Nigeria will transfer former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is living in exile in Nigeria and has been indicted for war crimes, to Liberian custody, the Nigerian government said Saturday.
The former warlord is seen as the mastermind behind once intertwined civil wars in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, where a special U.N.-backed court wants to try him for supporting brutal rebels in exchange for diamonds.
“President Olusegun Obasanjo has today ... informed President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf that the government of Liberia is free to take former President Charles Taylor into its custody,” the Nigerian government said in a statement.
Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s first post-war president who took office in January, had asked Nigeria to consider handing over Taylor so he could stand trial at the Sierra Leone court.
Johnson-Sirleaf arrived home on Saturday from the United States but made no public comment. A government official said there was no indication yet of when Taylor might be transferred.
Taylor’s spokesman in Nigeria said African leaders who brokered the 2003 deal under which Taylor stepped down and went into exile had agreed he could not be handed over to the court.
“African leaders cannot afford to renege on that agreement. They cannot afford to give Western governments a carte blanche to terminate African governments,” Sylvester Paasewe said.
“There are many African leaders whose countries have a conflict situation, like Sudan, Uganda, Congo ... They may no longer have faith in an African solution and they may not agree to step down voluntarily as President Taylor did,” he said.
Taylor’s departure was part of a peace deal to end 14 years of civil war in Liberia which killed 250,000 people, spawned a generation of young gunmen and spread violence to nearby states.
“It is a remarkable day for the Special Court and it is a defining day in international criminal justice,” said Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor at the court in Sierra Leone.
“It will take a little time, two to three days; I would hope no longer than that,” he said of Taylor’s transfer to the court.
Taylor stands accused of supporting rebels notorious for hacking off the limbs of civilians during the country’s 1991-2002 civil war, which cost an estimated 50,000 lives.
The international rights group Human Rights Watch welcomed Nigeria’s move.
“This is a great day for justice, not only for the victims of Sierra Leone’s brutal war but also for the fight against impunity, which has devastated so many lives in West Africa,” said Corinne Dufka, head of the group’s West African section.
Fear of Taylor’s return
Many in Liberia and Sierra Leone fear that Taylor’s return could reopen old wounds, undermining a fragile peace.
Liberian security forces arrested around a dozen Taylor associates on Friday including former bodyguards and fighters.
A senior member of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party said the arrests were linked to widespread speculation in Monrovia that Taylor supporters may try to stage a coup.
Taylor lives in a riverside villa in the southeastern Nigerian city of Calabar, close to state government headquarters. The terms of his residency were never made public.
The villa is normally watched by armed guards, but on Monday journalists including a Reuters correspondent entered the villa without any security or identity checks and saw Taylor.
Airport sources in Calabar said about 20 members of his family had left, carrying an unusually large amount of luggage, since Johnson-Sirleaf’s request to Nigeria became public.
The Nigerian government said it had resisted persistent pressure to deliver Taylor to the special U.N.-backed war crimes court in Sierra Leone, as demanded by the court’s prosecutor.
Nigeria has argued that handing Taylor to the court would have violated the deal under which he stepped down. Obasanjo did not want to be seen as having gone back on his word.
“The federal government has insisted that Charles Taylor can only be turned over, on request, to a democratically elected government of Liberia at a time that such a government considers appropriate,” the statement said.
“The request of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in her letter of March 5 constituted her determination that the time was opportune.”