Monrovia – On April 12, 2005, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA-40) introduced a Congressional resolution [H.Con. Res 127] calling on Nigeria to turn over the former Liberian President Charles Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).
In 2003, Taylor was granted asylum by Nigeria if he agreed to end his involvement in Liberian politics. He was exiled in Calabar, the capital of Nigeria’s southeastern Cross River State.
It was the Connecticut lawmaker’s push, along with that of then Senator Barack Obama that eventually forced the hand of visiting Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to turn over the former Liberian President, who had been indicted by the SCSL due to his role in committing war crimes, human rights violations and other atrocities during the war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990's.
The SCSL indicted Taylor on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity based on his role in directly supporting the actions of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, which include widespread and systematic attacks upon the civilian population of Sierra Leone.
The charges against Taylor include terrorizing civilians, mass murder, rape, abduction, forced labor, and cutting off of limbs.
Royce on Taylor’s Back
President George W. Bush, under pressure from the Special Court and international human rights actors to cancel his meeting with President Obasanjo, pushed Nigeria into turning Taylor over.
"Taylor was responsible for mass carnage in Sierra Leone. There have been numerous reports of his violations of the terms of his asylum; he should be turned over and have to face the Court," Rep. Royce said at the time.
Twelve years later and on the eve of an historic elections in Liberia, Rep. Royce, the current chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organization Hearing, addressing the Future of Democracy and Governance in Liberia, Wednesday resurrected a ghost from Liberia’s haunted past when he recalled the horrors of the bloody civil war that killed thousands and sent scores into exile.
“We remember the horrors of Charles Taylor, his brutal regime in Liberia, and his support of the vicious rape, mutilation, and murder of tens of thousands of people in Sierra Leone and the region. When I chaired the Africa Subcommittee, we worked diligently, and across party lines, to send a clear, unified message Charles Taylor must be brought to justice. And against the odds, he was.”
Royce’s comments come just a day after Mr. Taylor’s former wife, Senator Jewel Howard Taylor who is vice standard bearer to Senator George Weah, on the ticket of the Coalition for Democratic Change, issued a rally cry to supporters in which she suggested that Mr. Taylor’s agenda was on the verge of coming back on the table.
Addressing reporters in Saclepea, Nimba County this week, Senator Howard-Taylor said although former President Taylor is not involved in Liberian politics, she believes that the NPP he created is a grassroot party that made promises to its citizens since 1997.
“Because of what happened in our government and the abrupt closure and arrest of former president Taylor we were not able to fulfill those promises.
The NPP is now strong, and so we want to call all of the NPP stalwarts across the length and breadth of Liberia to come on board and help us win these elections, we will put that agenda back on the table,” the CDC Vice Standard Bearer said.
The Senator went on to say that the NPP still has a stronghold in Nimba as she drummed up support for votes.
“We’ve done a lot of work under the NPP, under the CDC – even the LPDP that is a fairly new party has done some work here, The NPP is back in full force and because of our unity you will see them moving across from place to place.”
A week earlier, Josiah Marvin Cole, an aspirant for the Bong County District No. 3 seat on the CDC ticket, declared during the party’s launch in Gbarnga that the former first lady is an embodiment of former President Taylor on the CDC ticket.
Said Cole: “Let me borrow from our former President that God’s willing, I will be back and Senator Taylor represents former Liberian President Charles Taylor on the ticket.”
Riding on Taylor’s Popularity
The statement was reminiscent of a similar refrain from the former first lady’s 2014 senatorial election during which an audio recording purported to be the voice of the former President urged residents of the county to throw their weight behind her because she would ensure his release from prison.
The recording: “I am Charles Ghankay Taylor, your former President speaking to you from The Hague. If you still love me, please vote for my former wife Jewel Howard-Taylor because when she is re-elected, she would ensure I am released from prison.”
The recording was said to mark a turning point in the 2014 elections and propelled the incumbent senator to a second term in the Senate.
While many political observers and international stakeholders have been quietly expressing concerns amid murmurs of Mr. Taylor’s possible influence in the ongoing elections, the reminder Wednesday from Rep. Royce, the US lawmaker who was instrumental in pressing for Mr. Taylor’s arrest for war crimes in Sierra Leone, has resurrected a nagging political predicament for Senator Weah and the CDC.
Last November, Mr. Alan White, the former chief of investigation for the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, alarmed that he had received information from credible sources that former President Taylor was interfering with the 2017 election in Liberia.
“He’s been in discussion with Senator George Weah who recently signed an agreement to join forces with Jewel Taylor – Taylor’s former wife – to support seeking the presidency and the vice presidency. George will be at the top of the ticket,” White told the Voice of America.
Professor Wilson Tarpeh, now the campaign chair of the party said at the time, that the party could not confirm nor deny that such a discussion may had taken place.
“I’m sure Mr. White will have his evidence to prove that. It still remains an allegation that we cannot confirm nor deny. What we can say is that the Congress for Democratic Change has been in discussion with a number of opposition political parties to form an alliance or a coalition for the purpose of the ensuing 2017 election”.
