African News

A Liberian lesson for Sierra Leone

20 March 2006 at 17:33 | 526 views

By Abu B. Shaw, London Bureau Chief

Three schools of thought often come to mind when Charles Taylor’s name is
mentioned. The former Liberian president should have been convicted by now,
one of the schools suggest. Why did the international community agree for Taylor to
step down from power, asks another. The final school of thought would wonder
whether Taylor would ever face war crime charges.

I have the fervent belief that the third school of thought would prevail if what has been going on behind closed doors is anything to go by.

To say I’m not surprised over the procrastination of Taylor’s trial is an
understatement. Justice delayed is inevitably justice denied. This complicated political trend in the West African sub-region regarding the Taylor
factor is becoming as unclear as murky waters in the rainy season.

The snail pace attitude adopted by the governments of Liberia and Nigeria
to back the international community’s call to put Charles Taylor on trial
has given the ex-president a very comfortable cushion to rest on. An attitude
such as this one harms the possibility of having Taylor appear live at the UN court in Freetown.

The Abuja talks

Economic issues were conspicuously on the agenda when President Olusegun
Obasanjo of Nigeria and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia met in
Abuja on March 3, 2006. Nothing, whatsoever, at least officially,was mentioned about Charles
Taylor. This blatant omission signals only one message: Taylor is very unlikely
to face the law. Liberia and Nigeria have made their intention as clear as
crystal. They want it that way. And they are not making any secret of
it. Action speaks louder than words. The writing is on the wall for all to

During this first official visit to Nigeria, President Johnson-Sirleaf held
discussions with her Nigerian counterpart and the talks were reportedly
centred on investment matters between the two sister countries. A Nigerian
government official who confirmed this went on to disclose that the fate of
the former president Charles Taylor was never an item on the agenda. The
spokesperson did not explain the reasons for this nonchalant attitude by the
two Head of States. Butlet us in mind how President Johnson-Sirleaf
responded to over 300 Liberian and international human rights organisations
when they wrote to her recently calling for Mr. Taylor to be tried in Sierra
Leone. She told them: “Trying Taylor is not my priority.”

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Charles Taylor’s trial became an even more remote possibility when Liberia’s Truth
and Reconciliation Commission TRC was put in to motion recently to
investigate human rights abuses that took place over 24 years ago including
the 14 years of rebel war in Liberia. In neighbouring Sierra Leone, the
formation of the TRC was and is still a sucker punch for the UN
Special Court because they see the dream of arraigning Taylor before
them as a distant possibility.

The UN Special court in Freetown was engineered by the inept and "donor-driven" SLPP
government of President Tejan Kabbah and sponsored by the UN Security
Council to try human rights abusers and those suspected of having the most
influence within the warring factions that devastated the country. During
the decade long rebel war thousands of Sierra Leoneans were massacred.

Charles Taylor, currently in posh political exile in the city of Calabar,
southern Nigeria since 2003, is the most famous individual to be indicted by
the UN court.

The TRC, set up personally by the Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf,
is made up of seven members. The commission is mandated to look into all
cases committed between 1979 and 2003 when the war officially ended. It was
on April 12, 1980, that an illiterate Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe led
a small group of Liberian solders to overthrow the civilian regime of
William Tolbert in one of the bloodiest coups in African history. President
Tolbert was brutally murdered along with prominent Americo-Liberians known
as the Congos. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, also from the Congo ethnic
group, was the first female Finance Minister in Liberia.

“Liberia had to face up to its past. In my own life I have come to believe
that when the truth is told, humanity is redeemed from the cowardly claws
of violence,” president Johnson-Sirleaf said during the launching of the
TRC. She added that her commission would investigate gross human rights
violations and violations of international laws including massacres, sexual
violations, murders, extra-judicial killings and most importantly economic

Human rights lawyer Jerome Verdier is heading the TRC. He is quoted to have
said that the commission would give voice to the dead. He noted that
examples of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the
Northern Ireland Truth Commission in the United Kingdom will be Liberia’s
focal point. The Northern Ireland commission is headed by an African Bishop
Desmond Tutu. The IRA war in Northern Ireland which came to a halt few years
ago after 30 years of blood letting was the longest civil war in modern
history. The BBC television is presently running a live IRA war crime
confession series with a very positive response from the public.

After a remarkable 26 years in prison in apartheid South Africa, Nelson
Mandela came out a free man and took the mantle of power, the first black
man to rule South Africa. The world was left spell bound when Mandela
decided to ignore witch hunting and instead resorted to allowing total
reconciliation and forgiveness. All those who committed atrocities against
the people of South Africa were given the chance to confess their crimes.
These confessions brought solace to the victims and their families.
Eventually economic development followed thereby ending the vicious cycle of

In January this year, few days after her inauguration president Ellen
Johnson-Sirleaf told the world that her government’s priority is to rebuild
Liberia with the meagre financial resources available. “Improving the
livelihood of all Liberians by providing schools, hospitals, safe drinking
water, food, electricity, employment etc. are more important for the country
than trials that only lead to more hatred,” the Liberian President asserted.

