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IT’S TIME TO TAKE TAYLOR TO COURT ~ An Analysis by Hassan Bility

Hassan Bility ~ (March 17th 2006)  

"...The bottom line is that Taylor will have to face the inevitable: He will need to clear his name at the Freetown Court. He cannot expect sympathy from either Liberians or Sierra Leoneans. The fact is, Africans do not shed tears for a disgraced and dethroned ‘HERO’ who, at the peak of his power, chose to kill everyone who disagreed with him.
And the question on everyone’s mind is how Taylor will feel seeing himself in prison when he is convicted of the war crimes and crimes against humanity he now stands accused of. Wherever he may be at this moment, a million thoughts must be running through his head. Certainly, one would be the sad and disgraceful end of the “Butcher of the Balkans”, Slobodan Milosevic, who died a few days ago in his prison cell at the Hague.

When Charles Taylor was indicted in the summer of 2003 on seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the United Nations backed Special War Crimes Court in Freetown Sierra Leone, there were few possibilities that he would even step down as president, let alone be taken to court since he managed to escape Accra, where he was attending a Liberian peace conference when the indictment was unsealed. As a strong-faced leader and a master of intrigues, his escape from a Massachusetts jail, coupled with his most recent assisted evasion of arrest in Accra, Ghana, is a window into how his mind operates. But in these days of hot and aggressive criminal pursuit, being a fugitive almost half of one’s life is no guarantee against arrest. And it now appears the time has come for the former Liberian strong man to answer questions in a court of law for his alleged involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone, where he is believed to have fought a proxy war which led to the amputation and murder of tens of thousands.

In most of his adult life, Taylor has almost always been able to get what he wants. As director of the General Services Agency (GSA), he initially wielded some power after forcing himself to that position, before being acknowledged by Samuel Doe. His days with ULAA were characterized by a new form of militancy and radicalism.

 As a rebel leader, Taylor was his own man.

A strong believer in Che Guevara’s Philosophy, he out-maneuvered his bosses as he led the 1989 rebellion, believing that “the leader of a revolution is produced by the revolutionary smoke on the battlefield.” He declared himself president and alienated his sponsors. As a member of the council of state in Liberia, a form of collective presidency, he led the destruction of Monrovia when he insisted on arresting another rebel leader, Roosevelt Johnson. As a presidential aspirant, he was swept to power on the tidal wave of the people’s desire for peace after he campaigned on the platform that if the people did not vote for him, he would re-start the war, something nobody clearly wanted. And as president, he elected to fight three proxy wars in the region to assert his control on regional politics. Now seeking political asylum in Eastern Nigeria, he is planning a comeback in fulfillment of a pledge he made when he stepped down as president, “…God’s willing, I will be back”.

His twisted path of pursuing his goals is now a psychological minefield for those who went knocking on this devil’s door to lead the so-called “Liberian revolution.” He himself is a walking stick of dynamite with the fuse lit. In Nigeria where he is being shielded from justice by a back room deal he cut with Obassanjo, he is becoming an occasional irritant for that administration, sometimes making travel arrangements without the knowledge of his hosts, though there is no official record indicating he ever traveled. A recently planned trip to Togo was aborted when he was informed by his agents in West Africa that news of his travel to that troubled West African state had become public knowledge. But recent developments are now clearly pointing in one direction: That Taylor has reached the end of the road, since his bag of political tricks has been exhausted and at the same time, pressure is being brought to bear on those protecting him to surrender one of West Africa’s twenty-first century war criminals. And there is every indication that Taylor has begun to smell this.

Late last year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to authorize his arrest if he went to Liberia, having determined that he is a threat to regional security and to the peace and stability of Liberia.

Also, the US secretary of State, Condi Rice, told Liberian authorities that Taylor must face court trial in Freetown. Before going to Liberia, Dr. Rice had been asked by a coalition of over 300 human rights and pro-democracy organizations to pressure the Liberian authorities to hand him over to the court.
A February 8, 2006 US Congressional hearing in Washington on Liberia also emphasized the need for a speedy Taylor trial. The European Union has made it clear it wants Taylor taken to court.

