Charles Taylor Still a Controversial Figure in Western Africa

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is wanted by a war-crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. Taylor was forced into in Nigeria two years ago on the condition he stay out of regional affairs. But that's precisely what many claim Taylor is doing.

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It's been almost two years since the former president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was forced into exile. He went to Nigeria to end a civil war in his homeland. One of the conditions of his exile was that Taylor not meddle in Liberia's affairs or in politics in West Africa, but that is precisely what many claim Charles Taylor is now doing. A United Nations-sponsored war crimes tribunal in neighboring Sierra Leone wants Taylor on 17 charges, but Nigeria is not handing Taylor over, and Washington, one of the brokers of the asylum deal, appears not to be forcing the matter. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has the story.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Charles Taylor waged a brutal rebellion before winning the presidency in 1997 in Liberia, the West African nation founded by freed American slaves. But it is for activities during the 11-year conflict across the border in Sierra Leone that he has been indicted. There, rival armed groups fighting for control of the nation's diamond wealth were notorious for hacking off the limbs of civilians. Taylor stands accused of being a major backer of these militiamen. His exile sent him to the sleepy backwater city of Calabar, capital of Nigeria's southeastern Cross River state.

Taylor's elegant government villa is perched on the bend of Diamond Hill, looking onto Nigeria's wide Cross River and the lush green forests beyond. Security is minimal. A few uniformed Nigerian policemen sit under a tent across the street. Down at Calabar's river-front marina, not far from Taylor's hilltop residence, sand and gravel worker Chris Love(ph) says the former Liberian leader is welcome to stay in Nigeria.

Mr. CHRIS LOVE (Sand And Gravel Worker): Here, we welcome him. We only receive him as a human being, because in Nigeria in particular, we don't discriminate. He has never offended anybody here, so that is why we don't have any grudge against him.

QUIST-ARCTON: And Love bursts into a song of praise for the indicted war criminal.

Mr. LOVE: (Singing) Charles Taylor, I appreciate you, I appreciate you. We welcome you to the city of Calabar.

QUIST-ARCTON: Before he left Liberia in 2003, the UN-backed special criminal court in neighboring Sierra Leone slapped war crimes charges on Charles Taylor, saying he had fueled and financed his neighbor's long and savage conflict. The Coalition for International Justice recently issued a damning report called Following Taylor's Money: A Path of War and Destruction. Journalist Douglas Farah, who's written a book about West Africa's blood diamond trade, is the report's chief author. He says Charles Taylor remains a major threat to West Africa.

Mr. DOUGLAS FARAH (Journalist): He's maintained his ties to armed groups that he controls. He continues to fund these groups. They're people that are very loyal to him and have fought in some of the most atrocious and gruesome conflicts in the region as leaders of the worst human rights atrocities, and I think there's no doubt that Taylor would like to go back to Liberia.

QUIST-ARCTON: Charles Taylor did not make himself available for an interview. But his spokesman, Sylvester Vaani Passawi, said no one had provided evidence to support the charges against Taylor.

Mr. SYLVESTER VAANI PASSAWI (Charles Taylor's Spokesman): I mean, you are presuming that he is so mighty and powerful that he could remain in asylum and influence the entire West Africa. That's not true.

QUIST-ARCTON: With presidential elections scheduled in October, Farah says Taylor has either intimidated or bought off Liberian politicians, which is why the transitional government there is taking no action, and Nigeria says it has no proof he has violated the asylum agreement. Nigerian presidential spokesman Femi Fani-Kayode.

Mr. FEMI FANI-KAYODE (Nigerian Presidential Spokesman): If we had evidence to suggest that that was the case, if they would forward that evidence to us and we found that evidence convincing and credible, I assure you we would take the appropriate action. Charles Taylor is not here and cannot be here committing such atrocities or such acts, and neither will we tolerate that.

QUIST-ARCTON: The UN-backed special court in Sierra Leone was established in 2002 to try those principally responsible for the atrocities committed during the civil war there. The tribunal's outgoing chief of investigations, Alan White, insists Charles Taylor has, indeed, breached his asylum deal, and that both the Nigerian and the United States governments have documented proof of this, including Taylor's alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on the president of Guinea.

Mr. ALAN WHITE (Outgoing Chief of Investigations): There is ample evidence that has been gathered not only by the special court for Sierra Leone, but also other intelligence agencies within West Africa and the international community that can confirm Charles Taylor's direct involvement in the assassination attempt of President Lansana Conte on January 19th, 2005, and continuing destabilization activities not only in Guinea, but Liberia, Sierra Leone, northern Ivory Coast, Gambia and Senegal.

QUIST-ARCTON: There are reports that Nigeria is engaged in diplomatic horse trading over Charles Taylor's extradition; in particular, seeking Washington's support for its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Nigerian government spokesman Fani-Kayode denied the charge.

Mr. FANI-KAYODE: Our case for the UN Security Council seat certainly cannot be tied to anything to do with Charles Taylor.

QUIST-ARCTON: Now Washington does not appear to be pressing Nigeria to hand Taylor over to the war crimes court. In comments to reporters earlier this month, then State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration was talking with West African leaders about how to resolve the matter.

Mr. RICHARD BOUCHER (State Department Spokesman): All of us, I think, want to see that he faces justice for crimes he is accused of having committed. We are working on this with others in the region on how to ensure that he does face justice, but at this point, I don't think there are any new developments.

QUIST-ARCTON: Farah, of the Coalition for International Justice, says the Bush administration is divided on the Charles Taylor issue.

Mr. FARAH: There seems to be a major discrepancy between the State Department, which is pushing very hard to get Taylor extradited, and the National Security Council, which seems to be sending a very different message that Taylor is not a threat to the region, that he's essentially in a box and don't worry, we'll get him eventually, but any push at this point to get him will destabilize Nigeria and is simply not worth it, and they're not going to do it.

QUIST-ARCTON: Back in Calabar, many residents, including this university student, wonder whether their city should be playing host to an indicted war criminal.

IKE: I'm Ike, Uncle Ike. He should be prosecuted if he's really, really using his money to destabilize Liberia and West Africa. If he has to stay here for peace to reign in Liberia, let him stay.

QUIST-ARCTON: And most of the other Calabar University students standing around Uncle Ike agreed with his view, but for now, Charles Taylor's spokesman says he has no intention of appearing before any war crimes tribunal and that he's staying in Nigeria, keeping fit playing tennis, and hoping eventually to return home to Liberia. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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