Taylor meets his nemesis

Taylor, who is now being held at the UN-backed court in Sierra Leone pending trial on multiple counts of crimes against humanity, had carved himself a reputation as an international fugitive, beginning with his escape from jail in Massachusetts, USA, in 1985. But Liberia also wants to try him and there has been a request to have the trial transferred to the Hague for security reasons. The charges in Sierra Leone stem from Taylor’s arming of Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front rebels in exchange for diamonds in 1991, and their role in Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war, which left more than 200,000 people dead and thousands mutilated. Taylor assisted Sankoh, who later died while awaiting trial at a UN tribunal in 2003, to arm RUF in return for huge amounts of what came to be known as ‘blood diamonds’, which he used to purchase weapons, induce rogue international businessmen to flout sanctions and finance the Liberian civil war. During his military campaigns in Liberia, which began in 1989, Taylor enlisted the services of child soldiers as young as eight and summarily executed civilians who refused to join his forces. More than 150,000 people were killed and at least 1 million others displaced in Liberia during Taylor’s reign. A cloud of uncertainty had clung over Sierra Leone and Liberia, following a three-year stagnation in Taylor’s extradition and trial for his role in the wars that ravaged the two countries, spanning a period of more than 10 years and drawing in child soldiers in both countries. Even after democratic elections that brought former Taylor accomplice Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power in Liberia, the flow of development aid had been stalled by conditionalities requiring the handover of Taylor to the Special Court. His escape from his exile villa in Nigeria’s south-eastern city of Calabar on Monday last week, barely 48 hours after Nigeria had pledged to extradite him, had caused an international outrage, with the Nigerian government being accused of complicity in the warlord’s bid to avoid justice. Taylor, who had already made a condition that he be tried in Liberia or at The Hague and not Sierra Leone, was later caught while trying to cross into Cameroon on Wednesday morning. The Chief Prosecutor at the Special Court in Sierra Leone, Mr Desmond de Silva said Taylor’s trial for crimes against humanity, which carries at least 17 counts of complicity in murder, rape and amputation of civilians, was unlikely to begin in many months. The Nigerian government gave temporary asylum to Taylor as part of the peace settlement ending a brutal civil war in Liberia, and President Obasanjo had promised to turn him over if a legitimately elected Liberian government requested it. President Sirleaf made a request for Taylor’s extradition and Nigeria acceded on March 25, but neither of the two countries was forthcoming with manpower and resources for the transfer, resulting in Taylor’s escape. Taylor’s disappearance from Nigeria, like his 1985 escape from the Plymouth County House of Correction, where he had been detained under a Liberian extradition warrant in connection with the embezzlement of US$1 million from Liberia’s General Services Agency, is thought to have been not so mysterious, but with the collusion of the host government. Barely five years after escaping from jail, Taylor waged a rebellion against the tyrannical government of Samuel Doe. Doe had come to power in a 1980 bloody coup in which he killed president William Tolbert and 27 of his bodyguards, followed by the execution by firing squad of 13 of Tolbert’s top cabinet officials. Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) waged a rebellion against the Doe regime and ousted it after killing Samuel Doe in 1990. After usurping power from the Doe regime, Taylor launched a purge of the Doe administration and the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIM). His forces also clashed with West African peacekeepers deployed to quell the fighting in Liberia. His escape then is believed to have been facilitated with the intention to have him overthrow Doe’s government. The story was he managed to escape from prison with three other petty criminals by sawing through the bars, while others believed that Americans wanted him to play the role of Doe’s nemesis, which he went on to execute with efficiency. Nigerian state officials had been hosting Taylor as their “guest” since his transfer from Liberia at the fall of his regime in 2003. Ironically, he was counted in the Nigerian census a few days before the presidency announced that Taylor had made thin air in the night on March 27, arguing that they had treated him as their guest and not a prisoner. Now a prisoner in Freetown, Taylor will answer to war crimes charges at the Special Court. However, US president George W. Bush last week backed Taylor’s request that he be tried at The Hague rather than in Sierra Leone, where his presence is feared to trigger fighting among rebel groups. “The issue has to do with fear. Charles Taylor is very rich and has a substantial following that can easily destabilise the fragile government of Liberia hence Liberia wanted Nigeria to physically take him to the special tribunal in Sierra Leone,” said Njei Moses Timah, a journalist working in Cameroon. Taylor, whose supporters threatened that there would be chaos and bloodshed if he’s handed over for prosecution, is considered to be a threat to the security of the fragile government in Liberia and peace in Sierra Leone, where he still commands a following. During his reign in Liberia, he is also accused of having fomented rebellion in neighboring Ivory Coast and threatening to stir a revolution in Guinea. While people in Sierra Leone and Liberia celebrated Taylor’s capture as the end of a fugitive’s run, his party in Liberia, the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP) said Nigeria had betrayed Taylor and lamented his handover as a compromise to the capability of African leaders to deal with their own crises.

April 2006
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