Defense or Crucifixion of Charles Taylor: Looking at the Bigger Picture

By Cecil Franweah Frank

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 17, 2004

The issue of what Charles Taylor did and did not do that warrants his prosecution in the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has become a hot and inflammatory topic in recent times both in Liberia and on the international scene. Simply put, the issue of Charles Taylor's fate has become very divisive in the Liberian body politic with his opponents intensifying their calls for his crucifixion after he left office in August 2003 and his supporters decrying double standards. This issue is set to play a center stage in West African international relations with the opening of the new courthouse of the UN-backed war crimes tribunal, which begun its work on March 10. In light of this, I would like to make very clear that the objective of this article is not to take any of the sides or to offend anybody, but is an honest attempt to focus attention on the larger picture over the Taylor affairs within the framework of his perspective fate from a nationalistic, logical and neutral stand point. I hope this article succeed in doing just that.

As of February 2004, Mr. Charles Taylor was among eleven persons indicted by the Special Court on war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. The Special Court itself came about as a result of a joint agreement between the Government of the Republic of Sierra Leone and the United Nations; thanks to the direct support of the United Kingdom, a former colonial power of Sierra Leone, and the court is mandated to prosecute those that bear the "greatest responsibility" for serious violation of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996. In other words, its mandate applies only within Sierra Leone. This was a coup pulled off by Great Britain, which has proved its loyalty to the people of Sierra Leone and no doubt deserves for an accolade to be bestowed on it.

Mr. Taylor's case will be unprecedented internationally if he is eventually brought to face the Special Court and this will also put Liberia in an unprecedented position. Efforts are being speeded up to ensure that Mr. Taylor is in Sierra Leone before 2005, when the mandate of the Special Court should expire. Besides the arguments of extra-territoriality and in particular as to whether the mandate of a quasi-international court within the sovereign territory of another State should automatically apply to or cover the territory of another sovereign State, even if the other sovereign state has not signed an agreement recognizing the jurisdiction of the court's mandate. Mr. Taylor would be the first "sitting" head of state to be brought to face international charges while still enjoying sovereign powers and immunity.

The indictment and arrest warrant of Mr. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslavian president and strongman who is presently on war crimes trial in The Hague, were issued after he left office. In the case of Mr. Taylor, the indictment and arrest warrant were issued while he was still in office. The interesting point for Liberia and Liberians to consider is whether the issuing of an indictment and arrest warrant for its "sitting" president, no matter how distasteful he may have been, constitutes an affront to Liberia's sovereignty or not. This is the unprecedented position Liberia finds itself in.

There is a historical parallel between the tussle over Mr. Charles Taylor's fate and the condemnation of Liberia in the 1920s by the League of Nations for slave trading. While the accusation then might have been right or wrong, depending on which side of the divide one found himself, the issues that concerned this author the most were the moral aspects or intent of the charges and those nations that brought them. Were Britain and other nations that were at the forefront of the charge of slave trading genuinely interested in stamping out the practice and bringing to books those involved, or did the charge served only as a smoke screen in the quest of those leading nations in the League of Nations, most of which were colonialists oppressing their own subjects at the time, to subjugate and subordinate Liberia to their dominance and hegemony?

In the internal Liberian body politic, there were many of my noble countrymen who might have denied that this was the case as long as the action then was depicted as evidence of the ill-treatment of the Americo-Liberian dominated government against the native majority of the country. But is this approach a short-sighted or long-sighted one? Is it possible that probably Britain and France were unhappy that Liberia's independence was having a negative impact in their colonies bordering an independent Liberia and this factor was fueling the desire for freedom and independence on the part of oppressed African peoples living in these colonies? Both nations were jostling to consolidate their position in view of the real or imagined dangers they saw in Germany, whose actions eventually led to World War II. Therefore, for geo-political reasons is it possible that these nations might have been eager to tame Liberia, create the legal justifications for encroaching upon its territorial integrity and partitioning Liberia through a League of Nations mandate? These questions are just mere food for thoughts and Liberians would be well advised to thread carefully when pressing the desire to see Charles Taylor on trial in Freetown. True, the actions of the Special Court for Sierra Leone hastened Mr. Taylor's exit from power to the delight of the majority of Liberians. Is it possible that Liberians were given carrots in exchange for sticks in compromising its independence and reinforcing its status as a "banana republic."

