Opinion: Food For Thought – Prosecution of Charles Taylor

By Adrian Fisher -The guilty verdict against Charles Taylor has been received with mixed feelings all around the world. Some have welcomed the conviction of Taylor and have expressed jubilation over his conviction. Others have condemned the special court and believe the conviction of Taylor is unjust and have vowed to support him. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the respective positions, one thing is certain, and that is, Taylor played a part in the rebel war and atrocities in Sierra Leone and quite rightly deserves to be punished for his actions. However, I have serious reservations about this judgement even though broadly speaking I welcome it.  I do not believe in my humble opinion that this judgement is a cause for celebration.  I believe that this Judgement should lead to a period of reflection for Sierra Leoneans with appropriate lessons being learned from it. My Learned Friend and Brother M Alieu Iscandari raised some issue this afternoon and with his kind permission I would reproduce it in this piece to shed light on the issues I wish to raise about this judgement.

Charles Taylor is guilty. So now what? Is Sierra Leone better off? Have we been vindicated? where do we go from here. Why Blame Charles Taylor. What about the sierra Leoneans that willingly joined him and his cause against their own people? What about Ghadaffi who supported them with money and access to weapons? What about General Gueye of Ivory Coast? What about Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso. What about the Ivory Coast who facilitated the transfer of weapons from the Ukraine and Israel to Sierra Leone? What about the CIA that walked him out of his jail cell in Boston. These are all actors that helped Charles Taylor on the way and isn’t it gross hypocrisy that The US government now wants to contribute towards prosecuting a man that they unleashed on his own people and beyond? The people of Sierra Leone and Liberia are still waiting for answers.” 

Put simply there are a number of burning issues other than blind euphoria, in my view that creates some food for thought and after the dust would have settled, these issues would need to be addressed. I pose these questions:

  1. What is Sierra Leone to gain from this Judgement of Charles Taylor?
  2. What lessons can we learn from this case?
  3. What legacy has the Special Court left for Sierra Leone?
  4. How does Sierra Leone move on from here?

I would start by saying I am not in defence of Charles Taylor. However there are issues about this case that gives a twisted meaning to the term “justice”. The question to ask is what is Justice? What does justice mean in real terms? Does Charles Taylor going to jail even for the rest of his natural life amount to justice? Undoubtedly, to some even his death would signify justice to the victims of the war. However I do not believe Justice is all about Charles Taylor being in jail or dying. That amounts to revenge. Revenge is not Justice. Justice is about being being equitable, morally right and acting in a just manner.  There are many others besides Charles Taylor who needs to be brought to justice for the atrocities in our country. Where are they? What is the international Community doing to bring them to justice? Charles Taylor had been a thorn in the sides of ‘Western Powers’ ever since he ‘walked’out of jail in the USA. Even before the establishment of the Special Court, the West had to devise a scheme to ‘get him’ at all cost, knowing he had no desire to travel to the West from where an arrest warrant could be actioned. He was in the African bush from where it was difficult to get at him. Therefore they needed a mechanism to do so and up popped the idea of a court in the African Bush that would put him on trial and see him in Jail, ‘where he belongs’ for ever. But no sooner they get hold of him they move him out of the African bush to Europe (where they want him) on ‘security grounds’. To make matters worse up popped the British to offer to imprison him in the UK even before the trial started. Where they certain of his conviction? It may appear so! Why do I say that? Lets look at Article 1 of the statute of the special court.

Article 1

Competence of the Special Court:

  1. The Special Court shall, except as provided in subparagraph (2), have the power to prosecute persons who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996, including those leaders who, in committing such crimes, have threatened the establishment of and implementation of the peace process in Sierra Leone.’ This phrase albeit not clear at the time clearly showed the intention of those establishing the court. It was clearly evident in the judgement that Charles Taylor was culpable on the basis that he was playing a double role by publicly supporting the peace process whilst at the same time supporting and exercising ‘influence’ over the junta. The poignant question to ask is whether Charles Taylor is one of those who bear the greatest responsibility for the violations that occurred in Sierra Leone? If Charles Taylor though not present on the ground in Sierra Leone ‘bears the greatest responsibility’ for the violations of international law that occurred, what about ECOMOG who were present on the ground and committed serious atrocities too? We have seen videos of ECOMOG summarily executing children during the war and others who they accused to be junta? Why has no one being prosecuted from the ECOMOG side despite the court having a clear jurisdiction to try such persons under Article 1(2) of the Statute?


