Global Policy Forum

A Free Charles Taylor Threatens West Africa


By Pamela Adegbesan

August 17, 2005

When they escorted fugitive former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, into exile in Nigeria in August 2003, Africa's leaders hoped that his removal from power would ease the path to restoring stability to Liberia and its West African neighbours. Two years later, the spectre of Mr. Taylor's transnational networks of violence hangs over West Africa's fragile transition from a prolonged period of war, and instability. He continues to avoid prose-cution on an indictment before the United Nations-supported Special Court for Sierra Leone on wide-ranging allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. However recent turn of events shows that Mr Taylor's presence in Nigeria now threatens basic constitutional rights and civil liberties in his country of asylum.

On August 1, 2005, operatives of Nigeria's State Security Service (SSS) arrested and detained two printers, Steve Omali and Michael Damisa, for being in possession of advocacy campaign materials which they printed for the Coalition against Impunity. The Coalition is an alliance of over 345 non-governmental organizations in 17 African and non-African countries campaig-ning to ensure that Mr. Taylor is held to account for international crimes for which he stands indicted.

At the request of the Coalition, Omali and Damisa had printed a set of posters on the "Charles Taylor: Wanted" campaign, which reproduced Interpol's "Red Notice", an international arrest warrant for Mr. Taylor issued to all Interpol member countries in August 2005. Nigeria is a member of Interpol. In addition to arresting the printers, the SSS confiscated 1000 copies of the posters. The SSS detained the printers for three days during which it denied them access to visitors or lawyers. Michael Damisa's brother, Matthew, who went to the SSS to visit and verify the location in which his brother was held was similarly detained.

These detainees were not accused of any crime. Nigeria's Constitu-tion prohibits administrative or any other form of detention for a period of more than 48 hours without judicial supervision. Since these arrests, Nigeria's security services have launched an operation against the leadership of the Coalition against Impunity in the country. They have declared wanted staff of the Open Society Justice Initiative in Nigeria, a leading organi-zation in the Coalition and shut down the printers' workshop. Nigeria's SSS has similarly moved to prevent an inter-faith initiative to hold inter-denominational vigils and prayers commemorating the death of Nigerian and other West Africans killed and violated in Mr. Taylor's many West African wars.

Since he fled into exile in Nigeria, Mr. Taylor has consistently failed to observe his own part of the implicit asylum bargain that prohibits him from inter-fering in Liberia's domestic politics. Rather, he is active in supporting and sponsor-ing candidates in Liberia's forthcoming transitional elections. Nigeria's Presi-dent Obasanjo has consis-tently argued that he offered asylum to Mr.Taylor with the full consent and at the request of the African Union and the international community and is now, therefore, precluded in honour from turning him over for trial.

Even when it is conceded that the international community persuaded Nigeria to host Mr. Taylor, according to him refugee status was evidently the wrong instrument to achieve this goal. As a national of a member country of the regional organisation, ECOWAS, Mr. Taylor could easily have entered and stayed in Nigeria under the regional regime of visa-free movement in West Africa without the cover of refugee status.

Mr. Taylor is the latest in a long line of former African rulers to receive and enjoy asylum for killing their own people and egregiously violating the sanctity of human life. Other recent examples include Uganda's Idi Amin who died in exile in Saudi Arabia; Idi Amin's predecessor, Milton Obote who remains exiled in Zambia; Somalia's Siad Barré who died in exile in Nigeria, Chad's Hissene Habre currently exiled in Senegal, and Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam currently also exiled in Zimbabwe. Extending the facility of asylum to such persons threatens a hallowed huma-nitarian institution with irreparable disrepute and encourages impunity.

The campaign by Nigeria's security services to suppress lawful demands for Mr. Taylor to be brought to justice for his crimes is further proof of the many ways in which a free Charles Taylor threatens the stability of West Africa and the future of constitu-tional governance in the region. Mr. Taylor's continued stay in Nigeria similarly threatens President Obasanjo's desire to secure for Nigeria a permanent seat on the United Nation's Security Council. The only way to address these threats is for Nigeria to transfer Charles Taylor to stand trial. After Liberia's transitional election on 11 October 2005. President Obasanjo's government will run out of excuses for avoiding or postponing this sensible and necessary course of action.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Charles Taylor
More Information on the Rogues Gallery
More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone


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