I do not know whether Mr Charles Ghankay Taylor, the latest Liberian refugee to arrive Nigeria this week, with a large entourage, still has the presence of mind to read and absorb what the international media have been saying about him. But just in case he still reads newspapers and magazines, I will recommend for him a story in the 9th August edition of the London Economist. It is an obituary done on his departed comrade-in-crime, Foday Sankoh of Sierra Leone.
Since Taylor claims to be a religious man now, maybe he would be in a position to reflect on the last two decades to see how he has helped to wreck not only his country but indeed the West African sub-region; from Guinea to Sierra Leone to Nigeria where he is now a beneficiary of our hospitality. In times like this when he is out of power, Taylor may be able to do some introspection that could help him realise what a waste his life has become for his people. He may also be able to see the opportunities he squandered.
In his last speech before leaving his country on Monday, Taylor blamed everybody else but himself for the tragedy in Liberia, promising to be back. Yet if history were to be any guide, dictators edged out of their countries never return except as dead bodies. Taylor must know by now that he has seen the last of Liberia. I am yet to see the circumstances under which he would go back to that country because the road to the bush is now permanently foreclosed and for people like him, that is the only route to power.
In a most irrational and incoherent speech ever delivered by any leader, Taylor also said on Monday that he did not want to leave Liberia yet at the same time, he claimed no one was pushing him out. “I am stepping down from this office of my own volition. No one can take credit for asking me to step down. I did not want to leave the country... I can say I have been forced by the world's super power.”
What exactly does this mean? In rationalising why he had to leave his people whom he 'loves' from the barrel of his gun, sorry, bottom of his heart, Taylor said he was fulfilling an old promise that: “If I were the problem, which I know you know I am not, I would step aside...I would become the sacrificial lamb, I would become the whipping boy that you should live”.
To prove that he must be a poor student of history, Taylor said also that history will be kind to him. But deep down even Taylor must know that there is no way history can ever be kind to him as he wished, except of course the history is to be written by his wife, Jewel. The judgement of history will be very harsh on Taylor not only for what he did to his people but rather more for what he refused to do: because he had the opportunity to offer a new lease of life for Liberians but all he offered were meaningless and self-serving wars that left hundreds of thousands dead and countless others physically and psychologically maimed.
Perhaps for the benefit of readers who might not have read the Economist story on Sankoh, which is rather instructive for a time like this, I will just quote a few salient paragraphs: “He was not Africa's most prolific murderer, but he was one of the cruelest. Between 50,000 and 200,000 people died in the ten-year civil war he started in Sierra Leone in 1991. But it was not the number that outsiders found most shocking; it was the way Mr. Sankoh's killers killed. A career as one of his foot soldiers sometimes began with the new recruit being forced to murder his own parents. Besides inuring them to barbarity, this made it hard for them ever to return home. Mr Sankoh had thousands of boys and girls abducted to join the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) as fighters or concubines. New guerrillas sometimes had the initials 'RUF' carved into their chests, as if they were Mr Sankoh's property.
“Before battle, teenage officers would cut their subordinates' young faces and rub in cocaine to make them fearless. Deprived of a childhood and raised amid horror, Mr Sankoh's soldiers tended to lose all moral inhibitions. For sport, some would place bets as to the sex of an unborn baby, and then opened the mother to find out. How did Mr Sankoh become such a monster? He went to Libya to train with other African revolutionaries, and it was there that he met Charles Taylor, now president of Liberia, who was to become his chief ally.
“Mr Taylor, who had a grudge against the Sierra Leonean government and an eye on the country's diamonds, helped Mr Sankoh to set up the RUF...Mr Sankoh took many secrets to his modest grave. The details of his dealings with Liberia may never be known, though the outline is clear enough for Sierra Leone's international court to have indicted Mr Taylor, who is currently besieged and likely to lose power soon”.
More than any other person, Taylor is the author of the destruction of a once tranquil country called Sierra Leone and he also takes the blame for the bestiality that was witnessed in that country where children, including six-month old babies, were amputated by his soldiers of fortune in a war that exposed us (Africans) as no more than barbarians. It was on the strength of evidence gathered from the war that the International Criminal Court indicted Taylor who is now technically on the run in Nigeria but then he cannot run forever because he will one day account for his sins. Even if we choose to forget his perfidy and reign of terror in Sierra Leone, what did Taylor do to help Liberia beyond his wars?
Back home, it is indeed tragic that Nigeria had to offer asylum to Taylor and many commentators and politicians have spoken on this though I see the issue in a different light. While I agree that nothing perhaps exemplifies the tragedy of our foreign policy today than the fact that Taylor, who murdered thousands of Nigerians, (not combatants but innocent bystanders) should be in our country at our collective expense, I think the matter offers us opportunity to overhaul our military institutions.
