Snaring a Strongman

4 minute read
Simon Robinson

Charles Taylor was impatient. For five hours the exiled former Liberian President had been sitting in the remote town of Gamboru, Nigeria, waiting for the right moment to slip across the border into Cameroon. Finally, as dawn cracked last Wednesday, Taylor decided to make his escape. A light-colored Land Rover carrying him and four companions–believed to be his wife, son, driver and an aide–drove past an unmanned immigration checkpoint before encountering a final gate across a narrow bridge. Witnesses say the driver and aide got out of the vehicle and started fiddling with the gate’s lock. Nigerian customs officials approached the men, who tried to bribe the officers into letting them pass, then fled. Inside the SUV, officers found two boxes filled with U.S. dollars. Taylor was in the backseat, wearing a flowing white robe. “He didn’t say a word to the officers,” police spokesman Haz Iwendi told TIME. “He was just sitting in the car.”

For a man who was once among the most feared in Africa, it was an unceremonious end. As Liberia’s ruler from 1997 to 2003, when a rebel revolt and international pressure forced him to resign and go into exile in Nigeria, Taylor, 58, had brutalized his country and the region, fomenting wars in three countries that left as many as 300,000 people dead and thousands more raped and maimed. Following the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, Taylor is the latest strongman to face a reckoning in a court of law: after his capture in Nigeria, he was delivered to the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has charged him on 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, sexual slavery and mutilations–atrocities allegedly carried out by Taylor loyalists with his knowledge during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. The court has asked the Netherlands to be host to Taylor’s trial because of concerns that his presence in Sierra Leone could lead to more unrest. If convicted, he will face multiple life sentences. Says Desmond de Silva, the court’s chief prosecutor: “His presence in [our] custody sends out the clear message that no matter how rich, powerful or feared people may be, the law is above them.”

That may be true–but Taylor’s capture had as much to do with realpolitik as with justice. For years, although under indictment by the war-crimes tribunal and confined to a tin-roofed villa in Calabar, in Nigeria’s steamy southeast, Taylor retained the support in Liberia of thousands of his ex-soldiers. In an effort to placate Taylor’s loyalists, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s new President, said on taking office in January that prosecuting Taylor was less a concern than reconstruction. But international donors, including the U.S. and the European Union, demanded as a condition of aid that Johnson-Sirleaf ask Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to turn over Taylor. “The pressure was more than just political pressure,” Samuel Kofi Woods, Liberia’s Labor Minister, told TIME. “It also had to do with the development of Liberia.”

Still, Taylor very nearly slipped away. On March 25, Obasanjo, under pressure himself from the U.S., finally agreed to extradite Taylor. Two days later, as Nigeria and Liberia argued over who was responsible for transporting the former warlord to Sierra Leone, Taylor disappeared. Police sources in Calabar told TIME they believe Taylor’s vanishing act was instigated by some of his supporters with the connivance of Nigerian officials, who wanted to relieve themselves of responsibility for arresting Taylor. Nigerian authorities arrested 22 police officers guarding his residence for “misconduct, dereliction of duty and offenses prejudicial to discipline,” and Obasanjo has set up a panel to investigate Taylor’s disappearance. “President Obasanjo obviously did not know about the plan to make Taylor ‘disappear,’ but some of his security aides knew,” says an official in the State Security Service in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

It remains unclear whether the Nigerians’ nabbing of Taylor came about by luck or by design. But that matters little to Liberians who suffered from his brutality. As long as Taylor evaded justice, there was always the chance he might one day return to power. Hours after Taylor’s arrest, Nigeria put the former leader on a presidential jet bound for Liberia. On a rain-soaked runway, Taylor was handed over to Liberian authorities, who passed him on to U.N. soldiers, who choppered him to Freetown, Sierra Leone. A few hours later, Taylor sat in a prison cell, his likely home for years to come.

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