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Who is Charles Taylor?

By Jing Thomas

With the recent announcement by the UN backed Special Court for Sierra Leone that the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor's is expected to start on June 4 at The Hague, I am republishing this profile of Taylor which originally appeared in an article written earlier in The African Nation.

Swathed in richly embroidered kente, a calm and confident demeanor, Charles Ghankay Taylor conjures up the image of a king. This regal appearance is a mask, for behind it lies a thug, a thief, a liar, an actor and much more.

His rise from relative obscurity to the status of international scoundrel and fugitive began in Arthington, Liberia, where he was born on January 28, 1948. His father, Nelson, was a teacher, lawyer and judge of American-Liberian extraction while his mother, Zoe, was a native woman from the Gola tribe. This ethnic mix provided Taylor with the right cocktail to explode on the Liberian political stage.

Founded in 1847 by freed American slaves, Liberia was dogged from its inception by a contradiction that turned into political discontent and bitterness. The freed slaves, who became known as American-Liberians, looked down on the natives and kept them out of power sharing.

It was in this world of petty apartheid that Taylor's initiation into the politics of rebellion started at a tender age in preparatory school where he was expelled. By 1972, he had put his act together and arrived in Boston on a student visa. He enrolled into Chamberlayne Junior College in Newton, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1977 with a B.A. in Economics. He began to muscle his way to the limelight at his undergraduate year at Bentley when he joined the Union of Liberian Associations (ULA). By the time former Liberian President William Tolbert visited the US in 1979, he was already
the organization's Chairman. Armed with the power bestowed upon him by that position, he led a demonstration outside the Liberian mission in New York to protest some of the president's policies. Tolbert took note and challenged him to a debate. In the ensuing verbal duel, Taylor stole the president's thunder. But he pushed his luck too far when he threatened to take over the mission. He was arrested and jailed.

By 1980, when he packed his bag and left the US for Liberia, his timing could not have been better. The simmering political tension in Liberia had bubbled to the surface. On April 12 Tolbert was murdered in a coup led by an unknown sergeant called Doe. American-Liberian hold on power had been broken and for the first time a native was president of the country. Skilled and qualified, Taylor seemed the right man at the right place and time. Appointed head of General Services Agency, he directed Liberian government purchasing. It was an appointment that tested his mettle as an economist and a preacher. On both counts he flunked, having been accused in 1983 of embezzling $900.000 in government funds. His kleptomaniac inclination earned him the nickname Glue from his compatriots. With that disgraceful label and an imminent Doe backlash, he fled to the US where he was later arrested and detained in 1984. In a daring escape, he sawed his way to freedom with two other inmates in 1985 as he awaited trial in Boston.

He surfaced in Kaddafi's Libya. It was a momentous occasion for his future political career, for rumors had it that he received military training and struck up an acquaintance with an identical scoundrel from Sierra Leone called Foday Sankoy. In 1989, allegedly with the blessings of Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the so-called wise man of Africa and then the President of Ivory Coast, and Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso, he returned to Liberia on Christmas eve at the head of a guerrilla army of about 500 men. He dubbed his movement National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NLFL). From Gbarnga in northeastern Monrovia, he issued a chilling statement that provided a hint of his thirst for blood. "The best Doe is a dead Doe," he announced to the world. By July 1990, driven by this macabre ambition, his forces were already banging at the door of Monrovia, Liberia's capital. But just as he was poised to nab the coveted city, his movement split into two, with the other faction led by Prince Johnson, a lieutenant. By September of that year, as both groups were announcing victory, Johnson's faction had occupied Monrovia where Doe was captured, stripped naked and murdered in the goriest of spectacles. The inevitable face-off between Johnson and Taylor culminated in a peace agreement signed in 1995. A presidential election followed in 1997 in which Taylor put up a wonderful show. With a deadly combination of guerrilla underhandedness, a Baptist preacher's oral firepower and showmanship and that old African cunning of exploiting roots for political ends, he stunned his political rivals. Swept to power with 75% of the votes, he neatly outdistanced a Harvard graduate, Ellen Johnson of the United Party who trailed with a 9.6%.

His presidency might have begun a fresh chapter in Liberian history but it was marred from start by rebellion. As he battled insurgency, he reportedly started smuggling guns and diamonds into Sierra Leone. In 1991, Foday Sankoy had begun a revolutionary campaign in Sierra Leone as leader of Revolutionary United Front (RUF). It was just the kind of connection Taylor had longed for and so he started trading guns for diamonds in a war that turned into a nasty orgy of mutilations as the hands of even women and children were chopped off to enforce loyalty. Ignoring the international outcry that his actions had triggered, he reached out to a young RUF commander, Sam Bockarie. Nicknamed commander Mosquito, this man took violence and sadism against civilians in a war setting to a whole new level. When Sankoy went on exile to Nigeria, Bockarie became RUF's leader. He initiated an era in which pregnant women became pawns in a horrific game where contestants staked their bets on the gender of a child before proceeding to disembowel a woman alive. With Taylor's support in arms and advice, RUF marched on Freetown and forced democratically elected president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to negotiate. In July 1999, the Lome Peace Accord was signed.

