Even almost a week after the fact, I have difficulty articulating my feelings on Charles Taylor’s final capture.  This probably wouldn’t be so hard if I hadn’t been there to experience it.

I arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone on Sunday the 26th for a West Africa Bar Association conference, and gladly realized I was just in time to get up-to-date on all the rumors and speculations surrounding Taylor’s impending extradition.  Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, had just formally requested Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria to give up the exiled Taylor, who had been living large in a seaside villa in the city of Calabar in southeastern Nigeria as part of a deal brokered in 2003 to end the Liberian civil war.  Many people questioned whether it was the right time for such an action, and many others viewed the hurriedness of the request as one of the principle strings attached to the $50 million in aid that the U.S. pledged to help rebuild Liberia during Johnson-Sirleaf’s visit a couple weeks before.  Ed Royce’s (R-CA) doggedness on Taylor’s capture above all else, while not without merit (especially since Taylor is also accused of abetting al-Qaeda operatives), tended to paint the familiar image of a U.S. government intent on getting what it wants, regional stability be damned.

Once word got out that Obasanjo was consorting with other African heads of state, people I spoke to seemed unanimous in their suspicion that he would stay true to an earlier claim and not hand over Taylor at all, no doubt a product of the general coziness African leaders enjoy with each other despite their often notorious human rights abuses.  Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch was very vocal in insisting that Nigeria detain Taylor, especially since Taylor’s escape from a Massachusetts prison in the 1985 proved he was certainly capable of putting the slip on a few Nigerian security personnel.  Not surprisingly, Obasanjo stalled, and on Monday it was reported that Taylor had indeed absconded, whereabouts unknown.

The uneasiness could be felt everywhere.  The Sierra Leone civil war ended in 2002 and President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has been returned to the presidency, but the peace is a fragil one.  The current situation in Liberia is even more so, with Johnson-Sirleaf already facing down the legacy of a decade of unrest.  A free Taylor would have been precisely wrong for West Africa as no one doubted for a second his ability, once among loyalists in the Liberian jungle, to kickstart the civil war all over again.  This would have been disastrous for such an interrelated region, stoking the already-existing conflict in Ivory Coast and contributing to further instability in Guinea, to say nothing of reopening Sierra Leone’s own wounds.

I remember vividly the atmosphere of uncertainty, with everyone musing as to what could be his next move.  Rather than make good on his infamous declaration (“God willing, I will be back”), some thought that he would seek a new asylum deal (which, turns out, he did) or simply vanish thanks to his wealth and connections.  (The latter was eventually countered with my personal view that his ego was simply too large to stay in hiding for long.)  What’s more, even though his escape was announced on Monday, many people close to him said that he hadn’t been seen around his villa since Saturday, which seemed to point to Obasanjo’s direct collusion.  On the eve of a meeting between Obasanjo and George W. Bush, the chorus of voices calling Nigeria’s actions disgraceful grew, denouncing them as proof that one of Africa’s most powerful nations was unable to take a principled stand in support of the rule of law when it mattered most.  Bush, in a rare flash of political acumen, quietly let it slip that there would be no meeting if Charles Taylor was not apprehended.

And, voilà, the fugitive appears.  In an SUV with diplomatic plates, dressed in a flowing white traditional robe and carrying a large amount of U.S. currency, he was stopped at the Nigeria-Cameroon border by suspicious officials.  Some speculated he was actually heading into Chad, a lawless state from which he could easily transit to Syria, Ethiopia, or Sudan, or just as easily set up shop there and start all over again.  We probably won’t ever know these details, even though today Taylor’s spiritual advisor lent creedence to the belief that the events demonstrate Obasanjo simply wanted it both ways: first, the release of Taylor as a private gesture of solidarity, and then his rendition in order to placate the international community.  Whatever the case, the pressure brought on by covering for Taylor eventually became too much to bear and Obasanjo, upon learning of his capture, ordered his prompt expulsion.

A high degree of paranoia followed Taylor’s capture and people began to worry, inventing scenarios of how he might escape again and wondering what could be done to prevent it.  No one seemed to have any idea either how the handover to a fledgling Liberian government could possibly proceed.  Obasanjo, who had originally told Liberia rather defiantly to “come and get him,” was doubtless aware that Liberia lacks a security force of its own and relies exclusively on a 15,000-member UN peacekeeping force in place since 2004.  A combination of American pressure and Obasanjo’s personal desire to be rid of the Taylor affair made for a quick, commonsensical solution: Nigeria would bring Taylor to Liberia.  The handover was to be a nominal one with the peacekeepers taking over once Taylor touched down in Monrovia.  Luckily, it was successful and around 7 pm on Wednesday in Freetown, I got the intense satisfaction of hearing Taylor’s helicopter overhead en route to the UN-sponsored Special Court’s detention facility.  General elation spread once the long-awaited images of Taylor in handcuffs began to make the rounds.

Finally, there is a sense that some form of justice will be made real for those who had all but lost faith that anything would ever be done to help them.  As a former head of state and the person generally regarded as bearing the bulk of the responsibility for the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, Taylor’s successful prosecution will also help fill the void left by the death of Slobodan Milosevic and the continued evasion of justice on the parts of Radko Miladic and Radovan Karadzic, the UN’s other two most wanted for war crimes.

Taylor’s capture already represents a major victory for the human rights movement, one that his prosecution will only solidify.  And though the trial’s likely relocation to the Hague will represent a change in venue only and may be necessary in the long run, the UN and the international system of justice is still working out the kinks in how to try figures like Taylor.  Let’s all hope they keep blunders to a minimum.

As I was flying back to Dakar, it occurred to me that I may never actually see Charles Taylor on trial.  No matter, I thought.  After all, who could forget what it was like to be there when the tables were turned on Africa’s most notorious warlord?

Haha.  Not a chance.

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