The Sierra Leone factor

It is highly unlikely for Liberia to follow the Sierra Leone example. A
meaningless Truth and Reconciliation club was instituted by the SLPP
government and this was followed by a UN tribunal which as the SLPP
government put it was aimed at Ďbring(ing) sanity and justice’ to Sierra Leone. Many Sierra
Leoneans see this court, glaringly full of foreign lawyers, as another way
of ushering divisions and animosity within the country rather than a
unifying force. A whooping 100 million US dollars plus was the money
allocated to feed this court. Critics of this tribunal, myself included,
believe that such a large sum would have gone a long way to provide basic
essentials like food, medicine, electricity etc. to thousands of Sierra

In one of Freetown’s posh clubs at Lumley Beach last year during my visit to
Sierra Leone, a lawyer who was brought in from East Africa to sit at the
tribunal, told me in confidence that there is no sense for people of the
same country going for each other’s throats. "I’m making lots of money here
which I would never have dreamed of making in my country. This is pure stupidity.”, he told me.

Sierra Leoneans’ propensity of setting up kangaroo courts in the past to get rid of
political opponents and enemies has surely propelled
the cycle of violence and witch-hunting forward in the country. There is no
guarantee that this would not continue after the Kabbah era. The danger
associated with this type of arbitrary arrest, detention, prosecution and
the execution of citizens by firing squads is that the silent families of
such persons will never forget the plights of their loved ones. Whether such
actions by those in power are justifiable or not will not bother the
thoughts of the aggrieved families.

The history of Sierra Leone is never complete without the mention of
individuals like the late Ibrahim Bash Taqi, Mohamed Sorie Fornah and others
who were executed in the 1970’s by the All Peoples’ Congress government.
Salami Coker, Bambay Kamara and others were killed by the National Provisional
Ruling Council junta in 1992. Brigadier Hassan Conteh, Victor King, Ms Kula
Samba and 21 other military officers were killed by a Nigerian firing squad
in 1998 thanks to the SLPP government. Any sane person knows that the death
of these Sierra Leoneans will not be swept so easily under the carpet. The
families and friends of these people will grieve in silence but they will
never forget. Forgiving is another matter.

The expensive UN court in Freetown is bad news for the country, no doubt
about it. For instance, supporters of Hinga Norman, currently facing the UN
court, would not be expected to share a cup of tea with the SLPP government
despite being SLPP supporters born and bred. The ingratitude shown to Hinga
Norman, who fought with all his might with the full blessing of President
Kabbah to restore the exiled SLPP government back to power in 1998, simply
highlights the confusion and state of mind of the ruling government. Hinga
Norman, who was the Deputy Defence Minister under President Kabbah was also
the Head of the Civil Defence Force widely known as the Kamajors. Even those
who were against Hinga Norman’s role as Kamajor chief are left totally
bewildered by the actions of the SLPP government.

Lessons from neighbouring Liberia

Nipping such a dangerous cycle of violence in the bud is exactly what
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is planning to carry out when she decided to
put her priorities right. No wonder she put in place a Truth commission to
provide the platform for enemies of human rights to openly confess their
crimes and ask for forgiveness. A commission of this type is cheap to run
and very reconciliatory.

During the 14 years of Liberia’s civil war, the Liberian people have
witnessed many warlords whose factional groupings have unleashed untold
sufferings on the nation. Charles Taylor was the leading butcher and his
National Patriotic Front of Liberia NPFL was noted for being the most
callous since December 24, 1989 when they attacked Liberia through Nimba

The breakaway INPFL faction led by Prince Yormie Johnson was also deadly as
he personally supervised the butchering and killing of late President Samuel
Doe with the help of the ECOMOG peace keeping forces in 1990. Prince Johnson
was in exile in Nigeria since 1992 but has recently returned home.

ULIMO-K, headed by the Mandingo
butcher Alhaji G.V Kromah was the bitterest Taylor opponent. A breakaway
ULIMO-J was led by disgruntled tribalist Roosevelt Johnson. Francois
Massaquoi of Lofa County was another butcher in Liberia. Bringing all these butchers of
Liberia to trial is a Herculean task President Johnson-Sirleaf feel is not keen at undertaking.

Prior to meeting President Johnson-Sirleaf recently in Abuja, Nigeria’s
political capital, President Olusegun Obasanjo held a 30 minute talk with
the former Liberian President Charles Taylor at Lagos airport on Sunday
February 26, 2006. The details of that conversation were not made public but
presidential sources say they were centred around President Johnson-Sirleaf’s
belief that putting him on trial is one of her least priorities. Mr. Taylor
was airlifted to the presidential lounge for the meeting before he returned
to his base in Calabar.

The international community has been pressurising Nigeria to hand Taylor
over to the UN tribunal in Freetown but President Obasanjo feels that it is
a blatant U-turn by African and Western powers who had pledged that Taylor
would not be handed over for prosecution if he agreed to step down in 2003 -
a promise that so far has been honoured. BBC’s veteran reporter Elizabeth Blunt also
confirmed that the terms of this agreement have never been publicly spelled out.

Miscarriage of justice is always a possibility during the adjudication of
cases even in first world countries. It is worse in underdeveloped nations
like Sierra Leone. I strongly believe that making the death penalty the
exception rather than the norm would do Sierra Leone tremendous good
because many innocent people are executed most of the times. Passing life sentence
judgements on treasonable and murder cases would bring miscarriages of justice to an end.

The British government, Sierra Leone’s former colonial master and currently
the main sponsor of the SLPP government, had to abolish the death penalty in
1965 because of the many miscarriages of justice. Sierra Leone should follow
suit instead of following the American way which still favours the death penalty.

About the author:

Abu Shaw(photo) is a BA Honours graduate in New Media Journalism with Law of Thames Valley University, London.

He was also Political reporter for the Monrovia Daily News in Liberia (1992-1995).