by Gerhard Anders, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh

Representatives of international organizations, humanitarian NGOs and Western governments have hailed the guilty verdict against Charles Taylor as an important milestone in the global fight against impunity. With this judgement the Special Court for Sierra Leone, established in 2002 at the request of the government of Sierra Leone, concludes the international effort to hold accountable those ‘bearing greatest responsibility’ for war crimes committed between November 1996 and 2002 in Sierra Leone. In the streets of Freetown, most people greeted the news of the judgement with an indifferent shrug whilst critical voices where heard in parts of neighbouring Liberia. In contrast to the self-congratulatory praise by humanitarian activists and Western governments, people in Sierra Leone and Liberia hold much more differentiated views on the trial against Charles Taylor. To a large degree these are shaped by the current political and economic situation in both countries.

Mixed feelings in Sierra Leone

The guests who followed the live stream from The Hague in the court’s compound in Freetown’s New England neighbourhood expressed their satisfaction but even their reaction was restrained. Many did not fully realize what the judgement actually meant as the sentencing will take place end of May. Among the guests invited by the Special Court’s outreach section were about 50 Paramount Chiefs from all parts of Sierra Leone, civil society activists and representatives of victims’ associations. But there were also ordinary Freetownians such as the bank employee who came ‘to bear witness to the conclusion’ or the teacher who stated that the judges had convinced him in spite of his doubts about the fairness of the trial. Unlike the other three trials heard before the Special Court, the trial against Taylor had been moved to The Hague – Court officials and the UN Security Council were concerned that a trial in Freetown could destabilize the fragile peace in the region.

In the streets of Freetown people’s indifference was even more palpable, many had not heard about the judgement and did not show much interest. The principal concern of most Sierra Leoneans is survival. The country has been hit hard by the global economic recession and in Freetown frequent power cuts and long queues at filling stations are the order of the day. Prices for basic foodstuffs and fuel have soared. The grinding poverty of most is at odds with the considerable foreign investments in the mining sector and employment opportunities provided by mining companies but these have remained limited to a few parts of the country. The regional distribution of wealth and government spending will be one of the main issues in the run-up to the elections in November. Although Ernest Bai Koroma has little to fear from the opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio, a former member of the military National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), the upcoming elections are hotly debated and characterized by the ever present Temne-Mende rivalry and regional factionalism. These current concerns eclipse the trials heard before the Special Court. Already during the run-up to the previous elections in 2007 most people had lost interest in the trials that had been dragging on since 2004.

Public opinion in Sierra Leone is highly critical of the Special Court’s form of retributive justice. From their perspective the court is a waste of money. They argue that the US $ 200 million spent on the court could have been used to build roads, hospitals or schools. In a country where most people suffer from abject poverty it is difficult to understand why so much money was spent on the prosecution of ten individuals rather than compensating the victims. Another common criticism is the length of the trials at four to five years in average. Sierra Leoneans are by no means the only ones who criticize the extraordinary length of international war crimes trials. In a report published in 2006, the former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia highlights the same problem and many critics argue that the long duration of the trials undermines the credibility of international criminal justice.

However, this critique of the Special Court and the indifferent reactions should not imply that people in Sierra Leone do not welcome the guilty verdict against Taylor. Many are convinced that Charles Taylor, then the leader of a motley rebel group in neighbouring Liberia, ‘brought the war’ to Sierra Leone in 1991, when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched their first attacks on eastern Sierra Leone from Liberia. This view was partly confirmed by the judges who concluded that Taylor had provided arms and ammunition as well as moral, political, logistical and financial support to the RUF although they rejected the prosecution’s theory that he exercised command and control over Foday Sankoh and the leaders of the RUF. According to the judges, he increased this support during the late 1990s, when he and the RUF’s military leader Sam Maskita Bockarie planned the attack on the diamond-rich eastern part of Sierra Leone and Freetown.

