The verdict on Charles Taylor

Guest Post by Mats Utas
Yesterday the Special Court for Sierra Leone found Charles Taylor guilty of aiding the RUF during the Sierra Leonean Civil War. The court case that has taken five years is the last of a court that has previously sentenced 9 Sierra Leonean rebel and military leaders with long prison sentences. Taylor has 14 days to appeal and his sentence should be given on May 30. Not too long ago I was in a Monrovian bar owned by a friend of mine. I complained about a drink where they used American ginger beer instead of making their own “local” version. Local ginger beer is a sweet, nice and affable drink compared to its unpleasant American brother. Nothing comes out of complaining so instead I arranged with the barman that he should buy some ginger and lime and we would meet before opening the following day. So we did and together we made ginger beer and with the skills of the barman created a very tasty drink. We named it CT after Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor was often nicknamed ginger because of his light skin. I hope that costumers ordering a CT do understand that it is an irony – the name was not given to celebrate Charles Taylor, but as a comment on the enigmatic presence of Charles Taylor in Liberia close to ten years after he left the country in 2003.

During the heydays of Taylor, but I would say less today, Liberians used the word “wicked” in almost every sentence. Everything was “wicked”. You could be wicked in the ordinary negative sense, but to show appreciation for a new pop song people would typically say “e wicke”. I would describe Taylor with this ambivalence. Nobody would deny that Taylor was a WICKED man; responsible for nightmarish atrocities, systematic killing, extreme destruction of infrastructure and looting of property. Outlandish was the fear that many people felt for him and his security forces at the time when I lived in the country 1997-98. Still many thought he was a rightful leader. He was strong and controlled people, he took good care of his “pepper bush” – his people; he was wicked with ambivalence. People were getting more than a bit tired of him when the war started anew, but when he was forced into exile in 2003 by a combination of LURD/MODEL military pressure and pressures from the international community, and subsequently brought to court in Sierra Leone in 2006, many Liberians started to view him as a hero, someone who stood up against what they perceive as an international conspiracy.

We need to keep this ambivalence in mind now when Taylor is going down. Yesterday I got this report from Ilmari Käihkö, a doctoral student of mine who is currently in Monrovia for fieldwork:

The night before the Taylor verdict came out was calm in Monrovia. Some members of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party held a meeting, but my informants could not positively confirm whether this was connected to the verdict or not. Long after nightfall a loudspeaker car was touring the suburbs, broadcasting a message that Taylor is innocent and a victim of an international conspiracy. I woke up twice to this message, but have heard it a hundred times since I came to Liberia almost two months ago.

There is something paradoxical about how the people I’ve met here and the people abroad think about the former president Taylor and the incumbent president Sirleaf. Whereas Sirleaf enjoys broad international support, her support among the Liberian grassroots is meager. The situation for Taylor is exactly the opposite. If he could have participated in the November presidential elections he would have won by a landslide. The fact that even most of the rebels from LURD and MODEL factions – who fought against Taylor in the second Liberian civil war from 1999 to 2003 – state that they have nothing against the man and that they would like him to be freed. Before coming to Liberia I had no idea that this was the case.

Of course not everyone likes Taylor, and even many that like him privately said before the verdict came out that they hope that he would not be freed. After the verdict came out a rainbow was sighted above Monrovia. While far from an uncommon sight above the capital city after it has rained, some thought that this was a sign from god: some suggested that perhaps the higher power was happy of the verdict? But others pointed out that a rainbow also appeared at the time when President Tolbert was executed in 1980. (Monrovia, April 26, 2012).

Even the rainbow is ambivalent. I also think that people within the old pepper bush of Taylor have this ambivalent feeling; on the one hand they know that they have lost their Big Man, but on the other hand their waiting is over. Now they need no longer to fear their leader’s return, now they can go ahead with their business. And indeed some of the strongmen under Taylor are sitting on a lot of his money. With Taylor in safekeeping they are now free to spend their wealth in ways which they themselves like. In the same way some strongmen have not really showed political color out of fear, but this may very well happen now. Most Liberians whether in support of Taylor or not will now be relieved. That Taylor will not return to Liberian soil is certainly a step towards improved stability. If he would have been released, on the other hand, the ground would again have started to shake.

