Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's long-awaited trip to Washington Wednesday may be overshadowed by a controversy surrounding the whereabouts of another West African leader, former Liberian president Charles Tayor.
The Nigerian government confirmed that the ex-warlord Mr. Taylor - who was due to be handed over from Nigerian custody to the authorities at a war crimes court in Sierra Leone - had gone missing Tuesday, and said it had established a panel to "ascertain whether he escaped or was abducted."
Taylor's "spiritual advisor," Dr. Kilari Anand Paul, told the Monitor by telephone from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa that Ethiopia is one of several countries he is lobbying to offer Taylor refuge. Mr. Paul said he is also trying to get Taylor into Libya, Venezuala, and Syria.
A UN-backed Special Court has charged Taylor with seventeen counts of crimes against humanity for backing rebel groups in Sierra Leone who tortured thousands of civilians during a struggle to control the country's diamond fields. No charges have yet been brought against him in his native Liberia, where he began a war that claimed up to a quarter of a million lives before he went into exile in Nigeria in 2003. At the request of a newly-elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President Obasanjo agreed to transfer Taylor to Liberia custody last Saturday.
Mr. Obasanjo is likely to face "considerable criticism" from President Bush and members of Congress over the issue, according to Princeton Lyman, the director of the Africa program at the Council for Foreign Relations.
"This is a grave situation. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has put a lot of emphasis on having Charles Taylor brought to justice," says Mr. Lyman. "There have already been worries that he might slip away and this suggests the Nigerians have not been nearly careful enough."
The news comes at a time when the Nigerian President is already facing considerable criticism for refusing to rule out constitutional changes that would allow him to run for a third term. An insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta has also shut down a quarter of production in the fifth-largest supplier of crude to the United States.
"Obasanjo offered [Taylor] asylum and doesn't want to be seen as going back on his word, says Ayesha Kajee, of the South African Institute of International Affairs. "And in a sense one doesn't blame him. He probably feels Taylor was foisted on him - and now he's being forced to go back on his word to a fellow head of state."
This is particularly uncomfortable because of the lack of precedence for punishing former heads of state in Africa. "When you turn in a former peer, you immediately lay yourself open, firstly, to charges of overriding sovereignty, but also to the possibility that you might someday be in that boat, says Ms. Kajee. "And that's what many African heads of state fear more than anything."
The US is seen by analysts as the key force behind Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf's call for Taylor to be transferred to Sierra Leone, and the US push is two-fold. Taylor has such a bad reputation that many in Congress want him prosecuted. If Johnson-Sirleaf hadn't asked for Taylor to be sent to Sierra Leone, "There's a strong possibility that [the US] Congress would have voted against the aid Liberia so desperately needs to rebuild," says Kajee.
Also, the Bush administration may have its own self-interested motives: It's "keen to see quick prosecution of a globally recognized despot outside of the sphere of the International Criminal Court," which it opposes, says Kajee. "Then it would have legitimacy for saying that the prosecution of war criminals and those accused of crimes against humanity can take place outside the ICC."
Taylor's escape threatens to destabilize an already volatile region. "Not only is Taylor an indicted war criminal, he is associated with mayhem and murder throughout West Africa. Now that Taylor has gone missing on his watch, Obasanjo must redeem himself by conducting an immediate and vigorous search for and apprehend Taylor, who remains under a UN travel ban," says Corinne Dufka, the West Africa head of Human Rights Watch. "As a head of state and key player on the African continent, Mr. Obasanjo has a moral, political and legal responsibility to promote justice and stability in Africa, not undermine it."
Mike McGovern, the West Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group, warns that despite the presence of 15,000 UN soldiers in Liberia, any delays in Taylor's trial will expose the new President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to possible retribution. "The Nigerian army is well trained, well funded, and they know what they are doing. If Taylor indeed disappeared, it is hard to believe that this was an accident," he says. "[This] gives pro-Taylor forces time to regroup and recruit."
Over 100,000 former fighters still roam the Liberian countryside. Now the escape of Taylor threatens even this fragile peace.
• Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report from Johannesburg, South Africa.