More recent information from Nigeria suggest that Nigeria’s current vice, who is likely to stand in line once Obassanjo’s tenure is over, is bent on taking Taylor to court. Another likely presidential candidate in Nigeria, Ibrahim Babamgida, is also leaning towards handing over the Liberian fugitive-president to the UN-backed court. Human rights groups in Nigeria have been calling on their government to do the right thing by handing Taylor over to the court in Freetown, Sierra Leone. During the Liberian civil war, Taylor’s forces killed thousands of Nigerian soldiers as well as Nigerian business people and civilians. Nigerians have never forgiven him for those murders.

In West Africa, presidents Kabba of Sierra Leone, Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire, Conteh of Guinea and Jammeh of the Gambia have also said they support a Taylor trial.
Some of Taylor’s former European associates, the Ukrainian Viktor Bot and Dutchman Gus Kouwenhoven may be among the first to face court trial for their roles in sponsoring Taylor’s proxy wars in a variety of forms, including arms smuggling. Gus, as he is generally known in Liberia, has been indicted by the Dutch Government, for alleged violation of United Nations arms embargo against Liberian and violations of the laws of war, according to the Dutch Prosecutor’s Office, regarding his roles in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. With all these unfolding developments, Taylor’s personal life is becoming a victim of his past political repression against the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.

These developments, coupled with recent news that an official request for Taylor’s extradition to Freetown has been made by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, only make matters worst for a man who once presided over one of West Africa’s criminal enterprises that enslaved men, raped and gang-raped women and young girls, amputated babies, trained child soldiers and looted everything and anything he thought could sell for the American Dollar.

Whether or not the request is made is immaterial at this time. For one thing, it was only a matter of time before Taylor was taken to face trial. The new administration in Monrovia had been told it would not get vital European Union and American aids if it did not make the request. Hence, it is in the administration’s interest and the interest of the Liberian people and West Africa in general to make such a request. Taylor’s interest cannot outweigh the interest of the people he butchered.

But Taylor may not want to go without a fight from himself, his hosts in Nigeria, and from his Liberian cronies. Sources in the region say Taylor, feeling uneasy about his stay in Nigeria, is working with opposition leaders from Equatorial Guinea to oust that country’s president in the hope that he be granted asylum there. As a result, he has made contacts with some of his former fighters scattered around West Africa, to get onboard. His recently cancelled secret visit to Togo was a first step in that direction. And sources in Washington said he would have been arrested if had he left.

His Nigerian host, president Obassanjo who is trying to change the Nigerian constitution to enable run for a third term, is not enthusiastic about handing Taylor over to the court. In an effort to discourage Liberian authorities from requesting Taylor’s hand over, Obassanjo has employed a familiar tactic: Telling authorities in Monrovia the region in general and Liberia in particular, will slip back into chaos if Taylor is handed over to the court.

On the face of it though, this threatening tactic seems to be a valid argument. However, placed under a close analysis, it lacks substance. While Taylor may enjoy some support amongst his former fighters and cronies, these abandoned friends lack the capacity to make war at this time without Taylor in the picture. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia was a cult, based more on Taylor’s personality and less on any ideology. Taylor was the embodiment of everything that was the NPFL. To suggest, therefore, that his followers can cause problem, grave enough as to disrupt the democratic process in Liberia, is to suggest that those who are making such threats may be the ones to support any such chaos.

 For we now know that neither Taylor nor his cronies can get support from nay neighboring country to use as launching pad. In his heydays, Taylor exported the contagion of his war to Guinea, where his old nemesis is still sitting tight as president. In Sierra Leone, the man he once ousted is still president. And when, in 1989, he launched his war through Cote d’Ivoire, he had taken advantage of many factors including the fact that the then Ivorian president had become prisoner of his own age- too old to understand the enormity of his own actions. But the situation there is quite different today. Gbagbo blames Taylor for the chaos in his country and is asking for his head. And the leaders of these countries are among the strongest advocates for a speedy Taylor trial. Unless Obassanjo is willing to lead a rebellion in Taylor’s behalf, his scare tactic is irrelevant and cannot be supported by the geopolitical realities on the ground today in West Africa.