So we talk about Liberia, but the court ruling was for war crimes in Sierra Leone. What does the verdict mean for this country? I lived in Freetown between 2004 and 2006. People constantly talked about the Special Court for Sierra Leone as a waste of money. They were not very impressed with this version of justice. And of course it was hard to establish its significance in the country after the disappearance of AFRC leader JP Koroma, and the deaths of RUF leader Foday Sankoh and CDF leader Hinga Norman. The nine others arrested and subsequently sentenced to long prison terms were of less importance. For the SC-SL the high profile case of Charles Taylor was a way of establishing their significance. When Taylor was caught in Nigeria and brought to court he was briefly taken to Sierra Leone and the SC-SL complex in Freetown before transferred to The Hague. It was seen as a security risk to keep him in Freetown (and evil voices say that the Western lawyers at the court did not look forward to spending another few years in Freetown). Taylor’s brief stay in Freetown rendered some interest by Sierra Leoneans who wanted to catch a glimpse of that strong leader, but it is rather clear that most Sierra Leoneans have had problems to see the link between Taylor and the Sierra Leone war as significant enough. Indeed most would state the obvious that ties were close between Taylor and the RUF, but that he would be amongst those most responsible for the war in the country has been hard to grasp or believe for a majority of the population. It is questionable if the verdict against Taylor will change this.

So although many Sierra Leoneans will think that the region is slightly safer without Taylor they will, if they do, celebrate yesterday’s verdict because the SC-SL have helped them to rewrite their own history and because it is much easier to cast the blame on somebody outside their own society. (I think the scattered reports of positive responses accounts for that.) In the meantime the court case against Taylor has since 2006 up until today cost somewhere between 30 and 40 million US dollars annually. I can’t count how many Sierra Leoneans who were enraged over the high costs of the SC-SL. The court was in the minds of the people a symbol of how Western aid money was misappropriated. Why was it not combined with an effort to strengthen the Sierra Leonean legal system, why was it put up as a parallel structure to the Sierra Leone courts? Well when the court now closes some of these questions will rest, and with Taylor locked up Sierra Leoneans and Liberians can sleep a little better at night.

* Cross posted from Mats Utas’s blog.

5 thoughts on “The verdict on Charles Taylor

  1. As a white man who has never been south of the Mediterranean coastal region of Africa, I’m sure I’m not entitled to an opinion on these matters, other than that an immensely brutal, sadistic and selfish man has been convicted of mediaeval crimes against humanity, and will hopefully spend the rest of his life in prison, ideally with occasional outbursts of violence against him. I truly fail to see how there can be any “ambivalence” towards this disgusting example of the worst of humanity – to me, there’s only one interpretation of the word “wicked” that applies to him and all too many other similar “strong” African leaders. What an animal, what a mess. But then, I’m sure I’m not entitled to this opinion.

    • Clearly I’m not stifled, and clearly I’m not comparing my situation to those in Sierra Leone (do I really have to qualify that?) My point was my concern at the “ambivalence” expressed by those in Sierra Leone/Liberia, as well as the writer himself. One cannot have too much hope for the future of such countries when you hear sentiments like these.

  2. There are many silly conclusions being drawn about war crimes as a result of the verdict on Charles Taylor. The trial in Sierra Leone and The Hague, after spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, could not prove Charles’ criminal engagement with Foday Sankoh or Johnny Paul Koroma in their vicious struggle for supremacy in Sierra Leone. Yes, the court showed that Taylor provided aid and assistance to the insurgents in return for diamonds. What the prosecution left out was that the arms and assistance he provided to Sierra Leone were supplied by Jacques Chirac and Moammar Kadaffi and were handled by Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso. Amadou Toure of Mali and Mamadou Tanja of Niger also assisted. These were the unindicted co-conspirators in the arming of Sierra Leone’s rebels and their names were not mentioned. This was also the cast of villains who provided arms and equipment to the rebels in the Ivory Coast and to several factions in the Liberian civil war. They have been immune from condemnation and prosecution. In fact, Chirac and Sarkozy speak of their roles as if they were heroes of democracy.

