As elections draw nearer, one debate among partisans of various political parties and aspiring leaders is more about who did what with Taylor rather than the character or potentials of that person. Every major political candidate has had, in one or another to deal with the Taylor issue. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for the first one to come out and apologize for pro-Taylor comments as well as financial support to his war. The long article and interview of Charles Brumskine by Jonathan Ernst for the Washington Post Magazine which could have been as a major public relations article was reduced by Liberians to what the presidential candidate said about his relationship with Taylor. Last week, Nathaniel Barnes a former minister of Finance under Taylor and now a presidential candidate, in an interview with The Liberian Observer, had to qualify his work in the Taylor government. When campaign begins on August 15, 2005, many more aspirants will have to come to terms with their relationship with Charles Taylor.
Taylor shadow over the Liberian elections is as obsessive as if he were running for president again. There are stories everyday about his influence on the economy, on his business partners and on some unsuspecting politicians. He is seen as the defining factor for politicians and their partisans. For the past 15 years, Taylor has become an unavoidable figure in every aspect of Liberian life. His rise to the presidency cost Liberia some 300, 000 lives, billions of dollars of destruction and instability in the entire region.
To bring the Taylor factor under control, no single country has done more than Nigeria. By the time Presidents Ibrahim Babanginda of Nigeria and Dawda Jawara of The Gambia put ECOMOG together, Liberia had degenerated into the worst killing field in modern African history. It was Nigeria who carried most of the financial burden of the regional peacekeeping; a model now copied the world over. As in any undertaking, mistakes were made and at times, the peacekeepers were seen as babysitters and security guards for warlords who killed and plundered at will. Whatever history may turn out to be, Liberians will always remember the hundreds of soldiers from ECOMOIG who lost their lives in Liberia in their humanitarian mission.
It was again Nigeria in 2003, when the rest of world stood by and watched Liberia slip back into anarchy that sent the first batch of peacekeepers restoring some sanity and allowing negotiations to take precedence over guns and bullets. The leadership of former Nigerian Head of State Abdulsalami was instrumental in achieving a workable peace accord in Accra. As Liberians discussed in Ghana a formula for peaceful resolution of the war at home, the international community, with Nigeria, the AU, the UN and the US amongst others managed to lift Charles Taylor off the scene and take him into exile in Nigeria… It is ironic that Charles Taylor who had killed, humiliated and taken Nigerian civilians and soldiers hostage would be flying for safety into Nigeria!
Now the asylum of Charles Taylor is turning into a major issue, between Nigeria and the rest of the world. The US, human rights organizations, the United Nations, the Mano River Union as lately as last week, have called on Nigeria to review the stay of the former Liberia leader in Nigeria, because there were ample evidences that Taylor has not respected the terms of the agreements. Nigerian President Olesugun Obasanjo has continuously refused to yield and repeated that he would only hand Charles Taylor over to an elected government in Liberia if that government made the request.
The Nigerian president has slowly turned the Taylor problem into one to be resolved by the next Liberian president. That is the wrong approach. It put an undue pressure on a government that would come into office facing millions of problems of all kinds, from restructuring the state of Liberia to finding drinking water and chloroquine for a country traumatized by 25 years of mismanagement and a deadly war. The first priority of that government must not be to deal with an issue as divisive as Charles Taylor. The great majority of Liberians, including many former partners of Charles Taylor look forward to a peaceful nation where the former dictator is not the central issue.
Taylor went to Nigeria based on negotiations between Nigeria and the international community. Liberia was not party to those negotiations. The other actors in the process now say that his presence in Nigeria is a threat to peace and stability in the sub-region. President Obasanjo should address his response to those partners. He must work something out with those involved in the agreement, he should weight the merits of their claims and make a decision based on the interest of the people of Liberia and that of the entire sub-region. If Taylor has not been honorable and could not keep his side of the bargain, there is no reason for Obasanjo to shield him from justice under the pretense of some notion of “African pride”. If the president of Nigeria cannot put a stop to Taylor’s meddling in the affairs of Liberia, he must come up and say so and may be the international community would find another solution. Charles Taylor has become a real problem for Obasanjo who now wants to shift the burden to a government that is yet to come into existence. Obasanjo is playing a dangerous game with the future of Liberia.
Obasanjo’s attempt to pass the buck to the “elected president of Liberia” is tantamount of hijacking the electoral process. The future government of Liberia and its Nigeria counterpart will have many issues to discuss regarding regional cooperation and development. As an economic giant, Nigeria can be the partner that Liberia never had. It would rather be unfortunate that those relations be dominated by discussions on the fate of Charles Taylor. Obasanjo is in a way setting a trap for the next president of Liberia even before the holding of elections. Liberians after elections should not have to deal with their president the issue of Taylor being brought or not.
Liberians are now faced with the possibility of holding the first free and fair elections in their history. They have many issues to discuss and Obasanjo must not turn those elections into a debate as to which candidate is likely to bring Taylor home, either as a free man or a war criminal. The international community, including the United Nations where Nigeria seeks a seat at the Security Council has spoken and Obasanjo must direct his response to that community and not to the next president of Liberia. His current stand does not help Liberia. From the day the United Nations Special Tribunal in Sierra Leone indicted Charles Taylor, he has ceased to be a Liberian problem and Obasanjo must look at it from that angle and stop putting pressure on a government that has yet to come into existence.