In essence Charles Taylor has been found guilty of supporting rebels in Sierra Leone what we refer to in law as ‘aiding and abetting’. My concern is the Special Court spent millions of dollars, (up to 50million) to claim that Taylor was in control of the war in Sierra Leone. The Judges rejected all of those claims. Let us look at the indictment of Taylor which buttresses my points. The crux of the case against him failed. That is the simple truth of the matter. All they were able to get was he assisted the rebels in the war. Does that justify fifty million dollars being spent on prosecuting one man who can hardly be said to bear the greatest responsibility for the war? Could that fifty million dollars not have been better spent to give the victims of the war their lives back by establishing communities and programmes that would ease their pain and assist them to gain their livelihoods? Most troubling of all was the fact that majority if not all of the witnesses were paid by the special court to testify in the case. Can their evidence be trusted? He who pays the piper calls the tune. The evidence would be tailored to suit the wishes of those who paid or offered inducements to these witnesses. Have we really been told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the war in Sierra Leone? Was it only Charles Taylor who had a vested economic interest in the war? If Taylor has aided and abetted the war by the provision of arms, then the question to ask is who manufactured those arms? Certainly they were not manufactured in Liberia. They came from Ukraine and Israel and other parts of the world. Why are those persons not in the dock too? Most importantly if aiding and abetting is now a crime in international law, then David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy should be in the international criminal court facing charges for arming the Libyan opposition in Libya who not only murdered Ghadaffy but murdered scores of others who were considered as supporters of Ghadaffy. If they are walking free, why is Taylor in Jail for doing exactly the same thing? Taylor helped the war the Sierra Leone to get diamonds in return. Sarkozy and Cameron armed the Libyan opposition and rendered assistance to them in return for oil contracts, without UN backing. Where is the difference? Does that smack of hypocrisy? The support given to the Libyan opposition enabled them to topple the Gaddafi regime in the process killing scores of innocent civilians. The same thing happened in Iraq where scores were killed by Bush and Blair without any legal backing from the UN. Why have they not faced trial for aiding and abetting?

On another note, it is about time that Africans wake up to solve their own problems rather than relying on imperialists taking the lead. Africa is the second largest continent in the world but is ignored when it comes to worldly affairs. Take the UN, Africa has no seat in the UN security council whilst Europe (the smallest) has three permanent seats. Decisions affecting the lives of Africans are decided by Europe and America Take the World bank and IMF jobs. Africa was excluded from any meaningful consideration.  Africa should be capable to look after itself. Our institutions are however weak and ineffective. If African leaders are causing problems in the continent, why not set up an African criminal Court to deal with the issue?  Taylor is in the Hague, Gbagbo is in the Hague, Al Bashir would be going at some point, as is Kony and maybe others from Sierra Leone too. All of them are accused of committing crimes in Africa. Why not try them in Africa? What has it got to do with the Europeans?  Let them put BUSH, BLAIR, CAMERON AND SAKORZY on trial. African problems require African solutions. Are they that sympathetic to our people? If they are it is expected they should then lift some of the trade barriers that are an impediment to our development.


Judging from the scenes of jubilation, it may appear our future as a country depends on this judgement. Sadly it doesn’t!  Very little has been gained. There are no winners in this case. Everyone is a looser and it’s a sad reminder of our horrible past, such that we ought not to allow this kind of behaviour to occur again in our lifetime. Whilst there might be a sense of closure but in my humble view, this judgement should signal a period of reflection for all Sierra Leoneans regardless of political persuasion. For far too long we have been seen as a nation that is very friendly to foreigners but very unfriendly to one another, particularly where politics is involved. This judgement can help Sierra Leone to rediscover its lost glory by instilling a sense of unity amongst ourselves.


