Nigeria prepares home in exile for Taylor

While Nigeria readies a jungle home in exile for warlord-president Charles Taylor, many inside and outside Taylor’s war-battered nation worry he will keep up trouble-making from abroad—and return to fight another day.

Taylor’s parting words in his farewell address on the eve of his promised resignation—“God willing, I’ll be back”—stood to bring little reassurance to people here.

“As long as he is still alive, I will fear him,” said Andrew Tulay, a 46-year-old nurse in a rebel-held neighbourhood of Monrovia, Taylor’s war-divided capital, gripped by two months of mortar and rocket battles by Taylor’s forces and rebels.

Nigeria, the leading power of West Africa, has offered asylum to Taylor—and Taylor, wanted by a UN-backed war-crimes court in neighbouring Sierra Leone, says he’ll take it.

Nigerian officials privately insist Nigerian security forces would closely monitor Taylor to prevent him from meddling in Liberian politics.

Three houses have been set aside for Taylor and his entourage in the sleepy southeastern jungle city of Calabar—far from two other former Liberian warlords already living in other Nigerian cities.

Taylor himself has said he would be any easy target if he stayed in Liberia, bloodied by 14 years of conflict that Taylor, then a rebel, launched at the head of a small insurgency in 1989.

A UN travel ban on Taylor, and an international arrest warrant, also stand likely to limit his travel if and when he settles in Nigeria. Nigeria reportedly flew one of Taylor’s cousins, a resident there, to Nigeria to reassure him about life there.

Other African despots have been removed from the scene in the past—most notably Idi Amin, now apparently dying in Saudi Arabia.

Taylor, however, has made clear he doesn’t intend to relinquish power forever. He designated Vice President Moses Blah as his successor, and left open the possibility he will return to contest elections expected to be held under international auspices,

following a transition government.

Some rebels dismiss Blah as a Taylor proxy.
“Remote control,” one said this week, making the gesture of punching buttons.

Nigerians worry that if Taylor ends up in Nigeria, he could try to use Africa’s economic and military superpower as a base to foment regional conflicts.

In the past decade he is accused of being a weapons and diamond broker for Sierra Leone’s brutal former rebel movement and also allegedly supporting renegade factions in Ivory Coast and Guinea.

The indictment raises the prospect of a legal fight over whether he can be granted refuge under international law.

Nigeria’s main journalists union has already filed a lawsuit in the capital, Abuja, challenging the asylum offer and accusing Taylor of complicity in the 1990 killing of two Nigerian journalists by Taylor’s then-rebel followers.

“If he is coming here, he should be handed over to the international court as soon as he arrives,” says Ike Abugu, a Lagos banker. “The whole world can’t be going in one direction and Nigeria is marching in the opposite direction.”

Bola Akinterinwa, with the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, argues that giving asylum to Taylor would “stop the bloodbath in his country.”

Ultimately, Akinterinwa says, it could help calm conflict-ridden West African by cutting Taylor off from his sources of income—including Liberian and Sierra Leone diamonds and timber—and isolating him from traffickers and fighters in his brutal support network, who depend on his cash outlays.

“The argument can be made that ... he should be surrendered for trial. But the question remains: Will his trial bring peace in this region?” Akinterinwa asked.

Nigeria has no extradition laws. And it has offered refuge to controversial figures before. Two Liberians ex-warlords—Prince Johnson and Roosevelt Johnson—already live in the cities of Lagos and Jos, respectively.

Nigeria hosted Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre for several years after he was ousted by warlords in 1991.

President Olusegun Obasanjo said last month that Nigeria should “not be harassed by anyone for inviting Taylor ... not by any organisation or country for showing this humanitarian gesture.”

Nigeria has bigger reasons than most to ensure a peaceful transition in Liberia. Obasanjo’s government has expressed fears the wars plaguing other West African nations could infect his own—already struggling with rising ethnic, political and religious violence that has killed more than 10 000 Nigerians since 1999.

Nigeria has supplied the first peacekeepers for a West African intervention here. About 700 Nigerian forces have arrived, with roughly another 700 on the way.

That’s even though previous Nigerian-led peacekeeping efforts in the 1990s became widely unpopular—and cost the government billions of dollars and the lives of more than 1 000 Nigerian troops.

“The warlord can only distract us. I implore the authorities to show mercy and kindness on suffering Nigerian people rather than on Charles Taylor,” said Lagos musician Julie Pip. - Sapa-AP

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