The Lesson Of Taylor's Tragedy


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The Lesson Of Taylor's Tragedy




Olusegun Adeniyi




culled from THISDAY, March 30, 2006




Two weeks before the Liberian election last November, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, then a presidential candidate, was in Nigeria to see President Olusegun Obasanjo and meet members of the business community. In the course of her visit, it was arranged for me to interview her and I recall our encounter where Mrs. Opral Benson was also present. I went with a colleague, Oma Djebah.

Since it was a friendly interview, Johnson-Sirleaf pleaded  that she would prefer not to be asked questions relating to Charles Taylor who was in Nigeria on asylum. This was understandable given that her visit coincided with the period the United States was putting pressure on Nigeria to hand Taylor over to the United Nations-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone. And I guess it would also not have been politically correct to offend Taylor's supporters at a time she needed all the votes she could garner, so we played it by her rule.

But in our discussion after the interview, I sought to ascertain whether it was true that Taylor was indeed interfering in Liberian affairs. This was the excuse the United States was giving in asking that Taylor be handed over; with the argument that he had broken his asylum condition in Nigeria. Laughing, Johnson-Sirleaf said Taylor "is like the old rogue in the village to whom every villager goes whenever anything got missing." She said while it was convenient for anyone to make that claim given the notoriety of the former warlord, Taylor was not involved in Liberian politics.

That was why I was a bit taken aback when, in the course of her recent US visit, I watched the Liberian president grandstanding about how Taylor had become a threat to Liberian democracy and why Nigeria must hand him over: "I have consulted with President Obasanjo and asked him that we and the leaders of Africa, particularly those that were involved in the arrangement that took Mr. Taylor to exile, now bring this matter to closure. By closure, I mean that a decision should be taken that would allow Mr. Taylor to have his day in court," she said.

Given that  Johnson-Sirleaf was in the US, I concluded that she was either making the statement to please her host or she wanted to trade Taylor in for dollars to aid her country's reconstruction. Whichever way, however, it was glaring the woman was taking a dangerous gamble on the issue. That also explains why I was not one bit surprised when, on Monday, she said she would prefer Taylor taken straight to Sierra Leone after Nigeria had agreed to extradite him back to Liberia.

The Liberian leader obviously does not need a Taylor problem so early in her administration but with pressure from the US, she had made a demand that put Nigeria in a sort of moral burden. Taylor, it is recalled, was brought to Nigeria in August 2003, after he was prevailed upon to step down as Liberian president as part of a deal brokered by the trio of Obasanjo, and Presidents Thabo Mbeki and John Kuffuor of South Africa and Ghana respectively. It was a controversial decision which divided Nigerians who could not understand why a man who murdered thousands of our people could end up enjoying our hospitality.

In my column on August 14, 2004, titled Between Charles Taylor and History, I had supported Obasanjo's approach on the Liberian debacle. To me, he deserved commendation while I added that history would justify his decision: “Incidentally, many commentators have in recent days condemned Obasanjo's offer of asylum to Taylor. But I don't think it was an easy decision for the President hence I believe he deserves our sympathy. He must have been aware it would be unpopular but I think history will be kind to him on it."

My position was not popular then and may still not be today but if there is one issue on which Obasanjo should be hailed, it is in how he has handled the Liberian affair. What most people seem to forget is that if Taylor had not stepped down and allowed himself to be cajoled out of the country, there would have been no peace in Liberia today.  And when the chips were down, in confirming he was leaving on his terms, Taylor said: "If I were the problem, which I know you know I am not, I would step aside...I would become the sacrificial lamb, I would become the whipping boy that you should live".
The negotiation, which also included United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan at a time President Obasanjo was African Union Chairman, was to end Liberia's 14-year civil war that spilt over into nearby countries. With the support of Nigeria, Liberia was able to heal the wounds of war, prepare and conduct an election that was probably freer than the ones we conduct here, and the country is now on the road to recovery and reconstruction, that is, if this Taylor problem does not set back the hands of the clock.

Following persistent international pressure, Nigeria had, at the weekend, acceded to the demand by Johnson-Sirleaf for Taylor's extradition back to Liberia, so he could be taken for trial in Sierra Leone. But since Obasanjo granted her request, why was she not woman enough to accept the former warlord back into Liberia and decide his fate?

By asking Nigeria to hand over Taylor directly to the UN court, according to a top Nigerian government official, she was trying to shift what was rightly her responsibility. Yet, under the condition in which Taylor left Liberia, with a solemn promise that he would not be made to suffer any indignity or prosecution for the atrocities he committed in his country and Sierra Leone, it would have been cheap of Nigeria to have thrown him to the sharks. But by putting pressure on our country, Johnson-Sirleaf, according to a government official, "wants to eat her cake and still have it. She wants Taylor out of the way but she wants Nigeria to carry the can for that."

Fortunately, with the 24 hour diplomatic manoeuvres that saw Taylor 'missing', Taylor arrested, Taylor repatriated back to Liberia, before he was now apprehended by UN forces, Nigeria has been true to all her obligations on the issue without compromising our national integrity. One, it ensured the successful end of the war by negotiating Taylor's exit from Liberia at a most critical moment. Two, it helped to ensure that a democratic government was put in place in the country. And now, it has succeeded in helping, albeit without taking responsibility, to finally take justice to Charles Taylor.
But for those who may not know what Taylor is wanted for in Sierra Leone, excerpts from an obituary piece on Foday Sankoh, the monster he helped to create, in a 2003 edition of The Economist sums it up:

He was not Africa's most prolific murderer, but he was one of the cruelest. Between 50,000 and 200,000 people died in the ten-year civil war he started in Sierra Leone in 1991. But it was not the number that outsiders found most shocking; it was the way Mr. Sankoh's killers killed.  A career as one of his foot soldiers sometimes began with the new recruit being forced to murder his own parents. Besides inuring them to barbarity, this made it hard for them ever to return home. Mr. Sankoh had thousands of boys and girls abducted to join the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) as fighters or concubines. New guerrillas sometimes had the initials 'RUF' carved into their chests, as if they were Mr. Sankoh's property.

"Before battle, teenage officers would cut their subordinates' young faces and rub in cocaine to make them fearless. Deprived of a childhood and raised amid horror, Mr. Sankoh's soldiers tended to lose all moral inhibitions. For sport, some would place bets as to the sex of an unborn baby, and then opened the mother to find out. How did Mr. Sankoh become such a monster? He went to Libya to train with other African revolutionaries, and it was there that he met Charles Taylor, who was to become his chief ally. Mr. Taylor, who had a grudge against the Sierra Leonean government and an eye on the country's diamonds, helped Mr. Sankoh to set up the RUF...

With the arrest in Liberia yesterday by UN forces who would ultimately ensure he gets his just dessert for the way he ruined the lives of millions of people not only in his country but in Sierra Leone, Taylor may end up providing international relations experts with the case study they desired but lost with the death in detention of Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague. Because, this time, the embattled former warlord is on a one-way ticket out of Liberia from which he is, all things being equal, not expected to return alive.

The conclusion of the drama has also saved Nigeria a lot of international embarrassment like the harsh and very unfair Washington Post editorial of yesterday titled "A War Criminal Escapes. The man who let him go is due at the White House this morning," in apparent reference to our President who visited President George Bush yesterday.

But while Obasanjo can be seen to have done what is right and noble on this Taylor controversy, now effectively brought to a closure, at least where Nigeria is concerned, there is a very important lesson in it for everyone: Leaders who, out of inordinate desire for power, help in bringing their country to ruin, would ultimately pay the price. No matter how long it takes...



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