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Liberia: 15 years later, we remember the long hunt for Charles Taylor

By Christophe Boisbouvier
Posted on Monday, 29 March 2021 11:23

Liberia's President Charles Taylor in Monrovia, Tuesday May 6, 2003. (AP Photo/Pewee Flomoku)

15 years ago today on 29 March 2006, the former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor was arrested in Nigeria and sent to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. To mark this anniversary, we retrace this hunt and arrest of the first African head of state to be arrested by international justice.

This article first published in April 2006.

Charles Taylor’s career is ending as it began. In 1985, he escaped (with the help of a sheet, according to legend, with the complicity of the CIA, say other sources) from a prison in Massachusetts in the United States, where he had been imprisoned for embezzlement. On 29 March 2006, he tried to escape from Nigeria via the Cameroonian border. This time he was caught.

The former Liberian warlord almost succeeded. On 25 March 2006, when he learned that Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was ready to hand him over to the new Liberian authorities, he devised a plan to escape by road. In theory, it was simple. For the past few weeks, no policemen have been visible around his comfortable villa in Calabar, in south-eastern Nigeria. He can drive around freely in his 4×4 vehicle with tinted windows.

On the evening of 27 March, he disappeared. He headed for Borno State, in the north-east. The region is mountainous and unstable. Since the attack on two police stations near Maiduguri in September 2004, Nigerian “Taliban” inspired by the Afghan Islamists of Mullah Omar have been playing cat-and-mouse with the police. When necessary, they take refuge in Cameroon or Niger.

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On the morning of 29 March, Taylor was at the Gamboringala border post. Opposite, Cameroon. He was driving under a false identity in a 4×4 with diplomatic licence plates. Dressed in a large white boubou, he was accompanied by a woman and a small boy. According to the testimony of a local shopkeeper gathered by AFP, the police let him pass.

But a little further on, the customs officers stopped him and insisted on searching the vehicle. They quickly discovered a trunk full of dollars. Then they realised who they were dealing with. For Taylor, it was the end of the run.

Key dates:

  • July 1997 Presidential election. Charles Taylor is elected with 75.3% of the vote.
  • September 2000 Heavy fighting in the North between the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and government forces.
  • March 2001 UN Security Council sanctions against Taylor and his entourage.
  • May 2001 Embargo on arms sales to Liberia.
  • February 2002 LURD advances towards the capital. Taylor declares a state of emergency.
  • March 2003 Taylor is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).
  • June 2003 ECOWAS requests UN intervention.
  • August 2003 A peace agreement is reached with the rebels. Taylor leaves power for exile in Calabar, Nigeria. A transitional government is appointed in Monrovia.
  • February 2004 An international arrest warrant is issued for Taylor.
  • July 2004 An executive order signed by President George W. Bush declares the freezing of all assets of Taylor and his entourage in the United States.
  • February 2005 The European Parliament calls on Nigeria to surrender Taylor to the SCSL.
  • June 2005 A petition signed by 300 NGOs reaches the African Union. It calls for an end to impunity and exile for Taylor.
  • November 2005 UN peacekeepers in Liberia are mandated to seize Taylor, if he enters the country, in order to hand him over to the SCSL.
  • January 2006 Jewell Howard-Taylor, Senator for Bong County and wife of Charles Taylor, is granted a divorce.
  • Early March 2006 Liberia’s newly elected President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf asks her counterpart Olusegun Obasanjo to settle Taylor’s case as soon as possible.
  • The end of March 2006 Obasanjo, after consulting his peers in the sub-region and the AU, agrees to hand Taylor over to the SCSL via Liberia.

Escorted by car to Maiduguri, then flown to Abuja, President Obasanjo ordered his immediate expulsion. In the early afternoon, he took off from Abuja under guard on a Nigerian presidential aircraft.

At 4.30 pm local time, he landed at Roberts Airport in Monrovia. He was immediately met by United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) peacekeepers and a bailiff from the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). He boarded a UN helicopter in the direction of Freetown.

At 7.05 pm local time, the former warlord descended from the helicopter looking lost, looking like a criminal. At the bottom of the steps, a hundred Mongolian peacekeepers kept watch. Taylor was taken directly to the TSSL prison, an imposing complex surrounded by a high wall topped with barbed wire and watchtowers.

President George Bush probably had other reasons to have Taylor arrested. He was suspected by American intelligence services of having traded diamonds with members of al-Qaeda.

He was placed in one of the Tribunal’s eighteen individual cells. There, a Sierra Leonean police officer read out the indictment against him. This time he could not escape as easily as in Massachusetts. His luck had changed.

The reason for this fast-track transfer was the United States. Since the Accra agreement of August 2003 — Taylor’s departure from power in exchange for a golden exile in Nigeria — the US administration had been calling for the former dictator to be brought before the SCSL, which has charged him with war crimes and crimes against humanity since March 2003.

