The arrest of Mr. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and his arraignment before a United Nations-sponsored war-crimes court, could herald the beginning of a new era in Africa. Mr. Taylor is the first African head of state to be held responsible for the atrocities he set in motion during his bloody reign. For too long, the continent’s leaders have acted with impunity and enjoyed virtual immunity no matter how horrific their behavior. Mr. Taylor’s arrest and trial provide hope that time has passed.
Mr. Taylor was a warlord. His concern was personal enrichment and power. His aim was securing control over the rich diamond fields of western Africa. To get his hands on those beyond his country’s borders, Mr. Taylor backed rebel groups in neighboring countries. His favorite tool was a local militia, often made up of child soldiers — frequently kidnapped to serve him. They were infamous for hacking off the hands and arms of enemies and civilians, and for raping women. It is estimated that he is responsible for as many as 300,000 deaths during the decade of conflict he sponsored and supported in Sierra Leone.
In 2003, an escalating civil war at home finally drove him from office. He accepted exile in Nigeria, but vowed to return home. Despite promising to retire from politics, he was accused of fomenting more conflict in Liberia and elsewhere in the region from his base in Nigeria.
The government of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was reluctant to credit the charges or to crack down on its guest. As demands for action mounted, Mr. Obasanjo said he would send Mr. Taylor back to Liberia only if the government there requested it: He was confident that the situation there would remain too fragile and Mr. Taylor’s return would prove too disruptive and dangerous to contemplate.
He did not bank on Ms. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf being elected president in Liberia earlier this year and demanding Mr. Taylor’s return. With his bluff called, Mr. Obasanjo then said the Liberian government would have to come get Mr. Taylor, as the warlord was not actually a prisoner in Nigeria. This was a virtual invitation for Mr. Taylor to flee — and he did.
Fortunately for Liberia and Nigeria — the disappearance of the warlord on the eve of his official visit to Washington was a black eye for Mr. Obasanjo — Mr. Taylor was apprehended as he attempted to cross the border into Cameroon in a car sporting diplomatic license plates and carrying several sacks of money, gold and jewels.
After his arrest, Mr. Taylor was sent to Sierra Leone where he faces charges on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His case will be heard by a special United Nations court that is investigating the violence that engulfed Sierra Leone for over a decade.
The capture of Mr. Taylor could herald a sea change in Africa. While some militia leaders have been put before international courts, Mr. Taylor is the first head of state from Africa to face justice in an international court for actions taken while in power. Sadly, the continent has had some wretched rulers, from Idi Amin to Robert Mugabe.
Yet rather than hold their counterparts accountable, African leaders have been inclined to turn a blind eye to horrific misbehavior and even provide shelter — as if to ensure that they too would enjoy the same protection if they should ever be turned out of office.
Now, the world’s poorest citizens can take some comfort that their rights stand to be protected from the tyrants and dictators who have battled for power and abused them in the process. As Mr. Desmond de Silva, the court’s prosecutor exulted, Mr. Taylor’s “presence in the custody of the Special Court sends out a clear message that no matter how rich or powerful or feared people may be, the law is above them.”
The reinforcement of the rule of law is especially welcome after the death of former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. He died while in custody in The Hague during his trial for war crimes. Some worried that in death he had cheated justice and might somehow undermine the legitimacy of such tribunals. The capture and remand of Mr. Taylor should be considered proof that the demand for justice has not flagged.
Africa’s tyrants and dictators have been warned that they too will be held accountable for their actions. Africa’s age of impunity is over.
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