With the noose tightening on him, Taylor may want to employ one last desperate move, according to some of his inner circle members, who have started talking save their own necks. Taylor, according to one of his former close aides, is contemplating using his stolen wealth to make Monrovia ungovernable for the new administration. He plans to pay large sums of money to some members of the Liberian legislature, especially the House of Representatives, through his former son-in-law, to demand that president Johnson-Sirleaf not request a Taylor handover from Nigeria. And that in the event such a request is made, to mobilize the House of Representatives to declare the president’s action unconstitutional and dictatorial. The hope is to paint the executive branch of government as attempting to make unilateral decisions.

This has been a source of worry for pro-democracy and human rights groups, considering the fact the House of Representatives elected as speaker, a fraudulent character and a Taylor crony and his former son-in-law, Edwin Snowe. His election, considered by many as influenced by bribes partly paid for by Taylor as well as stolen money from the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company, has been a source of international parliamentary discussion. While Snowe may feel comfortable with his new position as speaker of the House of Representatives, he will have to come to terms with the fact the position cannot protect him from future criminal prosecution which is now being considered.

But this last desperate move by Taylor cannot work. Snowe himself is a likely target for criminal prosecution. Discussions and campaigns are underway to lobby western governments to extend the mandate of the UN backed Special Court to enable it indict the new Liberia speaker.

The bottom line is that Taylor will have to face the inevitable: He will need to clear his name at the Freetown Court. He cannot expect sympathy from either Liberians or Sierra Leoneans. The fact is, Africans do not shed tears for a disgraced and dethroned ‘HERO’ who, at the peak of his power, chose to kill everyone who disagreed with him.
And the question on everyone’s mind is how Taylor will feel seeing himself in prison when he is convicted of the war crimes and crimes against humanity he now stands accused of. Wherever he may be at this moment, a million thoughts must be running through his head. Certainly, one would be the sad and disgraceful end of the “Butcher of the Balkans”, Slobodan Milosevic, who died a few days ago in his prison cell at the Hague.

Like Milosevic, history may not be kind to Taylor because as a rebel leader, he destroyed a nation that thought him civility and mercy; as a president, he chose to oppress his people and fight proxy wars and as a fugitive, he is planning a timely comeback. Oh well, who knows what he may plan as a convicted war criminal sitting in a six by twelve prison cell.

About the author:

Hassan Bility is the Director of Communications and Public Affairs at the International Institute for Justice and Development in Boston, Massachusetts.

He is the former editor-in-chief of The Analyst Newspaper in Monrovia, Liberia and former press officer of European Union Mission in Monrovia, Liberia. He is also the former editor of Media Line, the official newsletter of Press Union of Liberia.

As a journalist, he was arrested several times by the Liberian Government for his writings and views. In June 2002, he was arrested and accused of plotting to assassinate Taylor with the alleged help of the American Government. He was held incommunicado detention for six months without trial. He served prison terms in many places including Foya, in upper Lofa County and in an underground cell in Klay, Bomi County. Among other things, Taylor had wanted him to confess the names of Bishop Michael Francis, Sheikh Kafumba konneh, Abraham Mitchell and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, then an opposition leader, in a non-existent coup plot. In December 2003, the Liberian Government succumbed to international and local pressure from human rights and pro-democracy groups as well as the United States and the European Union. As a result, he was released to the custody of American Ambassador, John Blaney, on condition that he is immediately flown out of the country and officially exiled. He was driven in a convoy of fifteen cars, including that of Defense Minister Chea and US Ambassador Blaney and Tom White, directly to the Robert International Airport, put on a plane and flown out of Liberia.  The Americans facilitated his travel and took him to Boston, the United States.

He is the recipient of several local and international awards, including the Amnesty International Human Rights Journalism under Threat Award, 2003, London. Currently, he is an advocate for the Global Wellness Fund Treaty, New York, and he sits on the Advisory Council of the International Rescue Committee, IRC, in Boston, Massachusetts.

He is also a regular campaigner on human rights and democracy issues. As a public speaker, he has served as guest speaker at more than 40 American colleges and universities, including Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, Brown University in Providence, George town Law School, university of Indianapolis, Seaton Hall and the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, among others. He has also served as guest speaker at many amnesty international organized events and conferences. He has done promotional videos and speeches for the International Rescue Committee, IRC in Boston.

He can be reached at or


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