Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor, accused of fomenting bloody wars across West Africa, now faces judgment for some of the mayhem wrought during his years in power.
Taylor, taken from exile in Nigeria and presented in handcuffs Wednesday to the U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone, is charged with 17 counts of crimes against humanity stemming from a brutal rebellion that left many thousands dead or maimed.
His capture and imprisonment seem to bring his bloodstained 16-year odyssey to a close and avert a feared renewal of conflict in Liberia, had he returned there. Instead, he becomes the first African head of state to face an international war crimes tribunal — another step in growing efforts to make leaders accountable for their actions.
It is not yet known where Taylor will be tried. Sierra Leone Foreign Ministry spokesman Dirk-Jan Vermeij said Thursday the Sierra Leone court had asked the Hague-based International Criminal Court to make its facilities available for the trial.
The Netherlands said it was willing to work with the court, but that it wanted the sanction of a U.N. Security Council resolution, among other conditions.
Taylor’s 1989 insurgency in Liberia, which eventually killed 200,000, helped tilt the region into crisis. His rise and fall reflect the painful struggles of West Africa, now working toward peace.
“Taylor for me is a ruthless dictator whose capture and subsequent trial should be welcome for all Liberian people. The mayhem and destruction he brought has to be accounted for. No more delay,” said Romeo Snehtie, a 39-year-old student in Liberia. “We will remember him as a leader who was strong but who did not use his might for the improvement for the Liberian people.”
Economy, infrastructure in ruins
Liberia, once among the richer countries in West Africa, is now one of its poorest. The shattered capital, Monrovia, has not had government-supplied electricity, water or sewerage for more than a decade.
Long years of crisis that ended with Taylor’s flight to Nigerian exile in 2003 has left the country all but a failed state, with 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers providing security for the new administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose inauguration this year ended a postwar transitional administration.
Taylor’s 1989 incursion from Ivory Coast had spread chaos across Liberia and into Sierra Leone, whose brutal rebels fought a 1991-2002 civil war. Taylor helped pioneer the use of child soldiers, often kidnapped from their parents and drugged. His fighters still are believed to roam Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast.
“Beyond the vast damage he has personally inflicted on West Africa, Charles Taylor embodies the misrule and warlord politics that have devastated the region,” said Eric Witte, formerly a political adviser at the Sierra Leone court and now a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council in Luxembourg.
“His arrest is a watershed for West Africa, as it not only prevents Taylor from future troublemaking, but may signal a new international approach to the region — one built on the principle of accountability.”
African leaders have been brought before international tribunals before: Jean Kambanda, prime minister of Rwanda at the beginning of that country’s 1994 genocide, pleaded guilty to genocide before a U.N. tribunal. He was Rwanda’s head of government.
Educated in America
Taylor was born into a family of Americo-Liberians, descendants of the freed American slaves that founded Africa’s first republic in 1847 and ruled as elites for more than a century.
Taylor lived in the United States during the 1970s, earning an economics degree from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
He later joined the government of President Samuel Doe, an illiterate midlevel officer who came to power in 1980 and ordered the execution of 13 ministers who were tied to poles on a beach and shot. Sirleaf, then a minister herself, barely escaped and fled overseas.
Taylor fled after he was accused in 1983 of embezzling nearly $1 million. He went back to the United States, where he was detained on a Liberian arrest warrant. But he escaped from a Massachusetts jail in 1985 — cutting through bars with a hacksaw and climbing down a knotted sheet — to launch the civil war that ousted Doe.
Taylor won a disputed election in 1997, beating Sirleaf by a wide margin.
But many former allies took up arms against him in 2000 and attacked Monrovia in 2003. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo helped broker peace in Liberia by offering Taylor exile in Nigeria, which he accepted.
Obasanjo said he would hand Taylor to Liberia if a democratically elected leader requested it. After Sirleaf gave the nod, he made good on his word Wednesday.
“I think his capture and being put on trial does not only close a chapter but it also sends a powerful message to the region that impunity will not be allowed to stand and would-be warlords will pay a price,” said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at U.N. headquarters in New York.