At the end of a meeting with US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Constance Berrynewnam in Abuja last week, President Obasanjo said that the African Union and ECOWAS brought Charles Taylor to Nigeria following a deal brokered by the UN, the United States and other members of the international community and said that any action contravening such an agreement would undermine the credibility of Africa’s capacities in conflict management. He said the United States should work with Nigeria to find a positive outcome to the situation.
In a move perceived by many observers as a way to put pressure on Nigeria, on the eve of President Obasanjo’s meeting with President George W. Bush, the US Congress passed a resolution calling on Nigeria to hand Taylor over to the War Crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone to answer to the 17 indictments levied against him. At the end of the meeting with the US president, Mr. Obasanjo said that anyone who committed crimes must be made to face justice but again insisted on the special circumstances that brought Taylor to Nigeria. Human rights organizations both in the US and Europe and the European Union have all called for Taylor to be turned over to justice.
According to the advocates of the call, including David Crane, the former prosecutor of the UN Special Tribunal in Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor has broken the terms of the agreement that brought him to Nigeria, by continuously meddling in Liberian politics and carrying out destabilizing actions in the region. Recent Coalition for International Justice (CIJ) reports suggest that Mr. Taylor still has control over many economic ventures in Liberia and throughout the world and uses his influence to control the political situation in Liberia.
The Taylor issue is slowly turning into a repeat of the ideological rift that developed between the Western nations and Africa around Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe just a few years ago. While Western countries were condemning and sanctioning the aging Mugabe, most African leaders called for dialogue with him. This gap undermined the credibility of certain African leaders, particularly the advocates of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which called the for rule of law, accountability, and peer review. Presidents Mbeki and Obasanjo were both initiators of the NEPAD concept but also strong defenders of Robert Mugabe. No African leader has so far raised his voice to call for Taylor’s surrender to the UN Special Tribunal.
In Liberia, the Taylor factor will be an important campaign issue during the next elections. No candidate should be expected to call for the immediate surrender of Taylor to the Sierra Leone tribunal. His influence is still very strong in Liberian politics and economy. Any call for his immediate deportation to Freetown by any candidate could be tantamount to losing the elections. Notwithstanding the many violations committed in Liberia over the past 14 years, very few politicians would venture to make a war crimes tribunal a campaign theme. Warring factions are not only in control of many key positions in government, but over the years they have influenced many segments of the society. They constitute a powerful political force and could see themselves as a target for any candidate calling for a war crime tribunal.
Even after elections, it can be safely speculated that unless a member of Taylor political party (National Patriotic Party) was to win elections, that the new president would not call for the return of Taylor to Liberia. The suggestion by Obasanjo that he would surrender Taylor to Liberia at the request of an elected Liberian president is a heavy political burden that a new government in war torn country can afford to carry. Taylor current indictment is not really a Liberian issue and therefore should be dealt with through the United Nations, the world body that not only set up the Special Tribunal of Sierra Leone but also indicted Charles Taylor for crimes in Sierra Leone.
When and if Liberians decide to set their own version of a war crimes tribunal with or without UN help, they will then look at not only Charles Taylor, but also many other actors who took part in the destruction of life and property in Liberia. Rights organizations have been very vocal in their call for a war crimes tribunal but most potential political leaders simply take the safe answer and want to “leave it to the Liberian people to decide.”
Anyone who knows Charles Taylor could expect that the man from Gbarnga would not simply sit in exile and play tennis and grow old. The fact that members of his government have been involved in the formation of the transitional assembly is a clear indication of his involvement in the daily politics of the nation. His economic interests go well beyond his dealings with a few merchants. Recently, a UN official who works in Monrovia said in at a meeting in Washington DC that many politicians currently running for office have been in contact with Charles Taylor, trying to secure his support both politically and financially.
Taylor’s future as a free man or a prisoner would be one of the most determining factors in the electoral process. He knows this and he will work to make sure that those wishing to see him land in jail for crimes against humanity - either in Freetown or in Monrovia - never get near the presidential seat. His meddling in Liberian politics is a fight for survival and no amount of intimidation would make him stop. And even if he were to keep to himself, others who could land in jail if he were arrested would continue to defend his interests, for their own survival.