This article was originally published on the Open Society Initiative for West Africa website, available here.
Under a spectacle that made many an African leader sit up navel-gazing, Charles Taylor stepped down as president of Liberia in 2003, promising “God willing, I will be back”.
It followed mounting pressure both from within and without. A rebel war in his country led by the Liberian’s United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) had intensified and was snaking its tail into the capital, Monrovia leaving the man who came to power through rebellion on the verge of being ousted by a rebellion.
Diplomatic pressure was also being mounted, after the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone had indicted him on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity there.
Taylor was wanted for allegedly backing the rebel Revolutionary United Front who had committed heinous crimes against civilians including mass killings, amputation of arms and limbs, recruitment of child soldiers, mass rape and forced slavery. Before the onset of war here, he had threatened that “Sierra Leone will taste the bitterness of war” after it played host to the West African intervention force set up to end the bloodbath in Liberia brought about by Taylor’s war which started on Christmas eve in 1989.
In front of the world media and audience, Mr Taylor stepped down as president becoming the first sitting African head of state to be indicted. The West Africa regional grouping, ECOWAS, whose leaders were ambivalent over the indictment of one of their own, had midwifed his departure. Its chairman and then Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, promised Mr Taylor a safe haven in his country where he was taken to a posh villa in the southern city of Calabar. After mountain pressure and on the eve of a meeting between president Obasanjo and US president George W Bush, Nigeria which was the largest African donor to the UN-backed court for Sierra Leone, agreed to hand over the war crimes suspect. But that was not to happen without some drama.
Rather inexplicably, the bogeyman of West Africa disappeared from his well-guarded residence. The Nigerian government said at the time they had no idea how it had all happened. He was later arrested as he tried to escape to neighbouring Cameroun with huge wads of US dollar bills. The Nigerian Government flew him to Liberia where he was shortly taken in by UN troops there who flew him to Freetown to face an initial 17-count charge of war crimes that cost the killings of an estimated 200,000 people, the hacking of the arms and limbs of hundreds of people, the taking-hostage of hundreds of UN peacekeepers and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leoneans. Those counts were later revised to eleven.
But Mr Taylor was to be in Sierra Leone for only a few months. In June 2006 he was flown to The Hague after concerns by West African leaders at the time that putting him on trial in Freetown would pose a security threat to the sub-region. The facilities of the International Criminal Court were to be used even if with Special Court officials trying him there. If convicted he is expected to serve his sentence in a British prison.
Eight other indictees have since been tried and convicted and sentenced in Sierra Leone and are serving their jail terms in Rwanda which also has a war crimes court trying those responsible for its genocide in 1994, but sitting in Tanzania. The court argued that prison conditions, which are appalling in Sierra Leone, did not meet international standards. Among them are three former rebel RUF commanders, including their interim leader Issa Sesay, who were sentenced to between 25 and 52 years. The RUF leader Foday Sankoh died in custody in 2003 before his trial could be completed. So also did the notorious rebel battlefield commander Sam Bockarie alias Mosquito.
Also presumed dead, even if his exact whereabouts are uncertain, is the indicted former junta leader and head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council Johnny Paul Koroma. But three of his men were also convicted and sentenced to between 45 and 50 years.
Two commanders of the pro-government civil militia group known as Kamajors are also in a Rwandan jail serving between 15 and 20 years. Their relatively lenient sentence, many believe, was testament to the role they played in ending the war even if they committed atrocities in the process. Their leader who was also the country’s defence minister, Chief Sam Hinga Norman and head of the civil militia group, also died in the custody of the court. He had been flown to Senegal for treatment. His family accused the court of foul play but a postmortem examination proved no such.
The conviction of Mr Taylor, the star suspect in this process of what international activists are referring to as a stop to impunity, leaves behind a huge number of war victims most of whom beg on the streets for alms without arms and limbs. It also leaves behind a magnificent edifice, which is to be taken over by the Government of Sierra Leone whose judiciary lacks some of the most basic facilities. A Special Court official told me that the Court House would be the country’s Supreme Court, while its detention facilities have already been returned to the prisons department, which donated the site to the Court. Other buildings have been designated as Peace Museums, memorial and Archives, while others are at present being used by the country’s law School.
The Special Court was a hybrid arrangement that saw some of the judges appointed by the UN Secretary General while the Government of Sierra Leone appointed others. The same rule applied to the appointment of the Prosecutor and the Deputy Prosecutor. It became the first war crimes court to sit in the country in which the crimes were committed. It has spent hundreds of millions of US dollars since it was established ten years ago.
The verdict is to be passed tomorrow, Thursday 2012. Mr Taylor, who left his country on a one-way ticket promising to “be back”, will almost certainly be convicted. He may have had a brilliant lawyer but a prosecution lawyer told me that the evidence against him was “too overwhelming”. The coming 24 hours will be crucial for Mr Taylor’s family and supporters in Liberia, victims of Sierra Leone’s war, campaigners for international justice and conspiracy theorists.
Taylor, make no mistake, is still hugely popular in Liberia even today. For some Liberians, especially the youth, the war crimes suspect holds the key to their salvation. This perhaps begs the question as to why his Guilty Verdict is a mere formality. Allowing him to go free might mean being “back” as president. And the consequence of that on the region is best imagined.
Umaru Fofana is the Editor of Sierra Leone’s Politico newspaper.