From Petrol to Taylor (Obasanjo’s Flirtations with Anarchy and Terror)

Charles Taylor and Olesegun Obasanjo
Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo (L) with his Liberian counterpart, Charles Taylor, on July 6, 2003 (Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP-Getty Images).

[Olesegun] Obasanjo’s presidency is prone to willful accidents. How else can we explain the ease with which this president perambulates from disaster to tragedy and on to calamity and back again? For a man who recently publicly confessed that he hardly needs the counsel of his numerous advisers, it is doubtful if contrary public or private opinion, no matter how orchestrated or well-intentioned, can alter his essentially despotic fixations. And so he shuttles the nation from one authoritarian imposition to the other with casual and sometimes sadistic abandon.

As it turns out, the recent petrol tax and the resultant crisis was the result of a conversation between the president and the petroleum minister (one and the same, the emperor himself).The new gasoline price regime was approved by a National Assembly that had been dissolved, sounded off a Federal Executive Council that was yet to be convened, and announced by a spokesman of petrol importers to the astonishment of an already vandalized national psyche. I doubt that we have heard the last on that crisis, since the striking workers and their sympathizers will soon be replaced by armies of starving people in spontaneous nationwide food riots occasioned by the excruciating poverty that the new petrol prices will inevitably bring upon our helpless people.

But while the strike raged, the president jetted to Monrovia to initiate yet another controversy. He has agreed to bring Charles Taylor to Nigeria, ostensibly on asylum, with the condition that the international community does not “harass” Nigeria to submit Taylor to the dictates of international justice. All this is so that peace can return to Liberia. Again, no one knows whom Obasanjo consulted on this matter since the trip was made ahead of his appointing a foreign minister. Since Jeff Koinange of CNN revealed that Charles Taylor is in fact a brother to one of Obasanjo’s numerous “wives,” it is difficult to say where narrow self-interest stops and national responsibility begins on this matter.

On the Taylor thing, let us grant a few concessions. Nigeria is the big brother in the West African neighborhood. It has always had and will continue to have a strategic obligation to ensure security and stability in the subregion. The area is our immediate captive market if we finally decide to industrialize and trade in a serious manner. Huge populations of Nigerians reside throughout the subregion. Quite a good number of them have either been killed or displaced in the series of Taylor-inspired conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. If we allow Liberia to once again get out of hand, the tragedy could engulf still more people and destabilize still more countries. To this extent, a Nigerian leader ought to show initiative in the event of trouble in the neighborhood.

That is how ECOMOG [the Economic Community of West African States’ armed Monitoring Group] was born in the first place. Incidentally, it was in response to Charles Taylor’s all-out war against the recognized leadership of his country under the late Samuel Doe that Nigeria took the initiative to stop him and all others who might have been thinking that it was politically correct to emerge from the bush and shoot your way into the Presidential Mansion. While the Liberian war continued, Taylor unleashed mayhem on his countrymen and women. Nigerian civilians living in Liberia and Sierra Leone were killed by the thousand. Even more were displaced. Two Nigerian journalists on legitimate professional assignment were murdered on the orders of Charles Taylor as a reprisal for Nigeria’s leading role in the ECOMOG initiative. Charles Taylor confessed to and apologized for these killings.

More importantly, because Liberia was the first place in which Nigeria projected its military power in an offensive capacity outside its borders, the Nigerian military suffered a higher than normal casualty rate in the Liberian operation. Just take a trip to the ECOMOG ward at the Yaba Military Hospital and other military hospitals in the country. In order to counter the Nigeria-led ECOMOG offensive, Taylor opted to destabilize Sierra Leone, which had provided a base for ECOMOG operations, including an air base for Nigeria’s combat aircraft. Rebels from RUF [Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front] virtually under the command and control of Charles Taylor unleashed mayhem on Sierra Leone’s countryside and allied with other factions to oust President Tejan Kabbah.

Again, Nigeria had to intervene to save Sierra Leone and re-instate Kabbah. In the ensuing civil war, many Nigerian soldiers and civilians died, our soldiers contracted AIDS and came home to spread it and inevitably die. Charles Taylor is one reason why the Nigerian military became a major target population for AIDS research. Also because of the porous borders among West African states, ECOMOG soldiers and arms dealers returned with arms and ammunition captured from the rebels and sold some to armed robbers. Hence, the increase in the incidence of armed robbery in Nigeria coincided with the period of our active engagement in the ECOMOG operation.

