Overprotecting the Former Enemy

By James Seitua

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

July 10, 2004

Nigerian army general Victor Malu consistently grilled the Liberian media for alleged biased reporting against Charles Taylor shortly before the 1997 general and presidential elections The lambasting flabbergasted many Liberians who took the general for his words at the inception of his term as field commander of the West African Peacekeeping Force (ECOMOG).

But the recent statement of the Nigerian Government that Charles Taylor “played no role whatsoever in the civil war in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone, after all,” only confirmed a pattern inconsistent with and directly opposed to the expressed intentions of a West African nation that had provided enormous human and material resources to clean up the mess Charles Taylor created in the subregion.

The arrival of Gen. Malu in Liberia in 1996 and the stern warning he sounded to warlords bent on creating chaos could not have been at a better time. His predecessor, Major-General John Inienger, had just watched Monrovia go up in smoke. As usual, it was Charles Taylor who started the terror in a strange alliance with his rival faction leader, Alhaji Kromah. Together, they ganged up to steal under the pretext of meting out justice to another warlord, Roosevelt Johnson. In the anarchy that ensued, many civilians were killed, and everything with a monetary value became synonymous with Roosevelt Johnson. The United Nations alone lost more than 400 vehicles in the orchestrated fracas, and some people in Monrovia still remember how the man they were to elect president the following year left the capital for his rebel headquarter of Gbarnga in a humongous convoy of looted goods, including UN vehicles.

Having familiarized himself with the situation, Gen. Malu expressed regrets that the safe haven (Monrovia) the peacekeepers worked hard to establish could be destroyed by people who thrive on the miseries of their fellow citizens and promised that any attempt to repeat the ugly incident of April 6, 1996 would not be allowed.

But the saying in Liberia, “He will get tired,” often goes to someone who strives to effect change from those who resist change. Taylor might have used just that in a different way - the way a host nation in a crucial soccer competition greets the referee so that only he would see or would not see a foul that warrants a penalty - to transform the most important man in a fragile security situation into a virtual spokesman. Does that sound paradoxical? Indeed it’s a paradox.

Gen. Malu is on record for saying that “the Liberian press is the problem in Liberia, not Charles Taylor.” Can anyone of the stature of the respected general fall from grace harder than this?

Who was the problem when Charles Taylor launched an all out attack in 1992 to kill Nigerian soldiers (he indeed killed hundreds of them for which all peace-loving Liberians are truly sorry) to avenge their participation in the Liberian peace mission? Who was the problem when Charles Taylor’s rebels murdered two Nigerian journalists while on reportorial assignments in Liberia? Who was the problem when Charles Taylor rounded up innocent Nigerian civilians including teachers and university professors and murdered them only because they were Nigerians? Who was the problem when the safe haven the peacekeepers fought so hard to establish became a living hell? If the answer to each of these questions is not Charles Taylor, it definitely cannot be the press.

People who lived on the crumbs fro m Taylor’s table would argue that this issue is belated or even irrelevant. But that’s what makes them who they are - followers without a leader. On the other hand, those who understand the dynamics of the Liberian peace process would readily see the relevance of this issue; for who can ignore the previous, terrible actions of his neighbor’s son if those actions laid the basis for a systematic pattern of events that would shape his relationship with his neighbor?

Life is replete with instances where individuals chosen to carry out specific tasks on behalf of organizations or countries abandoned their missions in favor of personalized agendas, but it remains to be seen if this career soldier deviated from his mandate. Just within a few months after he assumed duties in Liberia, Gen. Malu made no secret of his alliance with Charles Taylor, despite his rhetoric of toughness upon arrival. From spokesman, he and then Nigerian Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi became special guests of honor at Charles Taylor’s wedding held in Gbarnga on January 28, 1997, shamelessly dinning with a brutal murderer at an occasion solely intended to buttress Taylor’s presidential candidacy. Only the Almighty knows the psychological impact that high-level Nigerian participation had on the Liberian electorate.

And with what’s unfolding in Nigeria, where the federal government has now taken on the posture of a defense counsel for Taylor, Gen. Malu may not have contravened his mandate, after all.

Both the United Nations and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have made independent determinations that Charles Taylor was not only the main supporter of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels known for chopping off the limbs of hundreds of civilians in Sierra Leone, but also the prime instigator of most of the conflicts in West Africa. Improvement in security in the subregion since Taylor’s departure from Liberia nearly a year ago is a living testimony to those determinations.

But Nigeria, which plays leading roles in both ECOWAS and the UN, maintains that Charles Taylor “played no role whatsoever in the civil war in the neighboring country of Sierra Leone…”

According to the Nigerian Vanguard, two Nigerians referred to only as Messrs David and Emmanuel, earlier this year filed separate suits asking the judge of the Federal High Court in Abuja to strip Taylor of his political asylum granted by the government so as to face justice before the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. Taylor is under a 17-count indictment at the tribunal for crimes against humanity, but Nigeria has so far refused to turn him over to the court.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Taylor-backed RUF rebels, having been singled out as Nigerians among other captives for amputation, brutalized them. But the government countered their claims, calling the suits unconstitutional and saying that Taylor played no role in the Sierra Leonean conflict as he was busy containing the insurgents in his own country while at the same time coping with the influx of refugees from Sierra Leone. And the legal arguments continue.

But no one expects Messrs David and Emmanuel to win a case against a man whose future with official Nigeria is so bright that he was recently allowed to hold a televised news conference to give justifications for the murders of two Nigerian journalists. Tayo Awotunsin of the Champion newspaper and Krees Imodibie of the Guardian were killed in 1992 by Charles Taylor’s rebels while on assignments in Liberia.

Whether or not the bold Nigerians win, the march to their victory and the victory of all the victims of Charles Taylor’s evil empire had begun with the first step, and those who believe that protecting Taylor, even after causing the death of over 250,000 people in Liberia, more than 50,000 in Sierra Leone, and leaving the infrastructure of both countries in ruins, is any policy worth pursuing, must think twice and make the necessary policy adjustments before the sun goes down on them.