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.