by Taylor Baines
February 1, 2001
Whoever said crime doesn't pay never met Liberia's Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone's Fadoy Sankoh. These two comrades-in-arms have consorted with known terrorists, dabbled in illegal arms trading, squandered their countries fortune in diamonds, and savagely tortured their own countrymen for personal gain. But instead of facing prosecution by international courts of justice or annihilation by world leaders, the two men have instead reaped substantial financial and personal rewards.
Rebels on the Rampage
In the early 1980s Charles Taylor was the leader of a small group of dissidents known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia â€” one of many rebel gangs roaming the country. Taking advantage of the instability caused by Liberia's corrupt leader, Samuel Doe, Taylor and his ill-trained army of 10,000 men seized control over most of the nation's diamond-rich countryside. Within weeks the NPFL was battering Monrovia in an attempt to oust Doe. The West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, swiftly came to Doe's defense but found Taylor's forces difficult to resist. By 1991, Taylor's NPFL splintered into two opposing factions â€” the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) led by Taylor and United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO) led by Doe supporters. The ULIMO faction fractured once again creating a half dozen well-armed armies battling for Liberia's turf. Taylor's team flourished, however, due to his budding connections with illegal weapons dealers and diamond smugglers. Taylor also recruited Liberians as young as eight years old to serve in his military ranks, and summarily executed any citizen who refused to participate.
Meanwhile in neighboring Sierra Leone, former photographer Foday Sankoh was leading his own rag tag rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Not surprisingly Sankoh's history in Sierra Leone parallels that of Taylor's, with whom Sankoh had reportedly trained in Libya in their early years. The original mandate of the RUF was to oust corrupt officials from the Leonean government. But illegal diamond trading proved more lucrative, and the now the RUF's only true fight is for increased control of country's crown jewels. Under the charismatic leadership of Foday Sankoh, RUF gangs have become domineering overlords of much of Sierra Leone's countryside. To protect its growing empire children are abducted and forced into military service and adults are terrorized into subservience. Any opponents are killed or brutally mutilated through limb amputation as a macabre warning for future enemies. Women are used as sex slaves, and the RUF has even been bold enough to abduct (but later release) 500 UN peacekeepers.
International Failure to Find Peace
In Liberia, the civil war has cost nearly 250,000 lives and left tens of thousands injured. Sierra Leone's figures run as high as 50,000 dead and thousands more severely injured. The long-term psychological damage to the victims of these decade-long civil wars is immeasurable. The staggering numbers have not escaped the attention of the international community. Journalists worldwide have documented the brutal atrocities of both Taylor and Sankoh's gangs. Canada recently excluded Liberia from its debt-relief programs. Former US President Jimmy Carter's highly regarded Carter Institution has severed ties with Liberia due to Taylor's brutalities. The West African ECOMOG forces and British troops fought side by side to expel the RUF rebels from Freetown, and the ECOMOG troops have doubled as protection for UN observers in Sierra Leone. The International Monetary Fund has guaranteed Sierra Leone US$21 million in post-conflict assistance. Furthermore, Canada has provided UN troops while the US has provided observers in the country. The Organization of African Unity has also publicly condemned the two conflicts, although it has done little else.
The United Nations joined the effort late in 1995, but has since diligently promoted peace talks despite spotty results. In Liberia, the UN concluded peace accords in which all warring factions agreed to participate in a national unity government. Taylor broke the accords in 1991, and again in 1993, by refusing to disarm his militia. The UN secured democratic elections in Sierra Leone in 1995, but war ensued after the RUF was excluded. The Abidjan Accord, brokered in 1996, was derailed by another coup d'etat. The Security Council then imposed an oil and arms embargo to eradicate the newly installed military junta, and saw its first real success when President Kabbah was reinstated in Freetown. The official Sierra Leone UN peacekeeping mission to disarm and recoup arrived in 1998 and by July 1999 the warring parties agreed to form a national unity government under the US backed Lome Accords. But sharing power with an enemy such as RUF has not set well with Leonean civilians, who are the primary victims of RUF's brutality. The UN, in fact, anticipates more violence and has increased its military forces in Sierra Leone to 13,000 men, and the number of observers to 260.
Reaping the Rewards
As long as the militia gangs of Taylor and Sankoh have access to funds that can fuel their military machines, they are reluctant to compromise despite international pressure. Taylor has proven that power coupled with patience does have its rewards. In 1997, Charles Taylor was declared the legitimate President of Liberia in an election considered free and fair by international observers. Taylor's political party also won the majority of seats in the National Assembly. In principle, Taylor's new title imbues him with an enormous responsibility to reconstruct the country he pillaged during the civil war. In reality, though, Taylor's new post provides him the ultimate lock on power that will permit him to continue his pilfering with little to no resistance. A recent seizure by Ugandan officials of illegal arms bound for Liberia, and reports that Taylor is fomenting instability on the Guinea-Liberia border are proof that President Charles Taylor and rebel leader Charles Taylor are one in the same.
Sierra Leone's Sankoh almost shared Taylor's good fortune. In 1997 Sankoh was arrested and sentenced to death by the Sierra Leone high court for his role in the civil war. When the RUF did not disband with the absence of their leader, Sierra Leone's President Kabbah agreed to compromise with the rebels. By early 1999 Sankoh was released from jail and the RUF offered key positions in the new Sierra Leone government. Ironically, Sankoh himself was appointed to head the Ministry of Mineral Resources â€” the government office charged with managing the country's diamond wealth; wealth which, according to a May 13th Economist article, amounts to US$60 million annually. Sankoh's new appointment was short-lived, however, as he was arrested again six months later on charges of obstructing the peace. Although, Sankoh himself currently abides his time in jail, his RUF colleagues have continued to flourish. The UN reports that the current RUF leader, Issa Sesay, has shown good faith in implementing the peace accords, but it would be overly optimistic to assume that the RUF's recent accommodations spell success. RUF gangs receive support from Charles Taylor who would benefit from having his former pal Fadoy Sankoh managing Sierra Leone's diamonds. If RUF's interim leader Sesay proves too chummy with the UN, Taylor could certainly persuade the rest of the RUF to spring Sankoh, and revert to what they do best â€” creating absolute chaos.
Legitimacy: The Ultimate Prize
For the crimes that both Taylor and Sankoh have committed, neither has been severely punished. On the contrary they have been rewarded with high-ranking government positions and legitimate control over the minerals assets which financed their advancements. Although Canadian and European leaders have demanded that Taylor and Sankoh be tried for war crimes, prosecution of any war participants has been derailed by the thorny issue of prosecuting young children for crimes they were coerced to commit. In light of failed embargoes, peace accords and UN sanctions, there appears few options left to the international community to achieve a desirable peace. But the one option the world should never consider is the acceptance of Charles Taylor or Fadoy Sankoh as satisfactory leaders of their respective countries. Already African leaders such as Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore and the former leaders of Cote d'Ivoire have solidified closer ties to the new President Taylor. His position as sole leader of such a mineral-rich country as Liberia is certainly alluring to poorer African nations. But granting legitimacy to Charles Taylor or Fadoy Sankoh and his RUF only serves to encourage other would-be trouble makers lurking in the shadows of Africa's nascent democracies. For Taylor and Sankoh, legitimacy would be the ultimate prize, but neither has proven to be a responsible leader. To openly welcome them into the world of African and international politics will create an atmosphere of instability and brutality. An atmosphere in which the two men thrive, but everyone else suffers.
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