Africa
3:03 am
Sat April 28, 2012

In His Own Country, Charles Taylor Still Has Support

Originally published on Sat April 28, 2012 9:22 am

The guilty verdict against former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone this week, is sinking in across West Africa. The historic judgment of the first African president to be prosecuted in an international court leaves Taylor facing a lengthy sentence in a British prison.

More than 50,000 people were killed during the 11-year conflict, and thousands more were left with brutal amputations — the macabre signature of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group. There were scenes of jubilation in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, but the reaction was very different in neighboring Liberia.

Before the verdict was announced, crowds bustled and debated on the streets in downtown Monrovia, Liberia's capital. There was a strong — maybe somewhat naïve — expectation Taylor would be coming back to his homeland.

People cheered and clapped as they saw him appear on television. The man who was president from 1997 to 2003 still commands a lot of support and even adoration here. But as the verdict finally came down, the mood shifted.

The judge declared Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting the war in Sierra Leone on all 11 counts. They include arming rebel groups with guns and ammunition in exchange for diamonds, the use of child soldiers, rape, sexual slavery and acts of torture. He will not be coming back to Liberia.

"It makes me crazy because Charles Taylor had no problem with Freetown people," says 23-year-old student Amara Sanoe.

Sanoe spent his entire childhood in Liberia during the country's own 14 years of civil conflict. Yet he's one of the many who believe Taylor had nothing to do with Sierra Leone's war.

"Charles Taylor never carried any war in Freetown. Their own politicians carried war on them to destroy their own people," he says.

Among the minority and also less vocal in the crowd, there was also a feeling of relief — and a sense that justice has taken its course. The overwhelming view, though, is that Taylor has been used as a scapegoat for another country's war.

After the verdict, a debate began in a hatai shop — places where people go to drink tea, play scrabble and chat politics. People patiently waited until the head of the discussion used the gavel, signaling another man's turn to speak.

"It kind of saddens me as a person to know that my ex-president who should be living here happily and freely with us," one man says, "just as others who perpetrated mayhem and heinous crimes are living with us here today on the basis of reconciliation. That is my sadness."

No one was convicted of any crimes associated with Liberia's own civil war. The government chose to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead. So former warlords walk freely on the streets — many even hold top government positions.

Taylor's defense team will have 14 days from the verdict to appeal. His sentencing is then due on May 30. Human rights groups have hailed the verdict as a victory against the impunity of so-called "big men" who pillage countries' resources and commit atrocities against their people.

However, the verdict is viewed very differently here. Shortly after it was rendered, a rainbow appeared around the sun, causing commotion on the street. Liberians believe this phenomenon marks when "a great man has fallen."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone this week. The judgment of the first African president to be prosecuted in an international court leaves Charles Taylor facing a lengthy sentence in a British prison. More than 50,000 people were killed during the 11-year conflict, thousands more were left with brutal amputations - the macabre signature of the RUF rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front. There were scenes of jubilation in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone following the verdict, but the reaction was different in neighboring Liberia. Tamasin Ford reports from Monrovia, the capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CONVERSATIONS)

TAMASIN FORD, BYLINE: Crowds bustle and debate on the streets in downtown Monrovia. They eagerly await the verdict of their former president, Charles Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Long live Taylor, long live. Long live Taylor, long live.

FORD: There is a strong, maybe somewhat naive, expectation Taylor will be coming back to his homeland, Liberia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND CLAPPING)

FORD: People cheer and clap as they see Charles Taylor appear on the television. The man still commands a lot of support and even adoration here. But as the verdict finally comes down, the mood shifts. The judge declares Charles Taylor, president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, guilty of aiding and abetting the war in Sierra Leone on all 11 counts. They include arming rebel groups with guns and ammunition in exchange for diamonds; the use of child soldiers, rape, sexual slavery and acts of torture. He will not be coming back to Liberia.

AMARA SANOE: It makes me crazy because Charles Taylor had no problem with Freetown people.

FORD: Twenty-three-year-old student Amara Sanoe spent his entire childhood in Liberia during the country's own 14 years of civil conflict. But he's one of the many who believe Taylor had nothing to do with Sierra Leone's war.

SANOE: Charles Taylor never carried any war in Freetown. Their own politicians carried war on them to destroy their own people.

FORD: Among the minority and also less vocal in the crowd, there is also a feeling of relief and a sense that justice has taken its course. But the overwhelming view is that Charles Taylor has been used as a scapegoat for another country's war.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FORD: Across the road, a debate has begun in a hatai shop, places where people go to drink tea, play Scrabble and chat politics. People patiently wait until the head of the discussion uses the gavel, signaling another man's turn to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

SANOE: It kind of saddens me as a person to know that my ex-president, who should be living here happily and freely with us, just as others who perpetrated mayhem and all the heinous crimes are living with us here today on the basis of reconciliation. That is my sadness.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FORD: No one was convicted of any crimes associated with Liberia's own civil war. The government chose to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead, so former warlords walk freely on the streets. Many even hold top government positions. Charles Taylor's defense team will have 14 days from the verdict to appeal. His sentencing is then due on the 30th of May. Human rights groups have hailed the verdict as a victory; a victory against the impunity of so-called big men who pillage countries resources and commit atrocities against their people.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

FORD: However, the verdict is viewed very differently here. Shortly after it was rendered, a rainbow appeared around the sun causing commotion on the street. Liberians believe this phenomenon marks when a great man has fallen. For NPR News, I'm Tamasin Ford in Monrovia, Liberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.