This finding is almost certain to be challenged by the defence in an appeal to the court’s Appeals Chamber as they denied all direct involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war. During the trial, Taylor’s defence lawyers argued that he only got involved in negotiations with the RUF after he was elected president of Liberia in 1997. In this capacity Taylor only got involved in the Sierra Leonean crisis to broker a peace agreement under the aegis of regional body ECOWAS. The judges rejected this view in unequivocal words. They concluded that Taylor’s public involvement in the peace process only served to disguise his real intentions.

Ambivalent reactions in Liberia

The guardedly positive reactions to the judgement in Sierra Leone are in contrast to the responses in Liberia, where Taylor’s popularity remains unbroken. His populist flamboyant style and generosity but also his provocations of the USA won him the admiration of many Liberians who have an ambivalent relationship with Liberia’s mighty patron. On the one hand, Liberians look up to the USA and, on the other hand, they suffer from a national minority complex because of the US indifference towards its ‘slave-child’, as Taylor put it during his testimony in July 2009.

In Monrovia, Gbarnga and Nimba County, where Taylor enjoys most popularity, there were some calls for prayers for his release from prison before the judgement and heated debates on the reasons for his conviction and speculations on the length of the sentence. A representative of the National Patriotic Party (NPP), Taylor’s former party, expressed his disappointment. He and other supporters had expected Taylor to be acquitted. From their perspective, Taylor is the victim of a US-led conspiracy and the trial against him a political manoeuvre to remove him from Liberia’s political scene. The NPP-representative cited the statement made by Courtenay Griffiths, Taylor’s British barrister, in a press conference after the judgement who criticized international criminal justice for employing double standards, concentrating exclusively on Africans whilst the US enjoyed impunity for war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

His view is shared by many people in Gbarnga, Taylor’s headquarter during the first civil war, who also have good memories of low prices and a thriving local economy. To them it does not matter that this was partly based on illegal deals with shady businessmen who extracted timber and other natural resources, sometimes supplying arms in return. Above all, however, Taylor, ever ostentatious and eloquent, gave them grand promises of liberation and wealth that never materialized. It is striking though that his empty promises did not diminish his popularity. At a palm wine station close to the NPP headquarter in Gbarnga youths express their anger that their president is in detention for crimes not even committed in Liberia but in neighbouring Sierra Leone. In Liberia, they point out, all factions committed crimes. To them, it is unfair to single out one individual for prosecution while the other warlords and political leaders not only go scot-free but dominate Liberia’s politics and enrich themselves. These angry young men say that now, after Taylor’s conviction, the members of the elite who were deeply involved in the war should be held accountable. However, this is unlikely, as they readily admit, since no one in the government or the legislature is keen to open this Pandora’s box.

The politicians’ reluctance to discuss criminal prosecutions of perpetrators of crimes committed during the civil wars is shared by many Liberians who prefer to forget the past and concentrate on rebuilding their livelihoods. Generally, there is a widespread fear that criminal trials would result in divisions and the ‘pay back attitude’, which fuelled the war during the 1990s. This is in contrast with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that include criminal trials against a number of former warlords and a list of prominent Liberians who should be banned from political office for 30 years because of their involvement in the war. The fact that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who once provided financial support to Taylor, is on this list further stifles the government’s enthusiasm for implementing the recommendations of the TRC. The TRC had lost much of its credibility when it became embroiled in bitter in-fights between several commissioners and the chairman Jerome Verdier, who is said to have had his own political agenda. Former warlords like the current Senior Senator for Nimba County, Prince Johnson, who had gained notoriety for the murder of Samuel Doe in 1990, launched a vigorous campaign against the recommendations of the TRC in 2009 uttering thinly veiled threats of violence.

Taylor’s permanent removal from Liberia has not changed the current limbo of the debate about Liberia’s violent past. Liberians who criticize his trial have a keen sense of the counterproductive effect his conviction for crimes committed in Sierra Leone is bound to have on attempts to come to terms with crimes committed in Liberia. It is highly unlikely that the international community has much appetite for another expensive and lengthy exercise in transitional justice.