Sympathy for the Devil: Charles Taylor and his Apologists in the West

by | Jun 5, 2012

Photo: BBC

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was last week sentenced to fifty years imprisonment for crimes committed in Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a man with many enemies. As a warlord, he would have expected nothing less – only the most insane of his ilk expect to be universally popular, and whatever else he may be accused of, Taylor’s sanity has never been called into question.

He dispatched his first important foe, his predecessor as Liberian leader Samuel Doe, within a year of beginning the rebellion that would lead him to the presidency. As his army rampaged towards the capital, they gained notoriety for the brutality of their methods – cutting off limbs, enslaving women and boys, torturing children and eating the flesh of their enemies were all on the menu, all endorsed by Taylor. With Doe out of the way, his swansong a home-video recording featuring Taylor’s men slicing off his ears as he begged for mercy, the young warlord then turned on enemies within his own group, precipitating a further six years of civil war. His efforts led to the deaths of over 200,000 people and the physical and psychological maiming of many more, but he has been tried for none of his actions in his homeland.

Taylor did not delay long in internationalising his list of enemies. Sierra Leone’s government had played host to a West African intervention force that was set up to end the bloodshed in next door Liberia. Taylor retaliated, pledging that the people of Sierra Leone would “taste the bitterness of war”. As his trial found, he lived up to his promise by providing financial and operational support to Sierra Leone’s rebel army as it murdered, raped and pillaged its way around the country, as well as planning the horrific 1999 assault on Freetown that was the war’s nadir. Among the atrocities committed in the latter attack were the mass rape of students at the college of nursing, the torture of patients in their hospital beds, the use as human shields of those the rebels had enslaved in the hinterland, and the throwing of live children into burning houses. Taylor’s conviction was celebrated on the streets of Freetown – the words of Musa, an informal medicine seller, who told me in 2010 that ‘Charles Taylor was a wicked man,’ encapsulating the views of many of his compatriots.

But it has not all been isolation and ostracism for Taylor. Throughout his life, he has been able to count on a significant network of friends. Not all of these are the type of friends you would expect to find in the circles of a warlord.In the early part of his career, for example, he fled to the United States having been fired from the Liberian government for embezzling a million dollars. Arrested on arrival, he soon escaped from prison, and he has alleged that the US government assisted his getaway (the CIA’s recent admission that it used Taylor as an informant lends weight to this claim). Back in Africa, his early supporters included Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso who is these days better known as a regional peacemaker than as a supplier of arms to murderous thugs; Nelson Mandela, who invited Taylor to a charity ball at the height of Sierra Leone’s war; the supermodel Naomi Campbell, who after the same ball accepted the gift of a blood diamond from Taylor; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current Liberian president and recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, who although Taylor’s theft of so much public money might have been a clue that he was not entirely straight, believed nevertheless that he was the best hope for her country.

Many of these friends have now dropped him, of course. The embarrassed Sirleaf has distanced herself, suppressing the recommendation of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she be banned from politics for funding his campaign. Naomi Campbell has ungratefully accused Taylor of doing ‘some terrible things’ – subpoenaed to testify at his war crimes trial, she described him as ‘someone I read on the internet that killed several hundreds of people, supposedly.’ The CIA, too, has turned its back – Taylor has argued that he never stood a chance at his trial because the Americans were intent on seeing him locked up.

But not everybody has deserted the Liberian in his hour of need. Many of his countrymen were outraged by the trial verdict (although contrary to some analyses this is no stronger an argument for his innocence than were the support of Serbians for Milosevic, Bosnian Serbs for Karadzic or, going back further, Germans for Hitler). And despite the mountain of evidence against him, some Western commentators remain loyal, too. Take Edinburgh University’s Centre for African Studies, reading whose blog you are likely to come away with the impression that Taylor, far from being a brutal dictator responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings, is in fact a tragically wronged hero.

Now you would expect the Centre for African Studies (CAS) to be sympathetic to Africans; it would be a strange individual who joined such an establishment without having some understanding of the historical currents which made the emergence of a Charles Taylor possible. Indeed, just as history contributed to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Serbian nationalists in Bosnia, so did it create the conditions in which civil wars in both Sierra Leone and Liberia became more likely.

But there is a difference between an empathiser and an apologist. The history of other West African countries bears similarities to that of Liberia, but not all have imploded into brutal conflict. For the latter to happen, it needs someone to light the touchpaper, and Taylor, fully aware both of the carnage he would cause and of the potential risks and rewards of his actions, enthusiastically adopted this role. As he planned his campaign of terror, fifty years in a British jail is probably at the lower end of the discomfort he might have budgeted for in the event of failure.

The Centre for African Studies, however, is unhappy with the way Taylor has been treated. Describing the court as ‘fundamentally flawed,’ the article on its blog claims that, ‘from the very beginning, it was clear that Taylor could not expect any leniency.’ The author cites ‘Taylor himself’ in support of this contention, the Liberian having stated that ‘he never stood a chance.’