In the face of accusations of slave trading by the Liberian government brought by the League of Nations, Vice President Allen Yancy and subsequently President C.D.B. King resigned their posts thereby opening the way for Edwin Barclay, the Secretary of State, to succeed to the presidency. The leading powers of the day nearly attained their objectives of putting Liberia under the mandate of the League of Nations. Given recent events it seems that Liberians have earned the reputation as one of the most less nationalistic and patriotic group of African peoples, always eager and willing to extol the views, virtues and positions of outsiders often at their own peril. No doubt or disagreement lies in this: that Mr. Taylor is himself to blame for his current situation. He not only master-minded a bloody era in Liberia's recent history with his so-called "people's revolution" and then abandoned the very idea underpinning this revolution, but after eventually obtaining state power he lost the opportunity and chance to win the goodwill of the Liberian people, failing to unite them, while spearheading, fomenting conflict and mayhem in neighboring African states instead of devoting his energies towards rebuilding the country from ashes, actions which eventually culminated in the destabilization of the entire West African region. And, he is accused of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Liberian citizens during his rule. His reign was characterized by death and destruction on a scale never imagine. In this, Mr. Taylor failed himself and the Liberian people.

The main question now is should Mr. Taylor stand trial in Sierra Leone or Liberia? By pressing for Mr. Taylor to stand trial in a quasi-international court in Sierra Leone - is the international community grossly underestimating the atrocities committed against Liberians with the help of foreign powers including Sierra Leone itself, Libya, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Guinea? Are Liberians who are pressing this line of the international community also guilty of grossly underestimating the mayhem committed by these foreign states against their people? The international community has mainly been silent on these issues, preferring instead to focus on a limited number of men who were actual perpetrators of collaborators in the crime in Sierra Leone, not to mention Liberia. However, with the chief prosecutor at the UN's court for Sierra Leone, David Crane, now pointing fingers at the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as one of the culprits in years of untold suffering in Liberia and the rest of West Africa, I hope that we will begin to hear more calls from our Liberian Diaspora for a widening of the investigation.

This author is concerned that the persistent calls by Liberians to see Mr. Taylor "crucify" on the cross in Sierra Leone without analysing and responding to the questions above appear to be strongly motivated by a desire for revenge and they risk appearing to look not sincere in wanting to make Mr. Taylor face trial for any allege atrocities he might have committed against his people. This attitude in many respect may be wimpish in as much as it seems some Liberians have already written off the capacity of our justice system to handle Mr. Taylor's case.

Let me illustrate a point here: after more than 30 years of working for Liberia, my dad, who I think is one of the two "fathers" of modern Liberian television along with G. Henry Andrews, never earned a single cent in pension from the Liberian state he had so diligently and loyally served. Almost all of Liberia's modern television journalists were trained by him.

By the time he died the savings he had accumulated through out his long career, which in normal times would have been useful for his burial without much worry were all wiped out. This, I believe, is true for thousand of Liberian families, which lost relatives and love ones that had so diligently served their country and suddenly found themselves deprived of what they had earned with their sweat, and in some cases these persons even lost their lives. Therefore, Liberians have got ample reasons to want to vent their anger against those that were chiefly involved in their suffering, the main ones of which are two main "bandits" - Samuel Doe, the native president and Charles Taylor his Americo-Liberian nemesis. However this should not provide me grounds to put my feelings of anger first and close my eyes to the facts just because I want revenge against these two men. We should analyze all of the facts in this time of national crisis, while not falling to our feelings but looking optimistically and objectively to the future while putting the nation's interests first.

Is Mr. Charles Taylor's indictment an actual case of double standards as his supporters alleged? Mr. Taylor himself has insisted on this being the case and a Nigerian writer, Charles Onunaiju, once implied such in his article "In Defence of Charles Taylor," which was published on the Allafrica website. After all, as this writer pointed out, the likes of Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, all of whom are accused of encroaching upon the territory of the DRC and trafficking in that country's natural resources deserve to be prosecuted internationally and not receive at the White House. Also, similar logic applies to Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, Lassana Conteh of Guinea, Blaise Compoare of Burkina Faso who all bear full responsibility for the carnage in Liberia and West Africa as a whole should be brought to trial for gross violation of international humanitarian law. Who would dispute that and why aren't Liberians calling for the broadening of the mandate of the Special Court to investigate crimes on Liberian territory and bring these foreign leaders to justice and not only crimes committed in the territory of Sierra Leone? Was the United States, the "traditional friend" of Liberia doing its friend a favor or betraying Liberia? Britain pressed for the creation of the Special Court. One would have expected the US to push for monetary compensation for Liberia from the foreign leaders that bear the "greatest responsibility" for serious violations of humanitarian law in the territory of Liberia or bringing them to justice. But this doesn't seem to be forthcoming!

