African leaders face key tests on justice

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Washington this week asked for Charles Taylor to be tried for war crimes.

It's the latest test of whether African leaders can solve the continent's thorny problems. Will heads of state work together to put one of their own - former Liberian President Charles Taylor - on trial for war crimes?

Although Mr. Taylor stoked a 14-year civil war at home, it is in neighboring Sierra Leone that he is wanted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity for supporting rebels in return for diamonds during a decade-long conflict that killed some 50,000 people.

The notorious warlord has been holed up in Nigeria since August 2003, and for months Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo promised he would end Taylor's exile if an elected Liberian government asked. But when new Liberia President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf on Friday formally requested that Taylor be handed over to the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone, Mr. Obasanjo balked, saying he must talk to other African leaders.

"It's difficult to see why regional leaders need to be consulted," says Desmond de Silva, the chief prosecutor at the Sierra Leone Special Court, which has been after Taylor for three years.

Optimists see Obasanjo's change of course as an attempt to guarantee political cover for a decision that will not be universally popular among fellow African heads of state. Pessimists fear it's a stalling tactic to maintain a charade of bringing Taylor to justice while allowing him to slip through the net.

"We are pessimistic. This is just a ploy to delay," says Sulaiman Jabati of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability in Sierra Leone. "They will not want to set a standard that they might fall prey to tomorrow."

Corinne Dufka, the West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch agrees: "Many sitting and former heads of state have blood on their hands or have been accused of massive corruption and it could be there are concerns about setting a precedent."

A test for African justice

The court in Sierra Leone that indicted Taylor has a limited time frame, and when the last of its other war-crimes trials wraps up, expected to be sometime in 2007 according to court officials, it would be difficult to justify keeping it running.

So now, observers say, the onus is squarely on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-nation regional body, and the continent-wide African Union (AU) to prove they can do what they have so often requested: handle their own affairs without Western interference.

With the continent jointly clamoring for a permanent UN Security Council seat for a to-be-determined African nation, justice is up there on the scorecard along with human rights, peace and security, freedom of the press, anti-corruption, and good governance.

"[African leaders'] commitment to justice and fighting impunity is now being tested," says Ms. Dufka. "They cannot pass up the opportunity to ensure justice for thousands of Africans."

Senior ECOWAS sources say the Taylor issue would be discussed by regional heads of state and added to the group's agenda for next month's extraordinary meeting.

President Johnson-Sirleaf, however, added pressure on Tuesday when she reiterated her call for Taylor's transferral after a meeting with President Bush in the White House. "We think [African leaders] now must - since we've given the word that we want it brought to closure - take the decision on the next step to take it to the court," she said.

The other case: 'Africa's Pinochet'

The AU has already been asked once this year to decide on a request for a former head of state to stand trial. That concerned Hissène Habré, the one-time ruler of Chad whose government is accused of 40,000 political killings and 200,000 cases of torture, earning him the nickname "Africa's Pinochet."

In November, Senegal, where Mr. Habré has lived for the past 15 years, referred an extradition request from Belgium to the AU, which in January appointed a committee to consider the case. The European Parliament last week called on Senegal to bring Habré to trial or extradite him to Belgium.

Some observers note that the sensitivities raised in the Habré case - namely the possibility of a European country, and former colonial ruler, meting out justice in Africa - are not an issue when it comes to Taylor.

If African leaders were to approve Taylor's extradition, he would be tried in the UN-backed Special Court - on African soil, with some African judges on the bench. Thus, many analysts say, it comes down to the simple question of whether the immunity of top leaders that has long stunted democratic growth on the continent will again triumph over accountability.

Taylor's advisers have cried conspiracy and maintain that transferring the ex-leader from Nigeria risks destabilizing both Liberia, where the former warlord still has thousands of supporters and his ex-wife is now a senator, and Sierra Leone, where the last UN peacekeepers have now left.

Mr. De Silva concedes the possibility that Nigeria may only consent to Taylor leaving if he is tried in a more neutral atmosphere, in which case the Special Court could sit at The Hague.

But putting Taylor in the dock one way or the other would be a judicial coup for the Sierra Leone prosecutors, whose other high-profile defendant, rebel leader Foday Sankoh, died in custody.

"With Milosevic no longer around, if Taylor is brought to court, he could be the first head of state in history to have been indicted in office and have his trial completed," de Silva says.

At the moment, the prosecutor believes that Obasanjo's decision to consult with African leaders stems from not wanting to shoulder the burden alone. "But there will come a point, if things are delayed too long, that an ulterior motive will become apparent."

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