Gunning for Charles Taylor

The United States seems unable to make up its mind on how to relate to certain agencies of the United Nations. In one breath, it’s undermining the International Criminal Court (ICC) and seeking a waiver for its soldiers who might be indicted for war crimes before the court. And in another breath, the world’s only superpower is seeking the arrest and trial of a war-crime suspect from another country in a court of coordinate jurisdiction, backed by the United Nations. This is the kind of double standard that rankles.

Even a world in which nations are driven by self-interest deserves a semblance of moral consistency from a country that arrogates to itself the role of defining what is good for the entire globe. Although a consular official of the United States in Nigeria has denied that his country is offering a ransom for the arrest of the former Liberian President Charles Taylor, media reports indicate that the U.S. Congress actually approved US$2 million as prize money for anyone who might capture Taylor. He has been in exile in Nigeria since August, when he stepped down as Liberian president in line with the ECOWAS [Economic Community of  West African States] peace initiative.

While the search for peace in Liberia was going on a few months ago, it seemed clear that as long as Taylor remained in power, there couldn’t be any real peace. He had to be compelled to give up power in a manner that would guarantee his safety once out of office. The difficulties of convincing Taylor were well-known to the U.S. government, which had actually commended Nigeria’s offer of asylum to the former president to make him relinquish power.

The action of the U.S. Congress is therefore not only embarrassing but also has grave implications. It shows a poor understanding of the Liberian  situation. To put out such prize money for the kidnapping of the former Liberian president is an open invitation to terrorists to invade Nigeria in search of their target. That the money may not have been offered, as the U.S. Embassy claims, makes no difference. The fiscal provision in itself is enough reason for the furor that the matter has generated. The gesture, as some critics have rightly said, would amount to not only a violation of Nigeria’s territorial integrity but also a repudiation of the ECOWAS peace initiative with all its possible consequences.

Given the circumstances under which Taylor was granted asylum in Nigeria, the least that the United States owes the traumatized people of Liberia is to seek a civilized way of resolving its hang-ups with him. Of course, no one can deny that Taylor was responsible for much of the instability in the West African subregion and the bloody hostilities in the Mano River states. While we recognize Taylor’s atrocities, we do not think the cowboy approach that the United States is trying to adopt will serve any useful purpose.

Taking a bull out of a china shop requires extreme tact and skill. No one should be under the illusion that peace has taken firm root in Liberia. What exists there now is at best fragile and could splinter at the slightest act of indiscretion. One such act would be a kidnapping of  Taylor. It could provoke his loyalists and flare up conflicts in a country so prone to internecine hostilities. The United States would be wise to drop the idea and instead seek to work through the U.N. to get Taylor to answer for whatever crime he has committed against humanity. Any unilateral action would only mar U.S. relations with Nigeria and other ECOWAS countries.

For its part, Nigeria should consider its current travails over Taylor as an opportunity to reflect on the implications of offering asylum to all manner of scoundrels. Other controversial exiles were the late Siad Muhammad Barre of Somalia and Yormie Johnson of Liberia. Asylum offers should henceforth be dispensed more judiciously if Nigeria is not to become a haven for international outlaws.