Johnson-Sirleaf's standing boosted by Taylor's arrest

Just months after winning Liberia’s presidential election, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has scored a masterstroke at the start of her mandate by ably negotiating the transfer of Charles Taylor to Freetown to stand trial, observers in the region said.

After taking office in January, Johnson-Sirleaf initially decided not to involve herself in the problem posed by the former Liberian president, saying she believed it to be secondary to the challenges of rebuilding a country ravaged by 14 years of civil war (1989-2003).

But under pressure from the international community, she agreed to ask the Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to extradite Taylor, and he agreed.

After a failed attempt to escape Nigeria, Taylor was extradited to his home country before being transferred to Freetown—a move that allayed the threat his presence could have posed to Liberia’s still-fragile peace.

The chain of events started by the woman some call the “Iron Lady” brought to an end two-and-a-half years of exile for the former warlord, charged by the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone with crimes against humanity.

Taylor is considered the single most powerful figure behind a series of civil wars in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone between 1989 and 2003, which between them left about 400 000 people dead.

Many consider Johnson-Sirleaf move highly courageous as Taylor still has many supporters in Liberia.

“It took a lot of courage to secure the extradition of Charles Taylor at a time when Liberia’s former fighters are still wondering whether they were right to lay down their arms,” said Noumou Diakite, the African Union’s representative in Liberia.

Special Court prosecutor Desmond da Silva added his voice to the many expressions of international support for Johnson-Sirleaf when he paid homage to the Liberian president on Saturday.

“She asked President Obasanjo to extradite Taylor in order to deliver him to the court. Without her intervention, Taylor would not be here” he said, adding that it must have been “a politically difficult decision to take”.

Diakite predicted that Taylor’s transfer would give Johnson-Sirleaf “the certain support of the international community, which is important for a country emerging from a long armed struggle”.

One west African diplomat working in Monrovia described the move as “a stimulating factor that will increase support for Liberia among its partners”.

Taylor’s transfer to Freetown was relatively well received in Liberia, with no uprisings or unusual disturbances reported in recent days.

Despite the recent protest against the arrests of some Taylor supporters, Ezekial Pajibo of the Liberian non-governmental Centre for Democratic Empowerment believes that Taylor’s arrest and transfer “reinforces the sense of healing” in Liberia.

But the game is far from over for Johnson-Sirleaf, who faces far-reaching challenges in a country with virtually no infrastructure and frightening levels of unemployment and illiteracy.

Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, UN Secretary General Koffi Annan’s Africa representative, said his priority was to “help Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf avoid falling victim to the reactions of Taylor supporters and those who have no hope other than war, which has in recent years been Liberia’s biggest employer”.

Ould Abdallah said that “swift bilateral aid will be necessary to create jobs and help Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf fulfil her promises, in particular to restore Monrovia’s electricity supply”.

“We must now create a balance between the end of impunity and stability created by an injection of funds,” Ould Abdallah continued.—Sapa-AFP

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