Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Charles Taylor’s days as president of Liberia are numbered. For what his word is worth — admittedly, very little — even he has said so. Few in the region will mourn the departure of this predatory tropical gangster. His legacy is a Hobbesian nightmare of mayhem, depradation and poverty. Creating conditions for Liberians and their neighbours to chart a happier future will be hard. It may well require the deployment of a U.S.-led multinational force to create a U.N.-sustainable peace.

The active engagement of regional governments and their institutions, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU), is essential. There can be no lasting solution to this or any African crisis if it is imposed from outside, or if outsiders fail to respect the very real efforts of responsible African leaders to deal with the conflicts ravaging their continent. The Ghanaian government has come under fire for failing to arrest Mr. Taylor when his indictment for war crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone was unsealed June 4. Such criticism suggests a predisposition to doubt African motives.

Mr. Taylor was in Ghana for the launch of peace talks under the auspices of ECOWAS and the AU. The talks were hosted by Ghana’s president and ECOWAS Chairman John Kufour, with Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa at his side.

The desired outcome was clear: the voluntary departure of Mr. Taylor before the end of his term next January and the formation of a transitional government to prepare for credible elections. At the start of the talks, a seemingly chastened Mr. Taylor indicated he might be amenable.

Last March, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, created to promote peace by bringing to justice those responsible for the atrocities of that country’s horrifying civil war, decided to charge Mr. Taylor with crimes against humanity for his support and control of Foday Sankoh’s murderous Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The court’s decision was no secret. It had to be a factor in Mr. Taylor’s calculations. But, until the indictment was officially made public, no action could be taken against him.

The court’s chief prosecutor, former Defense Department attorney David Crane, has said he decided to unseal the indictment and have arrest warrants issued upon learning that Mr. Taylor was leaving his home turf for the talks in Ghana, where it would be much easier to have him served and arrested.

The Ghanaian authorities chose not to arrest Mr. Taylor, but arranged for him to return to Liberia. This was not a matter, as some have suggested, of African leaders refusing to act against their own. Whatever one may think of Mr. Taylor’s bona fides, the negotiations, since resumed, represented a good-faith effort by ECOWAS and the AU to bring a negotiated, sustainable end to the series of interconnected conflicts that have been tearing up West Africa for over a decade.

To have permitted Mr. Taylor’s arrest, however desirable on its face, would have been an act of bad faith. Heads of government do not invite other heads of government to the negotiating table and then hand them over for arrest. To have done so in this case would have compromised future efforts by African leaders to resolve conflict through mediation and moral suasion.

Mr. Taylor’s abrupt removal to a cell in Sierra Leone, however gratifying, would have created a vacuum in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, quite probably triggering bloody reprisals against the city’s Ghanaian community by Mr. Taylor’s enraged thugs.Inasmuch as it might have led to the immediate fall of the government to the rebels, that would have been undesirable as well. The military seizure of power by the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), or its splinter groups, is no recipe for ending the local or regionwide cycles of violence.

Mr. Crane, as the Special Court’s chief prosecutor, did what he felt his mandate required him to do. The government of Ghana did what it felt was in the best interests of peace and stability in its region. Perhaps closer coordination is needed.

Ghana has long supported U.N. and regional peacekeeping efforts. Ghanaian troops helped reinstate the democratically elected government of Sierra Leone after it was overthrown by groups supporting Mr. Taylor. The atrocities committed during this coup d’etat are the basis of Mr. Taylor’s indictment by the special court.To question Ghana’s commitment to peace and democracy in the region is to grossly distort the historical record and cheapen the sacrifice of Ghanaian troops active in both Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Rosa Whitaker, CEO of the Whitaker Group, was assistant trade representative for Africa during both the Clinton and the current Bush administrations.

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