There are important lessons to be learnt as a Nation. As I write our government is yet to say a single word on the verdict whilst the Liberian Government has been swift to issue a statement. We set up this court and it is beyond belief that our government has not thought it fit to at the very least remember the victims of this senseless war on a day like today. These are some of the lessons our country needs to learn.

  1.  Charles Taylor did not start a war in our country!
  2.  Charles Taylor did not invade our country!
  3.  Charles Taylor was not in control of our country!
  4.  Charles Taylor did not do the horrible things like amputations, murders, sexual slavery our people are suffering from today!

WE DID IT TO OURSELVES!     HE ASSISTED!   By giving us arms and ammunition to fight each other, in similar manner that the British did to us during the slave trade. (provided arms to our chiefs to fight and capture slaves and sell them to the British). What does assistance mean? Quite simply – it means to give support or aid to someone. (giving support means someone is doing something and you are only assisting them to do what they want to do whilst they do it themselves.) If we had not taken up arms against each other and had remained a united people, Charles Taylor would not have seen the need or be able to assist us to destroy ourselves. We decided to cut each other’s arms and rape our own women.  This judgement is clear that Charles Taylor did not tell us to do these things to ourselves. If we had shown love for ourselves we would not have been in this position where outsiders would assist us to destroy ourselves.

What legacy has the Special Court left for Sierra Leone?

Very little I would say. The best thing I can say the court has done is expose some of our Sierra Leonean lawyers to the rigours of international practice, which is very lacking in our country. It would go down in the history books that we had an international court presence in our country and its decisions are setting a precedent for the direction of international criminal law for years to come. That in itself is good and commendable. However, our national Judiciary continues to lag far behind international best practice, despite the presence of the Special Court in Sierra Leone for the best part of ten years. Our Judiciary does not seem to have learnt any lessons from the practice of the Special Court. That is lamentable. The excuse would be we don’t have enough funds like the special court did have. That is not an excuse. We don’t need to reach the standards of the special court but we can certainly aspire to improve on the current standards in a number of areas and for that we don’t need money. Currently our national judiciary is handicapped in a number of areas:

  1. Poor infrastructure
  2. Lack of training.
  3. Lack of materials (computers, tape recording of evidence to prevent judges recording the evidence by hand)
  4. Lack of any proper system of judicial precedents which are essential if the law is to be practised properly.
  5. Archaic and outdated laws.

The Special court can leave a lasting legacy by helping our national judiciary to deal with the matters raised above. The Special Court can leave a lasting legacy by converting the premises of the court into an international residential training centre for international criminal law, which would attract participants from all over the world. This would provide much needed revenue to our economy and at the same time keep Sierra Leone on the map as an international centre for excellence in International Criminal Law of good repute, in similar manner to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I would not hold my breath to see what becomes of the building but I hope someone is listening.

How does Sierra Leone move on from here?

Quite simply, Government now has the responsibility to set up an inclusive system of governance with equal opportunity for all, regardless of political affiliation or ethnic grouping. Government need to reach out to all and sundry and to encourage participation of all and sundry in the governance of the state, particularly in the run up to the elections. Government needs to seize the initiative in holding inclusive sessions across all communities encouraging them to embrace one another. The Ministry of Social Welfare can be instrumental in this ‘community get-together’ across the country. Inclusiveness works well in parliament with all party committees. I see no reason why it can’t work in the executive arm of government. The reasons why Foday Sankoh felt he was ‘better off’ in the bush are all around us today. The political rhetoric needs to be toned down with respect for all contestants in the forth-coming elections. Name calling of the President, and the opposition flag-bearer must stop. Respect must be shown to these people that befit their status and politics should be about issues. Personality politics breeds hatred and contempt for each other which manifests itself in violence. Unless we start to love each other as Sierra Leoneans, we would forever be at the mercy of ruthless warlords and foreigners whose sole aim is to exploit our resources. Does the name Charles Taylor ring a bell?

The Author is a Barrister and a scholar in Equality Law at the Manchester Metropolitan University, United Kingdom.