    Charles was no shrinking violet or immune from charges of war crimes as part of his struggle inside Liberia and its civil war. However, this is not what he was charged with by the West’s kangaroo court in Sierra Leone. Charles did trade weapons with the RUF and the AFRC in exchange for diamonds but this was a commercial rather than a political ambition; he made a market in the middle of a crisis. The current heroine of Liberia, the sainted and Nobel-prized “woman of Africa”, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson assisted Charles Taylor in these efforts. Her role has also been whitewashed out of history.

    The Criminal Court is a misbegotten heap of blinkered Western self-indulgence. They had the nerve to indict a true hero of Sierra Leone, Sam Hinga Norman, and were unable to punish the villains of the RUF (Foday, Moskito and the others). The role of the Kamajors was crucial in saving Sierra Leone from disaster. The situation in which the Kamajors mobilised is one which not well known in the West. There had already been an attempted overthrow of the legitimately-elected Kabbah Government by rebels linked to Sierra Leone military, Thousands had died. Peace was restored only by the introduction into the battle equation by the irregular troops of Executive Outcomes and by ECOMOG troops (West African Community) provided under Nigerian leadership.

    This fragile peace was shattered when the ‘do-gooders’ and the politically-correct pantywaists in the Foreign Office decided that ‘irregular troops’ should go. Executive Outcomes left. When chaos descended again after Executive Outcomes left a new group, Sandline, was brought in to resist the onslaught. A tenuous stability was reached and Kabbah took up power again. However, if one went through downtown Freetown, the impact of the war was clear. Buildings were destroyed, markets were in ruins, and scores of people were hobbling around missing arms and legs. Child soldiers were everywhere with their dazed and drugged faces indicating that new irrationality was around the corner. It was a desperate time but things were getting better.

    As the government tried to restore order, the British Government (or at least the two avenging angels of the ‘caring’ Left, Clare Short and Robin Cook) took fright that their ‘moral foreign policy’ was endangered by allowing Sandline to operate in Sierra Leone. The story in London was that Robin Cook, the erstwhile Foreign Secretary, panicked when he heard of Sandline and assumed they were fighting for the rebels. When he denounced them, he was told they were on the same side as the British, but the cat was out of the bag. The last protectors of Sierra Leone’s fragile democracy were sent away.

    When they left, the RUF (the rebels) joined forces with the dissident soldiers (AFRC) and they invaded Freetown again, burning, looting and raping. The freed the prisoners from the jails and mayhem was the rule. ECOWAS was unable to put down the uprising and, across Sierra Leone, there was a blood bath; especially in the diamond areas. The only people who stood up against this rape, pillage and wholesale massacre were the Kamajors. The Kamajors were traditional hunters, with bows and arrows, who also tied to keep peace.

    From across Sierra Leone they were joined by doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers and civil servants who left their jobs to fight for their country as the Civil Defence Force. Some military order and logistics for the Kamajors was provided by Sam Hinga Norman. The Kamajors co-ordinated their efforts with the ECOMOG and, after several desperate months, managed to push the rebels out of Freetown. Once they had restored order in Freetown with the ECOMOG, the UN sent in 14,700 troops. These gradually, restored order and peace negotiations were started. Even so, the Kamajors, who were not fighting in Freetown, but in the bush near Bo, Kenema, Gbangbatoke and Bonthe, were still exposed and battled on with the RUF long after the UN had arrived. Hinga Norman was named Minister of Defence.

    I was in Freetown during the first uprising and saw the horrors of attacks by crazed wild men. I was lucky to get out. I returned several times between the wars and witnessed the desperation of the Sierra Leoneans, driven from their homes, missing arms and legs and searching for relatives whom they could not find. Armed gangs in Congo Town and elsewhere roamed the streets, terrorising the survivors and burning down houses with the inhabitants locked in. ECOMOG checkpoints were everywhere. Food was difficult to find. This was in ‘peacetime’. When the rebels attacked again there was no one to stop the pillage, burning, rape and destruction of Freetown again. I was lucky to be able to get out again.

