About two weeks ago, the International Criminal Court for Sierra Leone, sitting in The Hague, Netherlands, found Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia and alleged mastermind of the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, guilty of all the 13 charges against him. Thus, after a chequered political career which saw him rise from a warlord to president and then to an ex-president in exile, the 64-year-old former Liberian strongman may live the rest of his life in a British jail.
Britain had agreed to take him in, if convicted. Now, having been found guilty on all counts, and he is due to be sentenced on May 30, there is already a celebratory mood in Sierra Leone, where the defunct Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which he allegedly created, wreaked havoc, the purported principal actor in the carnage is about to be brought to justice.
While we sympathise with the victims, we hasten to ask if the RUF was the only culprit in the brutal war in Sierra Leone, bearing in mind the infamous role by the then government-backed traditional hunters called the Kamajoors, whose brutalities and other inhuman methods were no less heinous than those of the RUF. That the backers of the dreaded Kamajoors are not standing trial at The Hague means that only half the story of the atrocities is known.
Since Charles Taylor has claimed to be a victim of big power conspiracy, it is our view that justice would be best served if he is allowed to narrate his actual role in the war.
Even as we acknowledge that the culture of impunity is an African cankerworm, we wonder aloud why the special tribunal seems to address the excesses of African leaders alone. Plunging Iraq in protracted strife, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and still counting, for the unsubstantiated allegation against the toppled Saddam Hussein’ regime of possession weapons of mass destruction, requires that the authors of the unjust war be made to answer for their actions.
Unfortunately, it is never possible within the framework of the current global power equation that former US President George Bush and erstwhile British Prime Minister Tony Blair would ever be brought to The Hague. Yet, there is almost a consensus that the excesses and impunities of African leaders in their treatment of their citizens need to be reined in even by extra-territorial judicial authority as The Hague tribunals.
However, we are worried by one snag in the Taylor saga: an elected Liberian President, Taylor abdicated office on the prodding of African leadership as a way of finding a lasting solution to the bitter divisions in his country. He was seen as a divisive figure and his country could have the chance to heal only if he abdicated power and went into exile. To the surprise of many, Taylor voluntarily accepted to step down and began a life in exile in Nigeria, as agreed by the African Union leaders. This was rightly hailed as an African solution to an African problem. In the middle of his exile, he was grabbed and handed over to The Hague. We fear that this action could undermine any future continental initiative to political problems in Africa.
Since Taylor left the Liberian political space, the country has made some progress; we appeal that his sentence must take into account that his selfless action has tremendously helped to stabilise his country and even opened the way for neighbouring Sierra Leone, where his crime is said to have been committed, to normalize and launch itself on the path of recovery.
For this, we believe that Taylor deserves a lenient sentence. The rest of his life behind the bars would be too harsh and vindictive. More so, it might be interesting to see how an ex-convict former leader would behave. However, the message of a former strongman behind bars will not be lost to his peers still in office and may even serve as a wake-up call for them to modify their behaviour for the better.