Nii Akuetteh’s article has been published online @ www.tompaine.com on April 27, 2006 and is re-published here with his permission. Nii Akuetteh appeared on AfrobeatRadio on WBAI on the crisis on Ivory Coast on January 15, 2011: AfrobeatRadio on WBAI 99.5 FM takes on the Crisis in Ivory Coast.
The matter of Charles Taylor of Liberia, warlord, ex-president and indicted war criminal, which had been simmering for nearly three years, suddenly and briefly became the globe’s lead story last month.
For more than two years, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had resisted international pressure to terminate the asylum he had provided Taylor in the Nigerian city of Calabar. The dynamics shifted two months ago when Liberians inaugurated the first female president in Africa. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf demanded Nigeria surrender Taylor. With ill grace, Obasanjo responded, “Fine; come and get him.” Almost immediately, Taylor took to his heels and disappeared.
International outrage ensued. Even soft-spoken U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, a diplomat’s diplomat and fellow African, criticized Nigeria. Following the withering international firestorm, Nigerian security officials hastily found and arrested Taylor. Within hours, they had delivered him into the custody of the U.N.’s Special Court in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The storm began to subside.
So all’s well that ends well, right? Not quite.
Certainly, it’s great news that Taylor, a true African dictator, is finally facing justice. For too long, cushy exile has been the worst fate of those who abused power in Africa. Their external sponsors fared even better—foreign complicity is little publicized, much less criticized. Idi Amin of Uganda, who was aided and abetted by Muammar Gaddafi, died peacefully in Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Miriam, supported in his heyday by Cuba and the former Soviet Union, is alive in Zimbabwe. In 1981, the Reagan administration and the Mitterand government financed and armed Hissene Habre, who duly reignited Chad’s civil war. Where is he? You guessed it, in exile—in Senegal. Taylor’s trial signals a new era of accountability in Africa.
It is even better news that Nigeria swiftly captured Taylor when he tried to flee. A desperate Charles Taylor, armed and dangerous, roaming free in West Africa, would have destabilized the whole region. New wars in his name would have flared up. In a very real sense then, Taylor’s capture was an act of conflict prevention.
But the best news of all, for my money, happened in Monrovia in August 2003. At the time, Taylor’s desperate army battled rebels tightening the noose around the capital. The air was so thick with stray bullets that walls were little protection. Every day innocent Monrovians fell. The international community dragged its feet sending in troops to stop the fighting. Disgusted relatives, blaming the absence of U.S. peacekeepers, piled shattered corpses in front of the U.S. embassy.
In stepped Obasanjo, assisted by Thabo Mbeki and other African leaders. He persuaded Taylor to go into exile in Nigeria. The action unquestionably saved countless innocent African lives. It bears stressing that Obasanjo did precisely what President George Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the African Union and the rest of the international community explicitly requested. Taylor’s asylum thus formed the central core of a complex international deal that stopped the killing and ended Liberia’s 14-year civil war.
So if Taylor’s 2003 exile, capture last month, and upcoming trial are all good news, what is the problem? This: the trial as currently planned, poses two big risks. First, it could destabilize Liberia. Ponder what President Johnson-Sirleaf herself told the U.N. security council last month, “Liberia is still a fragile state. . . . Whatever decision is taken . . . must ensure that the safety of the Liberian people and the stability of our nation is not undermined.”
Fortunately, this risk has been recognized. And it is being partially addressed with arrangements to move the trial to The Hague from West Africa. Despite the loud opposition of prominent African democracy activists, on balance, I believe relocation is sound. It should squelch any bright ideas Taylor’s accomplices— known and unknown—and his militias (on the loose in a fragile Liberia still without army or police) might have about springing him. In addition to relocation, U.S.-backed projects to rebuild the country’s army and police must be put on a fast track and infused with extra resources.
Still, there is a second, more dangerous risk that the Taylor trial poses. Alarmingly, it is being overlooked. African warlords may read a different message than the one the international chorus believes it is sending. Instead of “No more impunity”, the warlords may hear “The international community cannot be trusted; their asylum and other promises are merely tricks to induce you to surrender and to be humiliated later.”
Consequently, Africa and its international partners could soon confront a situation not unlike Liberia in 2003, in one of the five current conflicts raging on the continent or in new conflicts: In order to save thousands of innocent lives— not to mention further destruction, devastation and refugee flows—they may have to offer asylum to an African warlord clinging to power, abusing rights and waging war. What if such a leader says: “No, thanks. Better to fight on. So what if I lose and am killed in combat? That was Jonas Savimbi’s fate in Angola. It is preferable to the humiliating Taylor treatment.”
All who care about Africa must stop for a moment and contemplate the additional killing, destruction and suffering that such recalcitrance will inflict on an already devastated African country. To re-state, Taylor’s trial also carries the risk of making it harder to save innocent lives and avert further suffering and destruction in Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia or Northern Uganda by persuading warlords to go into exile.
How then to address this grave second risk? Should the Taylor trial still go forward? Yes, but it must be accompanied by a number of additional steps. The most important is to publicize the full and precise conditions of Taylor’s 2003 asylum deal. If such airing shows that Taylor was neither deceived nor betrayed, it will go a long way to deny future warlords and conspiracy theorists an excuse and a crutch. But what if this critical first step is not taken? What if the Taylor asylum deal is not aired? Or what if, even after its airing, reasonable doubts still remain that Taylor was betrayed? Such failure will carry dire implications. They must be clearly recognized. Bluntly put, not erasing all suspicions that Taylor was duped will likely mean more African innocents dying. These avoidable deaths will occur in the future when an African war criminal, fearing that he will also be betrayed, rejects an asylum deal that would have silenced the guns and ended hostilities.
Preventing the future slaughter of African innocents is therefore the all important reason why we must fully know what Taylor was promised in 2003.
Working to prevent African conflicts is a critical, if longer-term, step. Increased international support is badly needed here. The specific hope is that last month’s international coalition will now bring similar passion to proactively addressing the causes of African conflicts. When they are effectively addressed, no new Charles Taylors will emerge. And no asylum deals will have to be cut.