Salone News

Liberia: Politics and the Taylor Factor

24 October 2005 at 21:13 | 672 views

By Abu B. Shaw, London.

All the twenty-two presidential candidates in Liberia had one common denominator. Handing over former president Charles Taylor to the United Nations Special Court in Sierra Leone was a pre-election promise they never pledged. Analysts who feared walking along this dangerous path welcomed it unreservedly.

Two reasons were responsible for this action. The contenders feared mentioning Charles Taylor’s name would be like committing themselves to the international community’s eagerness to feed their Freetown court with said suspect. Secondly, and mostly importantly, they feared making any promise to bringing Charles Taylor to the UN court would tremendously drive potential voters away.

Liberia’s presidential election is going second round, according to the head of Liberia’s Electoral Commission, Frances Johnson Morris. The failure to have a clear-cut winner in the first ballot on October 11 was the reason why the run-off vote is now scheduled for November 8. Only two candidates would be vying for the presidency this time. Former Africa, European and World Footballer of the year George Oppong Manneh Weah and ex-Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf are gearing up to gather vital votes from the 20 initial aspirants.

Mr Weah, 39, got around 29 % of the vote casts while 66-year-old Ms Johnson-Sirleaf, received nearly 20 % in round one. Third placed candidate Charles Brumskine got about 13 %. Reports confirmed that these figures came about after 2,781 polling stations out of 3,000 were declared for counting. Only a 51 % of votes would have got an outright winner in the first ballot.

Roland Massaquoi, who contested the election under Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP), is reported to have kept mute when cornered about the possibility of his boss being arraigned before a court of law by any future government in Liberia.

The discourse about whether the eventual winner of Liberia’s presidential election will force exiled Charles Taylor to face the music in Freetown is an ongoing and complicated one. The best way out of this crisis is to look for a solution that would serve the best interest of Liberia and the sub-region generally. There are those who believe that only justice would bring peace.

The Sierra Leone Minister of Justice, Frederick Carew feels that justice is the only way out of this crisis. He said from the evidence gathered so far, Charles Taylor was constantly using Sierra Leone diamonds to fuel the war in the country thereby causing untold suffering and hardship to Sierra Leoneans. Mr. Carew is still unhappy that Taylor has dodged the UN court despite his indictment two years ago. The Minister’s call is shared by many Sierra Leoneans but some are skeptical as they believe this could only lead to more bloodshed instead of bringing lasting peace in the sub-region.

On a softly, softly approach, Minister Carew told journalists in Freetown that Sierra Leone cannot force Nigeria to hand Taylor to the Freetown court. “We can only make requests as the Western powers do not want to be seen going back on a deal they helped broker in 2003.”

The Chief Prosecutor of the UN court in Sierra Leone Mr Desmond de Silva has surprisingly shifted his stance about where Taylor should face the 17 counts of war crimes. The Chief Prosecutor suggested that Charles Taylor should be tried in The Hague because trying him in Freetown is a security risk as he is still immensely popular in Liberia. He said Taylor’s supporters fear he would not get a fair trial in Freetown.

“Another problem is that the UN peacekeepers are due to leave Sierra Leone by the end of this year which makes any trial in Sierra Leone impracticable,” Lawyer de Silva noted.

President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, who has all along being reluctant to hand Taylor to the Freetown court, said handing over the former Liberian President would go against the terms of the deal under which he agreed to step down in 2003 to bring total peace in Liberia. “I am not ruling out handing him to the elected president of Liberia and that government will decide what they would like to do with him,” Obasanjo disclosed.

Another high profile voice totally against Taylor’s trial at this point in time is the former Nigerian head of state Abdul Salaami Abu Bakarr. Campaigners for Taylor’s extradition were not happy about Abdul Salaami’s comments. He called on the international community to give peace a chance in Liberia by leaving Charles Taylor alone. Abdul Salaami is currently head of Mediation Committee of the Economic Community of West African State ECOWAS.

The ECOWAS Mediation Committee chair pleaded: “Please, please, let give peace a chance. Taylor’s departure to Nigeria was not accidental. It was a general agreement reached with the full endorsement of African leaders. This move was meant to usher lasting peace to Liberia after 15 years of bloody war. As a result that long awaited peace has been achieved in Liberia, thus paving the way for a free and democratic presidential election which has just been held.”

Abdul Salaami Abu Bakr however suggested that Charles Taylor can still face trial in the future especially when absolute peace has been consolidated in Liberia. He reminded the international community of the many conflicts and wars we already have around us. “For us to create another one in the sub region is senseless,” the African state man advised.

Touching on Charles Taylor’s popularity in Liberia, Abdul Salaami reiterated that Taylor is very popular in his country and his supporters are capable of causing trouble if he is forced to make a court appearance.

It was under the auspices of the African Union that the South Africa President Thabo Mbeki and President Obasanjo, among other African leaders, who escorted Charles Taylor from Monrovia to Nigeria where he is currently housed in the south-eastern Nigerian city of Calaba.

During my recent visit to Sierra Leone, a top government official observed that the cycle of violence need to stop somewhere and if that could be achieved by delaying Taylor’s trial then so be it. “We do not want to create an environment that would jeopardise the peace our country is presently enjoying.”
An opposition MP of the All Peoples Congress party in Sierra Leone told me that he does not support the continuity of protracted trials that benefit only the legion of foreign legal minds. “The people of Liberia and Sierra Leone need safe drinking water, food, hospitals, schools, housing, electricity, good roads, employments so on. It’s a shame that most Sierra Leoneans cannot afford even a decent meal a day,” the APC stalwart stressed.

photo:Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, still feared in Liberia and Sierra Leone.