It is hardly classified information that Taylor controlled the diamond, timber, and rubber-producing areas straddling the Liberia/Sierra Leone border. He used this control of the wartime economy of Liberia to spread violence and fund rebellions as far afield as Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. His control of the lucrative diamond trade placed him in a position to compromise some of the commanders of ECOMOG, leading to the prolongation of the war in Liberia. Taylor rode the wave of democracy and took advantage of the political crises in Nigeria to intimidate his war-weary people and rig himself into office as the president of Liberia. Even as an “elected” president, he used his control of the diamond trade to continue funding campaigns of destabilization in countries bordering Liberia. The Lebanese and Arab community in Liberia and elsewhere in West Africa took advantage of Taylor’s illegal diamond trade to launder money used in financing major terrorist operations around the world. In a sense, Charles Taylor is the most immediate link between West Africa and global terrorism.

Even from the point of view of foreign policy, it is the most elementary consideration that a country’s actions abroad are dictated by the realities at home and experiences in its own national history. The United States, founded under the banner of freedom and liberty, will go anywhere in pursuit and defense of liberty and freedom or hide under these values to pursue its national interests abroad. Germany and Japan have constitutions that forbid their governments from committing troops in combat roles abroad because of the experiences of these countries in World War II. The state of Israel will hound down any individual or group that had anything to do with or behaves in a manner that reminds it of the Holocaust. Given our recent history—especially the human-rights violations under [Gen. Sani] Abacha [who ruled Nigeria from 1993-98]: the murders, disappearances, unjust imprisonments, the fascist disregard for law, and so on—a democratic Nigeria ought to construct a foreign policy (beyond irresponsible globetrotting) that places respect for human rights first. Such a policy ought to exclude the kind of red-carpet amnesty that Obasanjo is about to grant to Taylor. If it is a humanitarian gesture as he says, why has he not extended similar offers to people like [Gen. Ishaya] Bamaiyi and [Maj. Hamza] al-Mustapha who have been in detention for the last four years for rights violations committed during Abacha’s dictatorship?

Imperfect Federation
More critically, our federation, imperfect as it is, has managed (just managed) to survive the post-Cold War disintegration of large multi-ethnic federations. Even so, today there are pressures, more than ever before, from fringe nationalistic groups. Some are frighteningly militant and well armed, operating in the countryside, taking hostages, and unleashing mayhem in strategic territory in parts of this country. We should not be seen to be lionizing Taylor, who emerged from the bush to unleash terror on his country, if we do not want to encourage this brand of rascality among our own already restive and ambitious youth. The International War Crimes Tribunal sitting in Sierra Leone has indicted Charles Taylor for his war crimes. It is from the clutches of this indictment and the inevitable disgrace of his imminent military humiliation by superior thugs that Obasanjo now wants to snatch Charles Taylor.

To welcome Charles Taylor here is to invite others to brand Nigeria as an outlaw state, a sanctuary for villains and miscreants. If we add this burden to our other unflattering reputations, we may be pushing our luck too far. If Nigeria allows itself to be seen as a haven for internationally indicted criminals, we should be ready for the repercussions. When the Americans and the British ousted Saddam Hussein, Syria was actively discouraged from haboring him, his family, or henchmen. The Syrians knew the consequences and refused to play ball in spite of Arab solidarity. And for a president that justifies his-all-too frequent foreign junkets by saying they’re meant to clean up Nigeria’s image, it is astonishing that Obasanjo is taking this fatal gamble.

In the eyes of the world and of Nigerians, Charles Taylor is an irredeemable villain; a disgrace to the African; an instrument of destabilization in the subregion; a symbol of the rogue nation; a sponsor, practitioner, and facilitator of global terrorism; and a despicable fugitive. A man like this should not find shelter among any decent people. And to invite him to Nigeria, to be housed and protected at Nigerian taxpayers’ expense, is a veritable insult to whatever is left of our sense of dignity as a people.

I agree that for peace and order to return to Liberia, Charles Taylor needs to leave the scene. He should not be encouraged to see himself as a valiant king abdicating his throne to evil forces only to return some other day. For such a bloody tyrant, an exit is an exit. He should be escorted out of Liberia to where he belongs: the International War Crimes Tribunal. Or, better still, the morgue.