During the Sierra Leonean civil war, between 1991 and 2001, Taylor supported militarily and financially one of the cruelest rebellions in recent history, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Its trademark: mutilation. Trapped civilians had a choice between ‘short sleeve’ – shoulder amputation – and ‘long sleeve’ – elbow amputation. The terror. The horror.

Members of Liberia’s top amputee soccer team, composed largely of former child soldiers, compete for a ball in a practice scrimmage in Monrovia, Liberia Friday, June 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

But President George Bush probably had other reasons to have Taylor arrested. He was suspected by American intelligence services of having traded diamonds with members of Al Qaeda. Taylor was seen as the bad boy, the villain, in the eyes of the White House. His arrest under heavy pressure from Washington could only burnish the image of a US administration accused of serious human rights abuses in its prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

Moreover, the handing over of Taylor to the SCSL gives the Tribunal a new legitimacy. Who was interested in the ongoing trials in Freetown before the arrival of the infamous captive? Since the disappearance in 2003 of the two former RUF leaders, Foday Sankoh, who died in prison in Freetown, and Sam Bockarie, who was executed by Taylor’s men on the border between Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, the SCSL had no more ‘big fish’ to trap in its net.

Now, with Taylor, it proved it had a new purpose.

But in this American movie scenario, where the ‘bad guy’ is cunning but still ends up getting caught, one man stands out: Olusegun Obasanjo. At first, he did not want to hand over his former Liberian counterpart. “I don’t like to be harassed,” he once told former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. “I will only hand Mr Taylor over to a democratically elected Liberian government.”

In early March, when the new Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf officially demanded the transfer of Charles Taylor, the Nigerian head of state resigned himself to handing him over. But he was not in any hurry.

Relations between Abuja and Monrovia were no longer as good as they were at the beginning of the year. Obasanjo took umbrage with Johnson-Sirleaf’s decision to have his security provided by American, not Nigerian, soldiers. As a result, he recalled a number of military personnel he had placed at the disposal of the Liberian president.

Above all, the Nigerian leader did not like to back down. In 2003, he had promised asylum to Taylor. Now, in the eyes of his African peers, he feared being seen as a man who does not keep his word.

But as a good manipulator, Obasanjo was able to turn a bad into a good. On the evening of 27 March, when Taylor vanished into thin air, his image was at its worst in Washington. The White House said it was his ‘responsibility’ to see that Taylor was handed over. On the morning of 29 March, when Taylor was captured, the Nigerian’s stock rose sharply. George Bush personally called to congratulate him.

And then it got even better. Bush congratulated him face-to-face as he received him at the White House – something that had not been a foregone conclusion a few hours earlier, far from it. What a godsend!

Can we deduce then that Obasanjo made a calculated move? Is it possible that he waited until the eve of his official visit to Washington to announce Taylor’s transfer? “It is a plausible hypothesis,” says a West African politician who knows him well.

When I heard the news of Taylor’s transfer on the radio, I cried with joy. – A 35-year-old woman with a mutilated left breast

“When I ask Obasanjo why he is letting his supporters propose a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for a third term next year, he tells me he just wants to avoid being a lame duck like all American presidents in their last year in office. He swears to me that he won’t touch the Basic Law. But I only half believe him, because the appetite comes with eating.” The Americans were hostile to this third mandate, they had said as much publicly. Perhaps they would now be more understanding after Taylor’s very timely capture by vigilant Nigerian customs officers…

In fact, the only political figure who did not benefit from Taylor’s capture was then new president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. It is common knowledge that she only requested the transfer of her compatriot under pressure from the Americans. In fact, in November 2005, when she was elected, she said that this issue was not a “priority”.

She knew that Taylor still had supporters in Monrovia and in his stronghold, Nimba County, in the north-east of the country, near Côte d’Ivoire. Could Taylor reignite the conflict? That was still to be demonstrated. “Liberians are tired of the war, and French forces control the Ivorian border quite well,” said an insider in Monrovia. “But the new president’s state of grace will not last forever. During the election campaign, she promised the people of the capital electricity within six months. The US must help her now. Otherwise, she risks the ethical dilemma: justice or civil peace. ”

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor waits for the start of his appeal judgement at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in Leidschendam, near The Hague, Netherland on 26 September 2012 (AP Photo/Koen van Weel, File)

Should Taylor be allowed to live out his days in Calabar to preserve peace in Liberia? In Freetown, the Association of Amputees and War Wounded did not ask this question. A 35-year-old woman with a mutilated left breast testifies: “When I heard the news of Taylor’s transfer on the radio, I cried with joy.” Tears of condemnation that are already worth a court decision.

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