    When I returned there were thousands sleeping under plastic in the National Stadium. Pademba prison was full of RUF prisoners. The initial steps towards peace were being undertaken. Foday Sankoh and several rebels were brought back and put into Government as ministers by the British and the UN in the name of reconciliation. Sankoh became Vice-President and Minister of Mines in charge of diamonds. This was utter madness and political correctness taken beyond its limit. It was like making Dr. Mengele Minister of Health under Adenauer. It couldn’t last. The Government was a weak reed supported by the UN and the British. The Army was disloyal, disorganised and discredited. Civil institutions were non-existent. People were frightened and without an economic or political compass. The only power which the citizens could rely on was ECOMOG, Captain JJ and his colleagues who flew the MI24 helicopter raids against the rebels, and the Kamajors.

    Despite the actions of the Kamajors the UN Special Tribunal in Sierra Leone indicted Sam Hinga Norman along with Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa as war criminals for using improper methods to save the country from the RUF and the AFRC. Foday Sankoh, when he left his Ministry, was also indicted but died. His fellow villains had already left the country to set up as warlords in the war in the Ivory Coast where the French paid their wages and provided them with equipment. The other indictee was Charles Taylor. The Kamajors were found guilty and now Charles Taylor has had his verdict. This has been a travesty of justice, a misuse of the judicial process and an utter disgrace to the concept of a rule of law. Charles was no saint or hero but he was only a profiteer in this battle. The Kamajors were truly heroes, men who fought to save their country. It is a disgrace to the UN and the international community that the victims are seen to be the guilty parties.

    On 22 February 2007 Samuel Hinga Norman, passed away at a military hospital in Dakar, Senegal. He had been flown to Senegal on 17 January for medical treatment, and had undergone a successful surgical procedure on 8 February 2007. Hinga Norman had been indicted before the Special Court on eight counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, despite protesting his innocence. Despite the Court he remains a popular figure among many. He commanded a great deal of support, particularly in the southern and eastern regions of the country, and was viewed by many as a war hero who protected civilians from attacks by RUF and AFRC rebels. The coverage in the local media reflected this view. The Exclusive reported of ‘The Death of a Hero’ and referred to Mr Norman as ‘the great son of Sierra Leone’ who will ‘always be remembered by patriotic Sierra Leonians’. Mr William Juana Smith, National Publicity Secretary of the opposition party the All Peoples Congress (APC) wrote that they ‘regret that a hero in the person of Chief Norman should die in another man’s land other than his own mother land, for which he had sacrificed so much.’ Concord Times maintained that Mr Norman ‘is today considered to be a hero by a majority of his countrymen.’ And yet, the international community considers him a war criminal. What a dreadful farce.

    This was a world turned upside down. The heroism of the Nigerian, Guinean, Gambian and Ghanaian soldiers in ECOMOG have never been properly recognised; especially the Nigerian officers like Brigadier General Mitikishe Maxwell Khobe, who became Chief of Defence Staff, Republic of Sierra Leone. I was leaving Freetown from Hastings Airport just after the ECOMOG battle with the RUF at Waterloo where several Nigerian soldiers and many Kamajors were killed. I was chatting with some of the Nigerians guarding the airport when I took the opportunity to thank them for their sacrifice and their protection of the airport. They were visibly moved when we arranged a whip-round of the passengers to buy the soldiers cold drinks and a sandwich as we waited for the plane. One, holding back his emotions, told me that this was the first time anyone had recognised their efforts and had thanked them.

    The Court has failed to achieve justice; or has ever even attempted to place blame and guilt where it should lie. It was a shock to visit Nimba County, Liberia just after the 2002 Ivory Coast rebellion to see all the familiar figures from the Liberian civil war and the wretches of the RUF, like Sam Bokarie (Moskito) marching around as puffed-up warlords in the Ivorian rebel army. The conviction of Taylor masks the irony of Foday Sankoh becoming Vice President of Sierra Leone and, Moskito a commander and head of a political party in the Ivory Coast. Moskito was eventually killed by Taylor.

    The Court is a total sham and a waste of money and energy. They should redeem themselves by charging the two surviving international master criminals, Chirac and Campaore and add in Sarkozy and Ban Ki Moon for their crimes against humanity in the Ivory Coast.

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