Nigeria’s announcement that it is ready to hand over exiled Liberian warlord Charles Taylor – the first former African head of state indicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes – is a reluctant gesture that sends a powerful message to other warmongers on the continent.
Taylor, accused of harbouring the al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 by an international war tribunal, would be the first former African head of state to stand trial for such crimes.
Taylor started the civil war in Liberia that brutalised tens of thousands of young boys and girls drafted as rebel fighters, and is accused of starting the war in Sierra Leone where rebels, including child soldiers, terrorised victims by chopping off arms, legs, ears and lips.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said in a statement that he had informed Liberia’s newly inaugurated president that “the government of Liberia is free to take former President Charles Taylor into its custody”.
But fears that Taylor’s presence on Liberian soil could destabilise the country trying to recover from 14 years of war means he would probably be sent directly to the tribunal in Sierra Leone.
Today, the UN tribunal on Sierra Leone urged Nigeria to arrest Taylor immediately.
“The watching world will wish to see Taylor held in Nigerian detention to avoid the possibility of him using his wealth and associates to slip away, with grave consequences to the stability of the region,” the court’s prosecutor, Desmond de Silva, said in a statement from Freetown.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said she wants Taylor to stand trial, but her administration said it has not worked out how to take Taylor back. Nigeria and Liberia do not have an extradition treaty, and Taylor is not wanted for trial in Liberia.
Neither Taylor nor his spokesman could be reached for comment.
Taylor reportedly warned this week that Liberia would return to chaos if he were extradited. Indian evangelist Kilari Anand Paul met Taylor in Nigeria and told reporters afterward that Taylor had said: “There will tremendous destabilisation in Liberia if the extradition takes place. There is no question in my mind that there will be chaos.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch also urged Nigerian officials to arrest Taylor, who escaped from a US jail to become a rebel leader.
“Urgent steps need to be taken to tighten security around his Calabar villa, and to take Charles Taylor into custody immediately,” said the organisation’s Richard Dicker.
In Liberia, security agents said they arrested at least two Taylor loyalists on Saturday after getting reports that Taylor supporters were engaged in “secret meetings” to ensure he does not stand trial.
David M. Crane, the American prosecutor who drew up Taylor’s indictment, said his extradition would send a message to others.
“Certainly African leaders, members of the good old boy network, are under notice that you cannot destroy your own citizens for your own personal gain and you don’t go after women and children – don’t rape women, don’t turn children into monsters,” Crane said.
He said a trial for Taylor would “crack the wall against impunity”.
The indictment says Taylor is criminally responsible for the destruction of Liberia and Sierra Leone and for the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of more than half a million Sierra Leoneans. Another 2.5 million were forced from their homes.
Each of the 17 charges he faces in the indictment carries a sentence life in prison.
Taylor is accused of starting the Sierra Leonean war to get his fighters access to its rich diamond fields. In Liberia, he enriched himself from diamonds, timber and rubber.
Nevertheless, the indictment alleges that Taylor was a pawn in a bigger plot drawn up by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, who is indicted as a co-conspirator, to take over several African nations over 10 years. It says Taylor and other African rebels were trained, armed and equipped by Libyan Special Forces.
Taylor has denied other allegations that he twice tried to assassinate President Lansana Conte of Guinea in revenge for Guinea’s sponsoring of a rebel group that was marching on Monrovia when Taylor finally agreed to leave.
Nigeria had resisted requests and international pressure to extradite Taylor after his 2003 indictment, arguing he had been given refuge under an internationall- brokered deal in exchange for his exit to help end the war. Obasanjo was lauded for his role at the time.
But Obasanjo also had said that he would consider a request from a democratically-elected president of Liberia, and that came last week from Johnson Sirleaf, who was inaugurated in January. At that time, she said Taylor’s extradition was not one of her priorities.
Her change of mind, while she was on an official visit to the US, prompted speculation that she was responding to pressure from officials who could offer the massive aid needed to rebuild Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves in 1847.
Obasanjo’s agreement comes as he prepares to travel to the US and a Wednesday meeting with US President George W. Bush.