In conclusion, this author would like to note that it seems there is selective application of international law with respect to Liberia. Former President Charles Taylor should be made to answer for crimes he is alleged to have committed against the Liberian people, but this should be done in Liberia and within the framework of Liberian legal statutes. Sierra Leone's fate, while pathetic, was the price it had to pay for the folly of its leaders. The Sierra Leonean government has contributed to the crisis that had engulfed the West African region by stupidly meddling in the Liberian civil conflict from the onset. President Kabbah is not more holy than Charles Taylor. The same thinking applies to Conteh of Guinea and Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d'Ivoire. However, if the international community insists on bringing Taylor to trial in Sierra Leone, then by reasoning it should also be prepared to put on the table the prospect for bringing other international figures to justice for crimes that were committed against the Liberian people with the covert or overt assistance that they rendered to various warring groups in Liberia, including that of Charles Taylor’s NPFL, Kromah's ULIMO-Mandingo faction, George Boley's Lofa Defence Force and Roosevelt Johnson's ULIMO-Krahn faction, as well as Nimley Yaya's and George Dweh's (Sekou Konneh's) groups.

None of these armed groups were liberators of the Liberian people. Therefore well-meaning Liberians should press for broadening the trial investigation and should not only focus on Mr. Taylor. Charles Taylor's actions were evil and he is dangerous, but this aside, a lot of evils are surrounding Liberia today. The geo-political significance of Charles Taylor's ousting is embedded in the fact that power politics in the Mano River basin has shifted to Guinea. Conteh, a tyrant worst then Mr. Taylor, at least as far as the Guinean people are concerned, now has cart blanche to be a power broker in the Mano River Basin at the expense of the Liberian people and with the support of the international community.

In this lies the danger for Liberia and it should be very worrying for Liberians. One realizes that Liberia is in a very peculiar position giving the fact that it has been brought to its kneels and is totally dependent on the international community. As a result, its actions are dictated by what the international community wants and not by reason. As such, it is most likely that the Liberian government might blindly follow the dictates of the international community in order to gain favor from it in exchange for "peanut" assistance compared to what has been given to Iraq or DRC.

A case in point is that nobody has said that it is the DRC's last chance for peace and gaining the goodwill of the international community. But already US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Special Representative to Liberia Jacques Klein have said that this is Liberia's last chance for getting the goodwill of the international community. In other words, Liberia is and was so strategically unimportant that the international community is doing it a favor by intervening in its domestic crisis. This should be a lesson for we Liberians, and a wake up call that we are our brother's keeper and we must make bygones be bygones. The search of Mr. Taylor’s home is worrying because it reinforces the fact that Liberia has been sold out to the international community and the transitional Liberian government while not willing to take a clear stance on whether Mr. Taylor should go to Sierra Leone or not has assumed powers that seem not to have been explicitly, legally and publicly endorsed by the judiciary and the legislature.

This author is of the opinion that if the Liberian government should request from the Nigerian government that Mr. Taylor be handed over and would decide to subsequently turn him over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, such action should either be endorsed unanimously by the National Legislature in a sitting session be it interim or permanent or in a case where the legislature shall fail to reach an unanimous decision, the judicial process should be exercised and with the Supreme Court making the final decision on turning over Mr. Taylor.

Despite the crimes Mr. Taylor is accused of committing, he still remains a citizen of Liberia and should be accorded full protection by the Liberian state in spite of the fact that his government failed to accord similar protection to other Liberian citizens. We are not running a football club in Liberia, but a sovereign state and this is what responsible law-abiding states do. Even football clubs nowadays are ran better. Therefore the directive by the transitional government to search Mr. Taylor home could have been illegal and officials that gave such orders could have been acting outside the law and could face if Liberia was a law-abiding state. The Nigerian government has said officially that it is prepared to surrender Mr. Taylor based upon a request from the Liberian government. Such position by the Nigerian government may be seen as "legal bureaucratism", but it is sensible. Liberians are used to outsiders making decision for them or in some cases we blindly follow the decisions of others. Now is the time for us to make decisions for ourselves and to disprove that we are a "banana republic."

A starting point for this will be the decision to be made in Mr. Taylor's case and the manner in which this case will be handled. So far, judging from what has happened with respect to the search of Mr. Taylor's home, one may not be so optimistic that Liberia has changed and is prepared to be governed by law. Jungle law may still exist in Liberia and this is one of the defining attributes of a banana republic. Before making a decision to turn Mr. Taylor over to the Special Court, Liberians should first decide who has the right to put him on trial. Is it a right for Liberia or the Special Court, an institution that is a product of an agreement Liberia is not a party to?Time is running out as 2005 is fast approaching for the expiration of the Special Court's mandate and this will be the challenge for the Liberian state. Sooner or later the Liberian government be it transitional or not will have to make such a decision. Let's hope it gets things right this time.
About the Author: Mr. Cecil Franweah Frank is a political commentator with the Ukrainian News Agency in Kyiv, Ukraine, and is a security policy specialist.