1 May 2012

Africa: On the Charles Taylor Verdict - Is There Justice in Africa?

Photo: RNW
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor takes notes in court.


The conviction of Charles Taylor is certainly some kind of justice. Many in Sierra Leone will feel that their suffering has been acknowledged by the international community. In Liberia many others will rejoice while some will grumble that Taylor, the Liberian "patriot", is just a victim of white man's justice.

Given the tsunami of suffering that Taylor unleashed upon West Africa, the overly constrained proceedings in the Hague are really more like a show trial, a demonstration of Western judicial power rather than a real exploration of the facts and figures surrounding the series of events that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives across the region.

For most of the world the narrative is simple: Charles Taylor = blood diamonds + child soldiers + limb chopping = war criminal. Fair enough. That case was made.

What was missing from the dock in the Hague, as opposed to say the Nuremberg Trials, are the countless other personalities and political entrepreneurs that animated many of the events that to the West seemed more like antics in a Hobbesian charnel house than acts of sovereign states.

Whether or not one believes that it was the CIA that engineered Taylor's escape from prison in Massachusetts (which many in Monrovia firmly swear to) it is certainly the case that the Reagan-era State Department was displeased with Samuel Doe. After showering Doe with money in the first years of his reign, American diplomats looked on aghast as Doe turned into an embarrassing kleptocrat. It was also after Doe's rigged elections in 1985 that Liberians in exile, many in the United States, began plotting to get rid of Doe by any means necessary.

Those means were provided by U.S. educated Taylor who had one time worked in the Doe regime but who had to flee Liberia after being accused of embezzlement. It was on those charges that Taylor was imprisoned in the U.S. while awaiting an extradition hearing.

At that point the young idealist Taylor no doubt viewed himself as a liberator. He would launch a counter-revolution against Doe. In order to do so he would first have to get arms, money and rear echelon support. Taylor and his partner Prince Johnson -- who sits in the Liberian Senate to this day -- travelled to Burkina Faso and assisted the coup that assassinated the popular Burkinabe President Thomas Sankara- the so-called Che Guevara of Africa- in exchange for support of their own coup plans against Doe. Taylor was also invited to Libya to meet with Gaddafi and was given financial and tactical support in the context of Gaddafi's own pan-African hallucinations.

When Taylor finally launched his incursion from friendly Cote d'Ivoire in 1989 all the stars were aligned in his favour, including the support of current Liberian President Sirleaf. Unfortunately, he had the resources to launch his campaign but neither a disciplined revolutionary party nor a competent officer corps to carry it forward. Instead he had an undisciplined armed mob and a group of associates who quickly turned on each other when it was clear that the liberation of Liberia would be a winner-take-all affair.

By the time he became the elected President of an exhausted and terrorized Liberia in 1997, Taylor had succumbed to all the ills that befall a dictator. He had ruled his personal catchment called "Greater Liberia" with a toxic combination of terror and patronage.

His frustration in not being able to capture Monrovia -- due to blocking maneuvers from other West African nations -- only fuelled his megalomania and greed. This led him to start selling off large swatches of precious hardwood forests to greedy European buyers. He also began supporting monsters like Foday Sankoh in next door Sierra Leone whose access to diamonds provided Taylor with a virtual bloody ATM machine. There is no doubt that the insanity he unleashed had begun to affect him. However, he always put on a good face for foreign visitors. One was the Rev. Jesse Jackson who came as Clinton's special envoy and supposedly tried to make the dubious case that both Taylor and the madman Sankoh were worthy of American support. Another was the Rev. Pat Robertson of 700 Club fame who allegedly came to Taylor's Liberia looking for diamonds in exchange for lobbying President Bush on Taylor's behalf. In the end, Taylor became increasingly erratic with rumors of secret rituals and even cannibalism swirling around his inner circle.

It was at this point that Islam also emerged in the conflict. One of Taylor's most serious miscalculations was his oppression of the Mandingos, an Islamic ethnic group spread out across several West African countries including neighboring Guinea. It was Guinea, with help from Nigeria, that supplied Liberian-Mandingo leaders like Alhaji Kromah - now a professor of mass communications at the University of Liberia - with money, weapons and logistical support in his quest to topple Taylor from his presidential perch. It was a mirror scenario to the one which aided Taylor a decade before.

Ironically, it has been suggested that Taylor's conflict diamonds helped finance several Al Queda operations, one of which may have been 9/11. Taylor should be happy he's imprisoned in the Netherlands. The U.S. would probably like to see him in Guantanamo.

So what are we left with in the Taylor judgment? Robin White, the former BBC journalist who covered the events in question, told the BBC that he felt the money that went to the prosecution - reportedly $50 Million -- should have been given to amputees in Sierra Leone instead, many of whom are living in abject poverty.

What about Taylor's victims in Liberia, what satisfaction do they get? Taylor's millions are still rolling around the international banking system with no serious efforts afoot to capture them for the benefit of the Liberian people.

Unlike the Nazis who obsessively and absurdly documented all of their crimes and thus handed their prosecutors an airtight case, the trial of Charles Taylor has left out of the record much more than it revealed. To say that western understanding of Africa is based on cliché and disinformation is an understatement. That same might be said of prosecutions of Africans in Western courts, both present and future.

Taylor will likely die in prison. His son, the infamous "Chuckie" Taylor will do so as well. Many of his family and former cronies are now wealthy businessmen and influential politicians in Liberia, even though several of them remain under a U.N. travel ban. Neither of the reverends Jackson nor Robertson will likely see the inside of a jail cell for having consorted with a convicted war criminal.

Like all would-be revolutionaries, Taylor unleashed the forces of unintended consequences. One of the most remarkable was that it was his doings in Sierra Leone that brought him down, not his destruction of Liberia. The other was that with his incarceration, most of the other unquestionably guilty will rest more comfortably in their freedom.

Until Africans take control of their own justice, it will be an expensive dog's breakfast indeed.

Michael Keating is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston with a special interest in the Mano River countries of West Africa.

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