The article’s second quibble is with the defence, which apparently did ‘such a good job’ in defending Taylor that it ‘could be seen to legitimize’ the trial. The defence counsel Courtenay Griffiths, of course, is on a hiding to nothing here, since if he had performed badly he would doubtless have been criticized for letting his client down. But never mind.

The CAS’s third gripe is with the judge. The article berates Justice Lussick’s recourse to witness statements in reaching his verdict – it is not clear on what alternative source of evidence a judge in a less ‘fundamentally flawed’ court would be expected to rely:

The presiding judge, Justice Lussick from Samoa, drew heavily on the lore of horror stories from the civil war in Sierra Leone. By way of introduction he told the story of a witness who had carried a bag with chopped off heads from which the blood was dripping only to realize that she had carried the heads of her children. He did not omit to invoke amputees, raped girls, ‘children raped of childhood’ and a traumatized society in order to justify the lengthy prison sentence.

Next, the CAS article turns its sceptical eye on Taylor’s upcoming appeal. The Liberian’s new defence counsel has predicted that the judgement will be overturned. The CAS is less sanguine. ‘Looking at the record of the Special Court’s Appeals Chamber,’ it grumbles, ‘it is difficult to share his optimism.’ Having studied the record of that chamber myself, I am not sure why the writer is so pessimistic. The chamber has in the past rejected appeals by both prosecution and defence lawyers, as well as overturning on appeal a number of guilty verdicts against former militia leaders Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana, for crimes including murder and the enlistment of children into an armed force. The CAS, in other words, need not worry – there is little in the chamber’s past record to suspect that Taylor’s appeal will not be dealt with fairly.

Towards the end of its lament, the CAS predicts glibly that most of those who face trial before international criminal tribunals will be African. Leaving aside the fact that the Special Court for Sierra Leone, by which Taylor was tried, was due to the location of the war that was its raison d’être unlikely to have had to deal with many non-Africans, this prediction does not withstand much scrutiny. Slobodan Milosevic was not African, and nor are Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. And while it is true that all fifteen of the International Criminal Court’s current cases deal with defendants from African countries, it is also true that it is statistically likely that more cases will involve Africans – not only because there are more countries, and therefore more leaders, in Africa than in any other world region, but because more of those countries suffer from bad governance, rebellions and war (fourteen of the bottom twenty countries on Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index, for example, are African, while the continent is by far the worst performer on the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators for rule of law, control of corruption, and political instability and violence). Of the seven preliminary investigations currently being conducted by the International Criminal Court prosecutor, moreover, five are in non-African countries.

At times, the CAS article descends into the ridiculous. It describes Taylor’s fifty-year sentence for planning and assisting tens of thousands of murders as “draconian,” and is breathless in its admiration for the Liberian’s response to the decision: ‘When the length of the sentence was announced, Taylor did not show any emotion, playing the role of the statesman until the end.’ If Taylor is a statesman, one wonders what it would take for the CAS to criticize an African leader, but this apology for his horrific crimes raises wider issues. Africa is in some ways doing well – there are signs of economic advance in parts of the continent, while worse leaders than Taylor have until recently got away with their crimes. But although the effort to paint a more positive picture of Africa is a welcome corrective to the predominantly negative image traditionally portrayed by the media, this effort becomes vapid if it airbrushes individuals and events that threaten to undermine it.

There is a parallel between the CAS’s extolling of Charles Taylor and the hysterical reaction of many academics, aid workers and self-styled “old Africa hands” to the recent Kony 2012 campaign. Many commentators seemed outraged that Joseph Kony, mass-murderer and abducter of thousands of Ugandan children, had once again been given airtime. His continuing campaign of terror is an embarrassment to the image of the New Africa, and the latter’s proponents are therefore uncomfortable that it should receive attention.

But overlooking Africa’s problems helps nobody. First of all, it is patronising to Africans, most of whom are fully aware of the venality of their leaders and would treat the description of Taylor as a statesman with the derision it deserves. And second, allowing leaders like Taylor to get away with their crimes (‘What is the point of punishing Taylor?’ the CAS articles asks) both makes them more likely to recur and insults their victims. Courts by themselves will not rid the continent of bad leadership, of course, but as part of a package they may act as a deterrent, and their provision of justice to victims should not be overlooked. It is all very well attempting to portray a positive picture of Africa (and however well Africa is doing, there is no sign yet of aid workers deserting en masse), but an honest picture, praising the good without ignoring the bad, is far more likely to take hold among its intended audiences than one which paints even the worst of its people as saints.


  • Mark Weston

    Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and consultant working on public health, justice, youth employability and other global issues. He lives in Sudan, and is the author of two books on Africa – The Ringtone and the Drum and African Beauty.

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