Ghanaian Decision on Taylor: Right or Wrong?

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

June 9, 2003

Here is a debate that will pre-occupy many (especially Liberians), for quite some time to come: Was the Ghanaian authorities' decision not to arrest and turn over President Charles Taylor, as requested by the UN Special Court of Sierra Leone, the right or wrong thing to do? This is a debate, I suppose, where many will not be indifferent but will passionately cling to one position or the other.

Many will like to vilify the Ghanaians and blame them for their role and list Ghana as "Liberia's public enemy number one". Indeed, we've seen samples of such harsh commentaries. For example, the Liberian political group, Liberian Contemporees, issued a press statement denouncing the decision. "This wanton disregard for rule of law is inexcusable and unpardonable", the statement said.

On the other hand, there are those who praise the Ghanaians for their "heroic" decision to ignore the indictment. Many of such people are Taylor's supporters who refuse to believe that charges levied against him are tangible enough to make him culpable - that's to be expected. But there are some in the African diplomatic circle who simply referred to the order of indictment and the timing simply as "embarrassing".

My own initial reaction was to support the former position. I was of the opinion that the Ghanaians should have honored the wishes of the Court and had President Taylor turned over for prosecution, as ordered.

However, as time has elapsed and I've reflected on the matter from a cooler and calmer perspective, I've changed my mind. I now think the Ghanaians were right and their decision to turn President Taylor loose may have done us more good than harm. Before I present my arguments as to why I've adopted this position, I must first make it clear that I do understand the risk I take by expressing a view that may not be quite popular; but I stand by it. I'm simply following the dictates of the only master I serve: my conscience.

I am on record as being a staunch opponent of the Taylor presidency - that has not changed. Those who will accuse me of flipping and flopping will have missed the point.

I hereby declare my support for the Ghanaian position and align myself with the school of thought that called the situation and timing simply "embarrassing" to the hosts. President Taylor was on a peace mission to the country. He had been extended a formal invitation by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the International Contact Group on Liberia (ICG), and the Government of Ghana. The Ghanaians had pledged their hospitality and guaranteed the president's security. Wouldn't it have been awkward to turn around and arrest him?

On the surface, it may seem that the decision not to arrest President Taylor was a unilateral decision by the host country. But do we know what the behind-the-scene input of the other governments was? For example, what was the position of the Nigerian and South African governments whose presidents were present as this unusual episode unfolded?

Secondly, what would have been the impact of President Taylor's arrest on the peace negotiations at hand? What would have been the impact on the government delegation at the conference? Would its position have been undermined or even damaged by this sudden and unceremonious turn of events? Could the conference continue to deal with the Taylor team in good faith knowing what had transpired?

Thirdly, and most importantly, what would have been the impact in Monrovia on the warring factions and the government? Would they (the rebels) have seized the moment, knowing their nemesis had been removed from their obstacle course? And would this have placed the vulnerable Liberian public in further predicament - into more chaos?

I think the chief prosecutor, Mr. David Crane, miscalculated by simply issuing his indictment and unleashing a chain of uncontrollable events whose possible ramifications he did not consider.

Mr. Crane's inability or lack of desire to view this matter in the cultural context does the court no good. Did he assume that just because an indictment was issued an automatic and immediate arrest order would follow? Did he ponder the possible negative cultural reverberations, or did he care?

It is my view that the application of law, like other social disciplines must never be considered in isolation. Rather, they must always be viewed in respect to context - the social environment is just as important as the disciplines themselves.

It was wrong for this grave matter to be construed simply from a Eurocentric perspective. The Ghanaians have proven that they do understand Western law; they simply deserve the right to interpret it differently. They effectively manipulated legal loopholes and embarrassed Mr. Crane who refused to recognized the strange twists of the environment, but chose to adhere to the letter of the law.

Such maneuvers are not unprecedented. Spain had issued an indictment against Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile while he was in Great Britain for medical reasons. Spain requested the British to arrest and extradite the General for crimes against humanity. Britain did "arrest" him but refused to extradite him saying he was too ill to stand trial. He was allowed to return home where he had been granted immunity from trial.

It was argued that Britain had a legal obligation under the Geneva Convention to honor Spain's request. Britain did not argue against that assertion - it simply found a way to circumvent it. Ghana followed suit.

One fellow African put it succinctly when he said "How can you invite someone to talk palava and then arrest him?" By the same token, how can you invite someone to dinner and then have him arrested just because someone else asked you to do so? There are also those who simply view it as a disgrace to the Liberian nation to have its president arrested on what many see as flimsy charges, even if this same president is seen as an ugly gorilla by many.

The Ghanaians were correct to pass on this great burden to the Liberians. If the Liberians agree that Charles Taylor "bears the greatest" responsibility for the war in Sierra Leone, they should arrest him themselves - don't ask the Ghanaians to do your dirty work.