Weah, the party’s Standard Bearer later acknowledged that he had spoken with the former president Charles Taylor, but denied having ‘personal relationship’ with the ex-warlord, who’s currently serving a 50-prison sentence in Britain, for war crimes and other violations he committed in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Senator Weah admitted that he held conversation on the telephone with Mr. Taylor recently but that such a conversation should not be misinterpreted to mean that he has a relationship with the ex-president.
“I was in a gathering and one of Mr. Taylor’s relative was in conversation with him (Taylor), and the guy walk up to me and gave me the phone saying President Taylor wants to talk to you; so, I held the phone and spoke to him,” Senator Weah told journalists who quizzed him on a number of national issues recently.
Weah: ‘It’s Not True’
Despite the denials, many political observer and even some within the CDC have for some time now been expressing concerns about the Taylor issue although both Weah and the CDC hierarchy have ruled out dropping Senator Taylor from the ticket.
Sen. Weah, himself dismissed reports that he and the party was under pressure from the international community to drop Senator Howard-Taylor from the ticket.
“It’s not true.”
The recent utterances channeling the former President is no doubt causing some problems for the CDC.
Many political observers believe that the Bong County Senator, is creating potential conundrum for the CDC with repeated utterances trumpeting the NPP of her former husband’s controversial past and not the CDC, the current political configuration likely to define her future.
Some fear that Senator Howard-Taylor may not have gotten over her former husband was treated and may be making a play to his sympathisers for votes.
It can be recalled that in March 2006, the former first lady expressed her disappointment over the decision to arrest her former husband, declaring that the decision by Nigeria to extradite Mr. Taylor via a letter purportedly written by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was a total contradiction of a commitment she received from Sirleaf.
At the time, Senator Taylor told the BBC that when she put the issue of the exiled president’s extradition to candidate Johnson-Sirleaf prior to the run-off elections, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf assured her that since the matter was a negotiated truce, all stakeholders would be consulted to determine Mr. Taylor’s fate.
Senator Howard-Taylor further told the BBC that such a sensitive issue should have been brought to the Liberian people through their able representatives as well as regional and international interlocutors.
The current US administration led by President Donald Trump has adopted a somewhat hands-off approach toward Africa and the US embassy in Liberia has gone on record to state that it does not favor any candidates in the current presidential race.
Nevertheless, congressional officials like Royce wield a lot of influence and hints like the assertions Wednesday may have resuscitated life into an issue that presents a serious problem for Mr. Weah and the CDC. Back in 2005, Royce was adamant that the U.S. had invested too much in Liberia to allow Taylor a soft exile, remarking that Taylor remains a serious and continuing threat to West African peace and security. We know he remains in contact with his cronies. This is counter to U.S. interests as well," said Royce.
Twelve years later, Wednesday, Royce trumpeted some impressive growth as he reminded the hearing of US investments in Liberia.
“The U.S. has invested to rebuild, and support democratic institutions."
"As a nation confronted with immense political, economic, security, and development challenges, Liberia has persevered."
"President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been leading these efforts, and I commend her strong leadership through two terms.
She is stepping down from office, admirably, and setting an example for other African leaders.”
Potential Impediment to Weah’s Quest
Royce says the upcoming elections next month will provide an opportunity to consolidate these democratic gains and peacefully transfer power.
“If done successfully, Liberia will be a model to fledgling democracies across Africa. As we look ahead to future engagement, deep reforms are needed to further address corruption and create a more conducive environment for trade and business investment.
The U.S. must remain a willing partner to support a peaceful transition of power, where the will of the people is respected and upheld, and beyond, so that this country, the ancestral home of many Americans, can continue its hopeful track.”
Mr. Donald Yamamoto, Acting Assistant Secretary Bureau of African Affairs U.S. Department of State agrees, telling the hearing Wednesday that the upcoming elections will mark Liberia’s first peaceful transition of power between democratically - elected leaders since 1944.
“This election is critical, not just for what the transition represents but because it will give Liberians the opportunity to elect a President well-equipped to lead the country toward a peaceful and prosperous future. "
"Despite how far Liberia has come, many challenges remain that will fall to President Sirleaf’s successor to address.”
For the foreseeable future, the play for succession appears to be engulfed in a recurring state of unresolved issues bordering post-war peace, stability and reconciliation."
"For Weah and the CDC, the presidency which has eluded them since 2005 appears to be entangled in what his running mate now labels, the Taylor Agenda, an unnecessary political baggage, viewed by many as a major impediment that could make or break Mr. Weah’s quest for the presidency.
With the clock ticking on election day, the jury may still be out on how Senator Weah's gamble with the Taylor baggage will pan out.
What remains certain is that Rep. Royce's resuscitation of the horrors of Liberia's bloody civil war is likely to reignite murmurs within international circles even as the former first lady struggles to hold on to a past many would like to forget and boldly riding on a legacy and an agenda still haunted by a somewhat murky past.