Justice in Africa: Charles Taylor was just the beginning

Former Liberia president Charles Taylor has been handed a 50-year jail term for his role in Sierra Leone’s civil war. The sentencing is seen as a major victory for human rights campaigners across Africa.

With internet campaigns focusing unprecedented spotlight on African warlords such as Uganda’s Joseph Kony, the trial has exposed divisions in a continent navigating between how it is perceived by outsiders and its dismal human rights record.

In exchange for lucrative diamonds, Taylor backed rebels who used children as sex slaves and amputated limbs in grisly-named raids such as “Operation No Living Thing” and “Operation Pay Yourself” during the decade-long war that left 50 000 dead, the court said.

The governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia welcomed the news. Taylor’s precedent-setting sentence underscored the gravity attached to the “betrayal of public trust”, Judge Richard Lussick said at the Special Court for Sierra Leone at The Hague on Wednesday.

Prosecutors had pushed for an 80-year jail term for the first head of state to be convicted by an international court since World War II, which is expected to be served in a British prison.

Often sporting a diamond wedding ring that glittered under the court’s lights, Taylor repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying he “condemned all atrocities across the world”.

In mineral-rich Sierra Leone, most have long since buried their war memories in a bid to piece their lives together but among several hundred who watched the judgement in Freetown was Jarka Alhaji (48) who was given “short sleeves” by a teenager 12 years ago. “Today is a cause for celebration,” said the former bank official, whose two hands have been replaced by prosthetic metal handles.

Relief and frustration
“An 18-year-old boy who was amputating a queue of people laughed at me. So today it is like the father of these boys has fallen,” he said.

Outside the court building, relief mingled with frustration for some victims. “There are people who will die in prison in Sierra Leone just for stealing a loaf of bread,” said James Collins, another amputee hobbling on crutches. “But obviously we feel some sense of bitterness that foot soldiers who held the machete … these people are walking free,” he added.

Prosecutors hope the case will boost efforts to bring rogue leaders to justice. There is some glimmer of hope.

“Having a former powerful head of state in the dock is incredibly important in puncturing an immense sense of impunity African leaders feel. But in many ways, [ex-Côte d’Ivoire president Laurent] Gbagbo’s trial – when combined with the Taylor trial – will be the real turning point,” said Lansana Gberie, a senior researcher at Institute for Security Studies.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the Taylor trial struck a chord with citizens recovering from last year’s post-electoral conflict, triggered after outgoing president Gbagbo refused to step down despite losing polls.

“Today I am so proud we Africans are leading the way, because this is a human condition, not just African. If Taylor got 50 years, frankly Gbagbo ought to get even longer. At least in Taylor’s case it was a war. In Côte d’Ivoire, it was so much simpler: Gabgbo lost elections and then decided to kill everyone who didn’t agree with him,” said market hawker Seydou Dem, whose brother was burnt alive by a lynch mob during last year’s conflict.

At the time, UN country director Young-jin Choi said he had privately pressed Gbagbo to step down using the prospect of facing trial at The Hague. Back then, it had no effect. “[Gbagbo] said, ‘I’ll see you there’, and I said, ‘yes, but you will be in the dock and I will be a witness’,” Choi later said.

Belligerent movement
With Gbagbo now sharing jail space with Taylor, there are already signs the conviction has muted a once belligerent movement. “I have no particular reaction to give on this or its impact on Gabgbo’s trial,” Laurent Akoun, a senior official for Gbagbo’s former party said.

But in a region where he cast wide influence, Taylor’s case has exposed entrenched divisions. In the Nigerian seaside town of Calabar, where he resided in a mansion during several years of exile, support is still forthcoming.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is just another case of case of targeting Africans. I have never heard of British or American leaders being hounded by serious internet campaigns or by judges. And why not? It is not as if they don’t commit crimes too,” businessperson Anna Akpban said from Calabar, where news of Taylor’s conviction was met with shock.

Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir has for years evaded an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court while visiting countries that are signatories to the ICC. Amid an increasingly aggressive attitude towards neighbouring South Sudan, his spokesperson Rabie Abdelaty called the Taylor trial “inconsequential” and “politically-motivated”.

“We have no respect the ICC and we are not bothered by the whole thing,” he added.

Hissene Habre, Chad’s former president, lives in a gilded mansion in Senegal, despite efforts to extradite him for masterminding the murder of more than 40 000 political dissidents. And in Congo, renegade general Bosco Ntaganda has been wanted since 2006 for recruiting child soldiers.

There are global ramifications. Diplomats said the Assad regime in Syria has followed the case closely. A crackdown against opponents has claimed some 15 000 lives over 15 months.

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