If such organs like Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) or National Intelligence Agency (NIA) were alive to their responsibilities in the nineties rather than get preoccupied with detaining journalists and protecting girlfriends and concubines of people in power, they ought to have helped Liberia get rid of the nuisance called Taylor and saved us this embarrassment a long time ago. Afterall, ECOMOG somehow helped in handing Samuel Doe to another Liberian terminator (Prince Yommie Johnson) now also in Nigeria as our guest.
However, even while he is here Taylor must know that he cannot afford to sleep with his two eyes closed because here in our country we also have mercenaries like him who, given the right fees, can abduct and help get him to Sierra Leone to get justice. Our judiciary is also such that a resourceful Sierra Leonean can get a Motion Exparte to extradite Taylor out of Nigeria to go and face justice and if international opinion backs such exercise, our government can look the other way, claiming deference to court order.
Notwithstanding, I think it is appropriate to commend the African leaders who helped Taylor out of Liberia, perhaps telling him that the alternative to bailing out in a golden parachute is to risk losing everything. I have heard the argument that the man had no choice but it is really not that simple. Yes, men like Taylor are cowards who when they see death chicken out, and Taylor knew the game was up once President George Bush said he had to leave Liberia. But it was comforting that he was also offered what he called 'soft landing' otherwise; men like him are also capable of taking everyone down with them.
The first person who deserves commendation is the Ghanaian president, John Kuffour, who as ECOWAS Chairman brokered the deal that ensured African countries, and not external forces, helped resolve what has become an open sore not only for our continent but for every black man anywhere in the world. The next person who should be praised is our own President Obasanjo, the new godfather of Sao Tome and Liberia. Incidentally, many commentators (including my friend, Rotimi Sankore on CNN yesterday) have in recent days condemned Obasanjo's offer of asylum to Taylor.
However, I don't think it was an easy decision for the president so he deserves our sympathy. He must have been aware it would be unpopular but I think history will be kind to him on it. Within one month, Obasanjo has won two major achievements on the diplomatic turf and he should be commended for them. When the re-installed President Fradique Menezes of Sao Tome said 'your actions and forceful statements were extremely important in turning the tide' many may think he was referring to Obasanjo's 'it shall not stand' statement in Abuja when the coup took place in the tiny island. But I have it on good authority that the man is actually referring to what happened in his country when President Obasanjo forcefully extracted from the soldiers a commitment that they would never try what they did again, ending by telling them: “You know I am myself a General, next time you try any nonsense like this, I will bring in soldiers to drive you out, you hear me?” to which the mutinous soldiers reportedly replied: “yes Sir”.
Yes, Obasanjo may be playing big brother at a time Nigeria does not command the respect commensurate with her investment in the continent but the Federal Government decision to close Seme border has shown that he could not have cynically offered the asylum to Taylor because he has no regard for our feelings, it must have been based on an objective reading of the situation on ground and perhaps on the advice from the man who has been working behind-the-scene, the man to whom most of the credit should go, General Abdulsalami Abubakar.
The former Head of State is one African leader who has helped in advancing the cause of democracy and peace in the continent; from Zimbabwe to Liberia. I was privileged to spend about two hours with Abdulsalami (having accompanied retired Colonel Lawan Gwadabe to his house) shortly after he returned from a diplomatic assignment in Zimbabwe last year and the insight he provided helped to form my opinion on what is going on in the country. He has become an international statesman and an asset to the continent.
That Taylor, a man who never keeps his promises, would agree to what he described as 'soft landing' in Nigeria must be because men like Abdulsalami were on his neck that he had to leave Liberia. Now that he is here however, Taylor must learn to behave if he does not want to land in trouble sooner than he expected. I say this because putting a mercenary like Taylor, whose love for mineral resources is akin to that between shark and blood, in the Niger Delta can be tempting, as he could easily become a consultant on guerrilla activities to the rampaging youth within the region.
Taylor is also close to Bakassi peninsular and the prospect of laying his hands on such oil revenue could provoke his 'revolutionary' mind. But he must know that this is Nigeria and we have our own unique way of dealing with people like him who may not want to keep agreement. If he doubts me, he can go and ask a Governor called Chris Ngige.
Again, Taylor must also have learnt some lessons from Sankoh, whose ordeal began the moment he landed in Nigeria, thanks to the late General Sani Abacha to whom Sierra Leoneans must forever be grateful. But that is not even the issue today. The point is that Taylor, after traumatising his country for more than two decades, should know by now that he has reached the last bus stop. If he tries anything funny in Nigeria, he will pay dearly for it. But it is also incumbent on those in authority to keep watch on Taylor. I only hope Governor Donald Duke is listening.
As for the fleeing Liberian warlord, I can only give him the free counsel President Obasanjo and Professor Wole Soyinka have been offering each other in their letters in recent weeks: He should watch his back!
• This piece was first published in THISDAY on 14th August, 2003