A Glimmer in the African Skies
During the unusually bitter New York winter of 2003, I spent several months, microphone in hand, following a torture survivor around for a radio documentary I was making.
Jacob, a thirty-one year old Liberian, had recently fled the West African state – and its brutal leader, Charles Taylor. He had spent three days in the bowels of Liberia’s Ministry of Defence having candle wax dripped on his genitals, amongst other horrors, for daring to speak out against the use of child soldiers in the army.
When I heard of Charles Taylor’s recent arrest for war crimes by the UN-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone, I immediately emailed congratulations to Jacob. He replied (in a dignified manner given his treatment): “The arrest sends out a strong message to all those who bare the most responsibility for the carnage in Liberia; that no matter how long it takes, justice will take its course.”
Taylor’s demise is certainly something to celebrate. He was always at or near the epicenter of Liberia’s 14-year civil war – whether as warlord or president – before going in to exile in Nigeria in 2003 as part of a peace deal. But does the manner in which he was brought to justice offer a wider cause for celebration? Arguably, it does.
Taylor was handed to the UN-backed tribunal by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo after a request by the recently-elected Liberian leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. This then, was an example of African leaders working together to deliver justice to the millions – like Jacob – whose lives Taylor desecrated. It was an important step in Liberia’s rehabilitation, involving on reasonably democratic state (Nigeria) respecting the democratic wishes of another state recently returned to democracy (Liberia).
It also came just week’s before Gordon Brown said, sharing a stage in London with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, "If the 19th century was about what we can do to Africa, and the 20th century was what we can do for Africa, then the 21st is what Africa, empowered, can do for itself."
Was Obasanjo’s behaviour representative of a new dawn when African leaders actually stand up for justice and the rights of their – and other African nations’ – citizens?
It would be nice to think so – and on the face of it there are some other positive signs. The African Union, established in 2002, is doing far better than its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), otherwise known as the ‘Dictators’ Club’. To start with, it actually has teeth, imposing sanctions against states that fail to comply with its decisions. It is also leading international efforts to find a resolution to the Darfur conflict in Sudan.
The AU is also well-advanced in its unique African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), whereby the political, governance and human rights practices of countries are voluntarily assessed; a vital part of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) initiative – another internationally acclaimed effort by African leaders.
Sadly, such ‘cause for celebration’ does not stand up to closer inspection.
The AU has been absurdly slow to act on Darfur; too often guilty of failing to stand up to delaying tactics by the parties involved. An estimated 200,000 people have died in the conflict and two million displaced. Headlines such as ‘The Ghost of Rwanda’ have appeared in the African and international press. Obansanjo, while constrained by others, has also been at the heart of the AU’s Darfur-efforts – hosting many of the peace talks in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja – suggesting his positive involvement in Taylor’s handover may not be part of a pattern.
But perhaps the biggest dent in any claim that Taylor’s arrest is anything more than a ‘glimmer of hope’ is the record of Africa’s leaders against Zimbabwe – and its president, Robert Mugabe; the man responsible for turning the one-time ‘breadbasket’ of Africa in to a ‘basket case’. Zimbabwe could be the perfect way for African leaders to prove to the world that they genuinely believe in justice and human rights for their own peoples.
Yet, what do we get from African leaders? For many years, South African president Thabo Mbeki pursued what he calls “quiet diplomacy” to deal with the political situation in Zimbabwe. It is a policy that appears to have had a negligible impact on Mugabe. (A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report shows Zimbabweans now have the world’s lowest life expectancy in the world.)
The AU is little better. In 2002, it sent its very own independent human rights body – the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) – to investigate human-rights abuses in Zimbabwe. Discussion of the resultant strongly worded report was blocked at the third, fourth, fifth and sixth annual meetings of the AU due to ‘irregularities’ or ‘procedural flaws’. As of April 2006 it still has not been discussed.
It would be wonderful to think Charles Taylor’s arrest – and specifically, the manner in which it occurred, represents a new dawn in African leaders’ willingness to put the rights’ of their citizens first. Sadly, it is more likely to be a one-off.