Post-Taylor Trial Reactions: The pendulum continues to swing
June 1, 2012 - Monrovia, Liberia
It was as if Mother Nature herself was heralding in her own verdict during the sentencing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. On a day forecast for light showers, the sky above Monrovia turned ugly and grey. A heavy downpour of rain flooded the city just as sentencing of Mr. Taylor was about to begin.
Meanwhile back on the ground in Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia, the climate held a particular tension of its own. Gathered around the Sierra Leonean Embassy and scattered throughout the city was a somewhat unusual security sight. The United Nations Military in Liberia (UNMIL) had stationed armored personnel careers throughout the city. Their ubiquitous presence suggested the forces were ready, if not expecting, to contain any and all perceived threats, should they erupt post-sentencing.
Just over a month ago, on April 26th, the Taylor verdict was first announced and alongside came a ripple of reactions from across Liberia. No sooner had Taylor been deemed guilty on all 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that the guessing games began. “How long would he get?” many wondered. The answers were as dispersed as the various opponents and proponents positioned along the spectrum. On the one side are Taylor’s most fierce proponents, his family and diehard loyalists, who hoped the sentence would fall between 10 to 15 years. On the other side, where most political pundits rest, there was belief that anywhere between 30 to 35 years would be more appropriate. And then there were the requisite “on the fencers”, an undecided lot who forecast a more moderate 20 to 25 year sentence. It also depended on which part of Liberia one asked. Clearly, in Taylor’s former wartime base of Gbarnga, Bong Country, in the north-centre of Liberia, many people are upset with the verdict and sentencing. There’s also a pronounced resentment against current President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as she is the one who turned Taylor over to the Special Court in the first place. In short, the spectrum of reactions largely depended on both to whom and where the questions were posed.
Interestingly, in the lead-up to the sentencing, two pithy phrases became everyday parlance in Liberia; words to succinctly express where one stood on the whole Taylor trial process. The first, “It will hold”, meant that the International Criminal Court (ICC) verdict would carry weight; that Taylor was undoubtedly going to serve a lengthy prison term and would no longer pose any viable security threat to the West African region. By this token, if and when Taylor would be set free, he would be too old, broken and long-since removed from the region to be a considered a threat. “It will hold” therefore signified an optimistic hope that a rigid form of justice would prevail.
On the contrary, “It will not hold”, clearly indicated that the judgment would be short-lived, that the lenient sentence would see Taylor swiftly and triumphantly returning to Liberia within a maximum 15 years. His proponents would argue that this was in fact justice being served, because in their opinion Taylor was merely aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity, and not committing them himself. And if the RUF members were given 40-50 years for being direct perpetrators, then fair justice should give Taylor far less.
In the end, and as was announced, the sentence did indeed “hold”, though this does not necessarily mean that justice has been served, nor that this chapter in history is over. There is still much to be settled in reparations to the victims. Many still believe that Liberia bears a portion of the blame, and that financial benefit to these victims and their families are unduly warranted. In many ways, there is a gross irony to a judicial process that requires millions of dollars to try a warlord when countless numbers of war victims continue to live in suffering, maimed, disfigured and poor.
Outside Liberia, popular reaction to Taylor’s sentencing is undoubtedly far more consensual. A vast majority, many stemming from the West, but also from other parts of West Africa and the continent at large, clearly wanted to see Taylor gravely charged. It was considered a way to show all the other high-profile “players”, those who continue to play in these heinous games of war crimes, that justice can be served and that a trip to the penalty box may indeed be a one-way ride.
And now today in Monrovia, post-Taylor trial, there is an overarching and somewhat unsettling sense of calmness that permeates the air. The final sentence continues to be discussed in hushed tones, under a guise of normalcy. And perhaps this will continue for some time to come. Can we really expect this sentencing to automatically seal shut years of bloodshed and horrors of war? Reactions from both Bong and Nimba Counties, which were Taylor’s wartime strongholds, are also mixed. For all the diehards that live here, there is also weeping. There is also arguing and lamenting. And there are most certainly great feelings of despair. In many ways the Taylor saga is not yet over for many Liberians. It’s simply time to look at another part of this story.
Now may be the time to look at the how this sentencing will affect Liberia and Sierra Leone’s relationship. The recent two-day visit to Liberia by Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma was seen as an effort to dispel speculation of strained relations between the two countries. Both Koroma and Sirleaf are keen to forge ahead in the development of their respective countries. This is quite clear and understandable. One only hopes that through Koroma’s visit and through the sentencing of Charles Taylor some valuable history lessons can be learned – by everyone. And one hopes that in due time these lessons will also be mastered. But this is surely a process. And it’s one that can only happen through a continued and committed consolidation of peace, reconciliation and security both between and within both countries.
Article written by Massa Crayton, the acting head of OSIWA's Liberia office.
Read reactions from Sierra Leone: Charles Taylor Trial: A step away from impunity, a leap forward for justice?