WHY IS CHARLES TAYLOR FACING TRIAL?

On March 7, 2003, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) indicted Taylor for war crimes and in June, a UN tribunal issued a warrant for his arrest on grounds that he had created and backed RUF. Then came July 2003 when the US President declared two times that "Taylor must leave Liberia." He was alleged to have harbored Al Quaeda operatives linked to the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Striking a patriotic pose, the Liberian president announced that he would leave Liberia only if American peacekeeping troops were deployed in the country. ECOWAS, under Nigerian leadership, sent troops to Liberia with $10m from the US.

On July 9, 2003, Nigerian president, Obasanjo, offered Taylor asylum in his country. Under growing international pressure, on August 10, 2003 Charles Taylor announced on national TV that he would resign and hand over power to Moses Blah, his vice president. The next day, he kept his promise and moved with his family to Calabar in Nigeria. His departure paved the way for a transitional government signed on October 14.

On November 2003, the US Congress passed a bill that included a reward of $2m for Taylor's capture and on December 4, Interpol issued a red notice suggesting that countries have international rights to arrest him. On March 6, 2004, US presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council calling on the assets of Taylor and his family to be frozen.

On March 17, 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the newly and democratically elected president of Liberia and Africa's first woman to be elected to that office, submitted a request to Nigeria calling on the extradition of Charles Taylor and on 25 March the request was granted for him to stand trial in the special court for Sierra Leone. But on March 28, the Nigerian government announced Taylor had disappeared from his residence in Calabar. He was arrested on March 29 in Gamboru along Nigeria's border with Cameroon. On March 30, the special court requested permission from the International Criminal Court in the Hague "to carry out trials in that court with the proceedings still to be under the direction of the special court."

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SHOULD CHARLES TAYLOR BE TRIED?

"If you commit the crime you do the time" Americans are wont to say. Charles Taylor, a warlord and liar currently being held by the UN-backed special court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, has pleaded not guilty to eleven counts of war crimes against humanity. His trial seems marred from start by problems of its own. By having Taylor to stand trial, the international community has reneged on its promise not to prosecute him should he step down from power peacefully and seek asylum in Nigeria. This is a breach of trust. But most important, it is feared that his mere presence in neighboring Sierra Leone could reopen old wounds and stir his sympathizers in Liberia into trouble. UN plans to move his trial to the Hague have encountered some obstacles as no nation seems ready to accommodate him afterwards.

Sweden and Austria, countries that have agreed to incarcerate international criminals, seem unwilling. Dirk-Jan Vermeiji, the Dutch foreign spokesperson, has stated that as a pre-condition for Holland to host the trial another country must be found to accommodate Taylor. Says he, "We can't be the only country which helps; it's got to be a  joint venture..." Whatever the case, whether the trial takes place in Freetown or the Hague, it sets an important precedent for Africa. For the first time in the history of the continent, a former president is being tried for crimes committed while he was in power. Africa has had more than its fair share of troubles in the hands of scoundrels who purport to be leaders, so such a trial would serve as a warning against any dictatorial excesses.

Nevertheless, the trial smacks of outright hypocrisy. Taylor is the brainchild of three known African countries: Libya, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. To drag him alone to court to answer for all the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during the war is not justice. After all, Paul Biya, Cameroon's President, has not surrendered Philippe Mpay for trial. Philippe Mpay is the general whose 'Commando Opérationel,' whatever that means, presided over the butchery and mass burial of more than a thousand children in Douala. Neither has Robert Mugabe been pressured out of office to stand trial for the massacres he committed in Matabeleland in the eighties and the slow death to which he is currently subjecting his own citizens.

Leaders should not be vulnerable to prosecution for atrocities they commit only when they leave power since this will only encourage them to hang onto power. In addition, among the reasons for which they must stand trial should be included that of embezzling state funds. More than anything else, massive looting by state officials in most Third World countries account for more destruction and deaths than political repression.

Finally, it may be a little to late but Kofi Annan's UN and President George W Bush's US deserve credit for helping to rid the world of some of its worst scoundrels. In Africa yesterday, it was Rwanda and Sierra Leone and today it is Liberia. Which country is next? Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Gabon...Qui vivra verra!

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