Just Let Charles Taylor Go?

Just Let Charles Taylor Go?

James N. Kariuki*

One of the most tragic African political offenders of the second half of the 20th century was Nigeria’s late Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the leader of the failed breakaway Republic of Biafra.

Ojukwu spearheaded Biafra in the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War. All told, the bloody secessionist struggle cost more than a million lives. Biafra lost the war and, to a large extent, Ojukwu was demonized outside Biafra as its heroic villain.

When the war finally ended after three agonizing years, Ojukwu fled into exile in the Ivory Coast. He probably feared that rugged Nigeria would follow him in hot pursuit as a war criminal. To deter other home-grown rebels, the reasoning continued, Nigeria may have been keen to throw Ojukwu in jail for life, or have him face a firing squad for a dramatic demonstration-effect. Whatever the case, the presumption was that Ojukwu’s life was in real danger.

But the Giant of Africa was not contemplating punitive acts. In a remarkable show of restraint, Nigeria merely issued a 1982 presidential pardon for Ojukwu. After thirteen years in exile, Colonel Ojukwu returned to Nigeria to a hero’s welcome. In time, he became an active politician in his motherland until his death in November 2011. Even his funeral was bestowed with honors of a national, very important person.

On the other hand, one of the most dramatic pieces of African-related news of the first half of the 21st century has been the guilty verdict against Liberia’s Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Not far from Nigeria geographically and only two decades after the Biafra fiasco, another African political offender had emerged and has now been found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes. By reputation, Taylor by far overshadows Ojukwu as the senseless, vicious Prime Evil of West Africa.

In both instances, Africa sought justice. In Nigeria, Ojukwu was a lucky recipient of ‘justice tempered with mercy’ in the interest of what Nigeria’s President, General Yakubu Gowon, called the ‘dawn of national reconciliation.’ But before May 2012 came around we virtually anticipated that, at the hands of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, Taylor was likely face prison time, a case of ‘justice without mercy.’

Nigeria’s ultimate handling of Ojukwu’s wrongdoing was driven by a desire for national reconciliation. Regarding Charles Taylor, two related and profound questions puzzled the Afro-optimists everywhere. Was serving prison time the fitting option for a former head of state, defiled by human blood though he was? What should be the prime driving force behind his sentencing?

It is important to keep in mind that, unlike Uganda’s Idi Amin, at the outset Taylor was not a despot, he essentially turned into a democrat gone awry. Was sentencing him to a long prison term consistent with the aspirations of the West African regional reconciliation?

There were compelling reasons why it was proper and fitting that Charles Taylor did endure a grueling trial. The most persuasive of these was, perhaps, that the African people must assimilate the principle that nobody is above the law; not even the head of state. Taylor’s trial was a clear articulation of the principle of ‘my nation before any man.’

This is a critical call in a continent where, despite rampant human rights abuses, no sitting or former head of state had ever been called upon to account for human rights violations against his own people. That was until Charles Taylor.

The proposition here stands that the legal path was a justifiable course of action relative to Taylor. At the minimum, he was entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Yet, it is equally compelling that, regardless of Taylor’s legal culpability, judgment against him was juxtaposed against the public interest of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

That public interest is captured in the word ‘stability’, which is vital to the region. So, what was required of the Taylor case to ensure lasting regional stability? Left to their own devices, court trials and long jail sentences are not enough; indeed they could act as further stimulants to ‘de-stability.’

A trial of a sitting or recently deposed head of state can be tricky business. In quest for instant stability, the newly installed Iraq authorities and the US tried and executed Saddam Hussein in December 2006. But they came to sorrow as the trial and subsequent execution totally de-stabilized the country to the present day. Closer to home, the Western military fraternity of NATO recently deposed and assisted in the public execution of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, but stability still eludes that country.

Walking gingerly against a national leader is a lesson that even the young post-apartheid South Africa has learned the hard way in connection with Jacob Zuma. In the late 1990s, attempts to establish his guilt or innocence before courts of law strained the fabric of society to the limit. And Zuma was not even head of state then; he was merely head of state-in-the-making.

Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor

What can be asserted is that punishing or putting a national leader on trial endangers national cohesion. Was a Taylor trial within West Africa a danger to the stability of Liberia and Sierra Leone where he still enjoyed considerable following? The UN seemed to think so. Behold the decision to transfer the legal proceedings at substantial costs to The Hague. Stability of the region must have weighed heavily to in that decision.

Fortunately, Liberia and Sierra Leone have not exploded in fury over the legal tribulations of Charles Tailor, so far. But what happens if Taylor’s appeal is unsuccessful? Is the fifty year sentence considered by some to be such a lengthy jail term that it is construed as overkill? Could the sentence trigger violent riots and hurt the chances of ultimate national reconciliation? The answer is blowing in the wind.

The moral of this story is that oscillating swings of revenge in the relevant West African states is a real possibility. The grudge cycle of ‘you hurt our man today, we shall hurt your man tomorrow’ should be avoided at all costs. There is wisdom in limiting ourselves to de-thronement without decapitation.

This is hardly an attempt to exonerate Charles Taylor’s evil acts. It is a bid to spare the victimized citizens of Sierra Leone and Liberia from additional savagery. What is more, we dare not waste the lessons derived from the Nigeria-Biafra tragic experience. There can be little doubt that kindness and mercy by Nigeria toward its vanquished prime villain, Colonel Ojukwu, made peace easier to uphold in post-Biafra War Nigeria. That peace has endured for fifty years, so far.

Africa longs for enduring piece in Liberia and its neighbors. Given the choice, we should encourage the option of naming and shaming Charles Taylor by smothering him with ubuntu, the African kindness that he denied his victims. Then we should set Charles Taylor free, but conditionally. He must never set foot on any part of West Africa. The two are incompatible and should be forced to remain mutually exclusive. They are inimical to each other.

** James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer. He is based in South Africa.The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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