20 October 2011

Liberia: Talk of Taylor's Return Sparks Sharp Responses From U.S. Congressmen

Photo: Executive Mansion
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (R-Illinois)

Washington, DC — Two influential members of the U.S. Congress have warned that a return to Liberia by former president Charles Taylor would have far-reaching consequences and seriously undermine bilateral relations.

One suggested he would support cutting U.S. aid if Taylor was allowed back into political life in Liberia.

Republican Ed Royce from California, who chairs the House Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade Subcommittee, and Democrat Jesse Jackson, Jr. from Illinois - both long-time supporters of Liberia - reacted to comments by presidential contender Winston Tubman saying Taylor would be free to come home if he is acquitted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone where he is now facing war crimes charges.

Tubman came in second in last week's voting and faces incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in a run off on November 8.

Speaking to London's Independent newspaper before the voting, Tubman said if Taylor is not convicted "he could come back home" and "re-enter politics". He refused to dismiss the possibility of giving Taylor a government post.

He said Jewel Howard Taylor, Taylor's former wife who serves in Liberia's Senate and is backing Tubman, would be part of his administration if he wins.

Royce, a long-serving member of the House Subcommittee on Africa, which he chaired from 1997 to 2005 during the height of the Liberian civil war, reacted strongly to Tubman on Tuesday on his blog. "Tubman's playing with fire - no, make that dealing with the Devil," Foreign assistance provides about 16 percent of Liberia's budget, Royce said, "and for my money, that spigot is turned off" if Taylor returns.

Royce welcome the "orderly and peaceful" first round of voting and commended Sirleaf "as a steady hand who has put her life on the line in trying to lift-up this desperate country." But he said he is "concerned about what's next."

Jackson's reaction was similar. "The return of a war criminal, especially to a role in government," Jackson said in a statement also released on Tuesday, "has the potential to completely reverse the progress Liberia has made to recover from civil war.

"As a nation with a vested interest in the continued growth and success of Liberia and the stabilizing role it plays in the region, we hope that our efforts to bring Charles Taylor to justice were not in vain," Jackson said.

The stakes for Liberia are high. According to the State Department, the United States has contributed more than $1 billion in foreign assistance to Liberia since the end of the civil war in 2003 and another $1 billion to support the United Nations Mission in Liberia. For the fiscal year that ended on September 30, U.S. assistance to Liberia totaled nearly $230 million.

The largest share of the aid package, which is expected to decline somewhat this year due to Congressional budget cuts, is spent on education, health and child survival programs, while peace and security and governance activities make up most of the rest.

At least as important is the backing Liberia receives from the U.S. military through Africom - the Africa Command, which has 64 mentors providing support for the rebuilding of Liberia's national army and assistance with reactivation of Liberia's Coast Guard.

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