West Africa appears to be a political tinder box. Real democracy is a distant dream and the life span of governments is determined more frequently by bullets than by ballots. Not only are there civil wars in several countries but the combatants (on both sides) commit atrocities against civilian populations. One man in particular has exploited this combustible environment: Mr. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia. After a bloody career, he was forced into exile in Nigeria where he reportedly continues to fan the flames of war. It is time to put an end to his destructive activities and force the Nigerian government to turn him over to a U.N.-backed war-crimes tribunal.
Mr. Taylor became president of Liberia in 1997 after waging a brutal civil war against the country’s former leader, Mr. Samuel Doe. The seven-year military struggle anticipated many of the abuses that would become standard features of his campaigns. Human-rights organizations have charged his forces with widespread rape, massacres in churches, mutilation, torture, cannibalism and forced conscription of child combatants. The organization and exploitation of exceptionally savage child soldiers is a hallmark of Mr. Taylor’s war-fighting style.
Mr. Taylor proved to be a more effective warlord than president and he came under pressure from guerrillas in the same way he had threatened his predecessor. As his government neared collapse under the rebel onslaught, Mr. Taylor took asylum in Nigeria in 2003 in a deal designed to head off slaughter in Liberia. As a condition of his exile, Mr. Taylor promised not to meddle in Liberian politics.
To no one’s surprise, Mr. Taylor has proven unwilling to honor that agreement. He is reported to have maintained contact with former soldiers that are training in Liberia at camps near the border with Cote d’Ivoire. (A United Nations peacekeeping force in Liberia, installed when Mr. Taylor left, has failed to find evidence to support this allegation.) He is also reported to have violated the terms of his asylum deal, which confines him to Nigeria, by traveling to Burkina Faso to meet with Mr. Francis Galawolo, a Liberian presidential candidate. The U.N. special representative in Liberia has reported that Mr. Taylor was involved in Liberian politics, and when he originally left Liberia Mr. Taylor himself told his followers that he would be back.
Mr. Taylor’s ambitions appear to have widened. During the end of his reign in Liberia, he backed the Revolutionary United Front, rebels in Sierra Leone who were fighting for control of that country and its diamond mines. Those guerrillas adopted many of the tactics employed by Mr. Taylor in Liberia: The use of child soldiers, and widespread resort to rape, torture and mutilation, as well as frequent civilian massacres. Mr. Taylor’s supporting role in the barbaric civil war brought him a 17-count indictment by the U.N.-backed special court set up to investigate war crimes of the decade-long conflict.
Now, Mr. Taylor is charged with plotting instability more widely throughout the region. Mr. David Crane, the chief prosecutor for the U.N. tribunal, has alleged that Mr. Taylor planned the assassination of Mr. Lansana Conte, the president of Guinea. The court also believes that Mr. Taylor has been attempting to undermine the government of Cote d’Ivoire. Both of those governments backed the rebels that drove Mr. Taylor from office. Mr. Taylor wants revenge, as well as the bauxite reserves in Guinea that would give him a substantial war chest.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has denied that Mr. Taylor violated the terms of his asylum deal. When pressed to turn the former leader over to the special court, he demurs, arguing that it would make Nigeria look untrustworthy, although he adds that a democratically elected Liberian government — expected later this year — could request extradition. Nigeria’s role as a key oil-producing nation, the world’s seventh-largest producer, and a regional power broker has helped deflect pressure from other countries, especially the United States.
Pressure is mounting, however. There is growing international attention on Mr. Taylor’s misdeeds, both past and present. The European Parliament and the U.S. House of Representatives have passed resolutions calling for their respective governments to press Nigeria to deliver the former Liberian president to the U.N. tribunal.
Japan and other governments should back that demand. Mr. Taylor is doing his utmost to destabilize western Africa and his past suggests that he will spare no effort to achieve his goal and that includes the very worst sort of atrocities. Some charge that he seeks to turn western Africa into another Afghanistan; there are allegations that al-Qaeda already uses the region as a refuge and has trafficked its diamond resources to launder money. Mr. Taylor and those who work with him must be stopped.
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