasons, among which she cited the fact that government has yet to start to function, that Mrs. Sirleaf does not have a security apparatus she could rely on and finally that the new president has no control over the legislature.

David Crane and Ed Royce can be credited for salvaging Liberia from the claws of the Taylor regime. Royce was constantly reminding everyone that Taylor was the eye of the storm of violence that had engulfed West Africa and Crane sealed the fate of the Liberian president by making public his indictment on the day peace talks opened in Accra in 2003. These combined actions lead to Mr. Taylor’s eviction from power. His departure provided Liberians with a first genuine chance at peace making. Now that the process has started, the most all can do is to give it chance to mature, allow the new president to get hold of her government and allow Liberians space and time to decide how they want to go about reconciling their differences.

In his testimony, Mr. Crane also said that “there are two aspects to West Africa, the West Africa we see and the West Africa that is. We must deal with the West Africa that is in order to ensure a better future for Liberia.” Dealing with the West Africa that is should include taking into account regional dynamics in resolving problems. There is no question about the fact that sooner or later, and for his own good, Mr. Taylor would face justice. However, is it the priority number one at this time in Liberia? During the electoral campaign, at no time did Liberians ask candidates about the fate of Charles Taylor in their decision to vote. During the many debates and opinion polls, Mr. Taylor never became an issue.

Just as President Obasanjo created a political burden for the new president by dropping the Taylor issue on her lap even before she was elected, the US Congress could end up crippling the recovery process in Liberia if it follows the logic of conditioning support for the country to the transfer of Mr. Taylor to face trial in “the next few weeks.”

Liberia was not party to the negotiations that landed Mr. Taylor in Calabar. As Mr. Crane put it in his deposition, the arrangement was reached between the US, Great Britain, the UN and Nigeria. These powers should decide amongst them how to proceed, taking into account the fragility of the peace process in Liberia.

Some members of the same Congress and other advocate for justice in the “international community” are already calling for the establishment of a war crime tribunal similar to the one in Sierra Leone. These are all good sentiments. But is it what Liberians want now? One noticeable fact about this long and “memorable” hearing was that no Liberian was invited to testify.

The focus on a sensational issue such as putting Mr. Taylor on trial could obscure the realities of the political and economic tragedy of the sub- region. Mr. Taylor was an instrument of historical factors, just as were ULIMO, RUF, LURD, the MPCI in Cote d’Ivoire and the list goes on. The civil war was a by-product of a failed political culture. It goes beyond the issue of impunity for one person or a group of persons. The root causes of instability in West Africa are deeper than the trial of one man.

The major problems Liberia is now faced with were brought up only in passing during the 4-hour hearing and a few minutes were spent discussing the fate of war-affected youth, the crippling debt and the sanctions. Millions of Liberians are homeless and jobless, children do not attend schools and thousands die because of diarrhea or malaria because parents cannot afford a tablet. These are the priorities Liberians want to tackle now and Congress could help push that agenda forward.

Mr. Taylor is not in the hands of Liberia. He was indicted by a UN tribunal and was provided asylum by Nigeria under an agreement with other members of the international community. His trial now could have unforeseeable consequences on the fragile peace in Liberia. To paraphrase Mr. Crane, there is the Liberia that exists and the Liberia others want to see. Let everyone deal with the Liberia that exists, and in so doing, take into account the emerging social and political realities.