A delicate diplomatic dance has occurred in West Africa between Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and newly elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Obasanjo bowed to a request from Johnson-Sirleaf to allow former Liberian president and strongman Charles Taylor to leave Nigeria and possibly face war crimes charges before the UN special court in Sierra Leone. But Obasanjo—who has hosted the former Liberian dictator in gilded exile since convincing him to step down in 2003 and end the Liberian civil war—initially did not initially send Taylor back to Liberia or make arrangements for him to be delivered to Sierra Leone. Instead, his government stated that Liberia is "free to take" Taylor into custody (This Day, Lagos), causing consternation after he disappeared, briefly.
Now it appears that, with UN intercession, Taylor will stand trial in a special Sierra Leone court. A short time after his disappearance, the former president was caught trying to cross the Cameroon-Nigeria border. After being arrested by Nigerian authorities, Taylor was brought to Liberia, where UN officials took him into custody and flew him to the UN-backed court at a guarded compound in Freetown (Reuters).
Prior to Taylor's disappearance, Obasanjo faced resistance from other African leaders over breaking his promise to Taylor of immunity from prosecution in return for giving up power. Cameron Duodu, a Ghanaian journalist, wrote for the Guardian blog site that Obasanjo's move could damage future efforts to convince troublesome warlords to leave their countries. However, when Taylor does faces the UN court, it could set a new precedent for African leaders unaccustomed to accounting for their crimes. Nigeria's decision, and eventual apprehension of Taylor, came just as Obasanjo met with President George Bush at the White House March 29. Bush applauded the move (VOA), telling Obasanjo it signaled the Nigerian leader's "desire for there to be peace in your neighborhood."
Taylor faces seventeen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his support of rebel forces in Sierra Leone, whose tactics included killings, mutilations, rape, sexual slavery, the conscription of child soldiers, and the use of forced labor. The Sierra Leone court is earning favorable reviews for its work: A Human Rights Watch report praises it for "making major progress on trials" of the nine people indicted, despite "scarce and insecure resources."
In the meantime, Liberia is trying to emerge from two decades of war and instability that left the country barely functioning. An International Crisis Group report says the country's major challenges include reforming the judicial system, rebuilding infrastructure, training a new army, and gaining debt forgiveness. Johnson-Sirleaf told the United Nations during her recent U.S. visit that Liberia would need an international security presence for four to five more years in order to get back on its feet (AllAfrica.com). Johnson-Sirleaf discussed the challenges her country faces at a CFR meeting March 21.