The guilty verdict against former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone, is sinking in across West Africa. The historic judgment of the first African president to be prosecuted in an international court leaves Taylor facing a lengthy sentence in a British prison.
More than 50,000 people were killed during the 11-year conflict, and thousands more were left with brutal amputations — the macabre signature of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group. There were scenes of jubilation in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, but the reaction was very different in neighboring Liberia.
Before the verdict was announced, crowds bustle and debate on the streets in downtown Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. There was a strong — maybe somewhat naïve — expectation Taylor would be coming back to his homeland.
People cheered and clapped as they saw him appear on television. The man who was president from 1997 to 2003 still commands a lot of support and even adoration here. But as the verdict finally came down, the mood shifted.
The judge declared Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting the war in Sierra Leone on all 11 counts. They include arming rebel groups with guns and ammunition in exchange for diamonds, the use of child soldiers, rape, sexual slavery and acts of torture. He will not be coming back to Liberia.
“It makes me crazy because Charles Taylor had no problem with Freetown people,” says 23-year-old student Amara Sanoe.
Sanoe spent his entire childhood in Liberia during the country’s own 14 years of civil conflict. Yet he’s one of the many who believe Taylor had nothing to do with Sierra Leon’s war.
“Charles Taylor never carried any war in Freetown. Their own politicians carried war on them to destroy their own people,” he says.
Among the minority and also less vocal in the crowd, there was also a feeling of relief — and a sense that justice has taken its course. The overwhelming view, though, is that Taylor has been used as a scapegoat for another country’s war.
After the verdict, a debate began in a hatai shop — places where people go to drink tea, play scrabble and chat politics. People patiently waited until the head of the discussion used the gavel, signaling another man’s turn to speak.
“It kind of saddens me as a person to know that my ex-president who should be living here happily and freely with us,” one man says, “just as others who perpetrated mayhem and heinous crimes are living with us here today on the basis of reconciliation. That is my sadness.”
No one was convicted of any crimes associated with Liberia’s own civil war. The government chose to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead. So former warlords walk freely on the streets — many even hold top government positions.
Taylor’s defense team will have 14 days from the verdict to appeal. His sentencing is then due on May 30. Human rights groups have hailed the verdict as a victory against the impunity of so-called “big men” who pillage countries resources and commit atrocities against their people.
However, the verdict is viewed very differently here. Shortly after it was rendered, a rainbow appeared around the sun, causing commotion on the street. Liberians believe this phenomenon marks when “a great man has fallen.”