Former Liberian President Charles Taylor awaits his sentencing in The Hague. Photo by Toussaint Kluiters/AFP/Getty Images.
The world and many in Africa applauded the 50-year sentence imposed Wednesday on former Liberian President Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting a reign of atrocities and terror on the population of Sierra Leone more than a decade ago. Finally, it seems, being a head of state didn’t protect a man against being held accountable.
Human Rights Watch hailed the sentence as a landmark. “It is really significant that Taylor’s status as a former head of state was taken as an aggravating factor as far as his sentence is concerned,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, the group’s international justice advocacy director. “This is a very important precedent, and I hope Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir take note.”
But in the region itself, the reaction was more complicated. In Sierra Leone, victims maimed and mutilated in the war watched the sentencing proceedings on a live feed from The Hague and rejoiced. Throughout Sierra Leone the trial itself had been widely broadcast, watched and discussed. But in Liberia, there were reports of disbelief and anger from Taylor’s still-loyal supporters at hearing their former president would spend the rest of his life in a foreign prison.
Chris Fomunyoh, who runs the National Democratic Institute’s programs on Africa, isn’t surprised. “Sierra Leone has put a great deal of effort into accounting for what happened and trying to heal, so they’re more reflective about what this means,” he said. “But in Libera, Taylor still has his partisans, the conflicts aren’t entirely resolved, so the government of President (Ellen) Johnson-Sirleaf wouldn’t want to be seen rejoicing over his sentence … which goes to shows how fragile the country still is.”
The broader question for Africa is, have the conditions that permitted and even encouraged the rise of Charles Taylor abated since he was forced out in 2003 and taken into custody three years later? “It’s difficult to prove a negative, that budding Charles Taylors haven’t acted in the same way because of this,” Fortunyoh conceded. “But it must have a deterrent effect.”
What clearly has improved, said Reed Kramer, CEO of Allafrica.com, is the willingness of African neighbors to push back against naked power grabs in their region. He pointed to recent counter-moves against coup leaders in Mali and Guinea Bissau from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS, which has employed sanctions and the threat of sanctions to pressure coup leaders to stand down. “Coup makers now face tremendous backlash from their neighbors,” Kramer said. “It’s not like the old days, when the power-hungry could act the way they wanted and not have neighbors react.”
But there are still regimes that use intimidation and brutality against their political opponents — as does Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe — or against restive regions, in the case of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. “I don’t think the Charles Taylor trial has really done much in terms of lessons learned,” said Veronica Bichetero of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “Other leaders continue doing their thing, and claiming the right to sovereignty and non-interference when they’re criticized.”
Good governance is the key, Africans say, and that’s hard to build against the toxic mix that besets parts of resource-rich Africa. “States are still very fragile, borders are still very porous, weapons pour in and are easily smuggled,” NDI’s Fomunyoh noted. “Strong institutions don’t get built overnight. It’s takes decades, as we see from our own history,” said allAfrica’s Kramer.
In the meantime, there’s satisfaction in seeing one of the continent’s most high-handed, brutal figures brought to justice. And for some Africans, the punishment seems not harsh enough.
Gaetano Kagwa, host of a morning radio show in Kenya, tweeted:
— gaetano kagwa (@gaetanokagwa) May 30, 2012
What’s galling to many Africans, USIP’s Bichetero believes, is that Taylor will serve his sentence in Britain. “British prisons have one of the highest standards in the world. He’ll be watching TV, reading what he wants, eating and sleeping well,” she said. “Africans would love to have him spend the next 50 years in an African prison, without warm blankets or quality food, in dilapidated buildings, suffering mistreatment from prison guards. Let him experience the conditions he helped create, let him feel what it’s like.”
That would be rough justice indeed.
In April, Jeffrey Brown spoke to Eric Stover of the University of California, Berkeley about Taylor’s guilty verdict and the potential legal implications for other cases: