|by New Narratives Fellow Robtel Neajai Pailey|
Appearing like a child being publicly scolded, he stood on seemingly wobbly legs, head bowed, when they pronounced him guilty on 11 counts of crimes against humanity for aiding and abetting rebels during Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war. As most empires fall, so too do warlords, I thought to myself.
First I felt sorry for the man. He looked so deflated, like a hot air balloon that falls slowly from the sky because of unanticipated rough winds.
Then after the rush of empathy overcame me, I felt angry that Liberia would once again be drawing headlines as the source of mischief, murder, and mayhem. I felt angry that Taylor was being held accountable for crimes committed in another country. I felt angry that he hadn’t answered to the people of Liberia; that no one had bothered to answer to the people of Liberia.
I sat in the first row of the 84-seat upstairs public gallery of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, surrounded by people who wanted Taylor to suffer as well as those who wanted him to sail into the sunset a free man.
Directly behind me was the burly, silver-haired Stephen Rapp, former chief prosecutor, whom I had interviewed in 2007 after his opening statements in the trial. Seated further to my left in a corner nook marked “RESERVED for TF [Taylor Family]” was Sharon, Taylor’s daughter, dressed in black stiletto heels and a gray tailored power suit with a small Liberian flag pinned to her lapel. In the very back row were stone-faced Sierra Leoneans, some from civil society, others well connected, who had come to witness the proceedings a day ahead of their country’s 51st Independence Day.
The only thing that separated us from the accused was a thick pane of bullet-proof glass.
The first thing I noticed about Taylor was his graying temples, and his dark brown freckles on a canvass of pale skin. Then I noticed that he constantly made eye contact with the mahogany table underneath him, as if waiting for the ground to open up and swallow him whole. His facial expression belied a man in a certain kind of private hell, the kind of private hell I imagine most Liberians entered in 1989 and never quite escaped.
If Sierra Leoneans could insist on bringing not only their national terrorists to justice, but also our former president, a man who once commanded and demanded such fear, then surely we could do the same. When I asked Brenda Hollis, chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, about whether or not Liberians could lodge a case against Taylor even while he is serving time, she said that it was within the confines of the law. Just as we have a special court to try alleged perpetrators of gender-based violence, and a court for commercial disputes, then surely we can establish a fast-track court to prosecute those we agree bear the greatest responsibility for escalating and prolonging the civil war. Surely, we could dust off those TRC recommendations we so carefully stored in the attics of our imaginations.
Admittedly, however, the TRC recommendations produced more fundamental questions than answers. For instance, Aaron Weah wrote recently in the International Journal of Transitional Justice, published by Oxford University Press, that a major flaw of the TRC is that it recommended individuals for prosecution and lustration (barring from political office) even though their names did not appear in the overall narrative of the report. Although Weah hails the TRC for documenting the historical roots of the conflict, he expresses valid concerns about “the lack of coherence between the narrative and the findings.” This should be the starting point for a national debate on what the pillars of our transitional justice should be, and whether they should stand firmly on facts, public sentiments, or both at the same time.
Our post-TRC moment fell flat because the TRC from its very inception was under-resourced, under-estimated, and undermined. Like former TRC commissioner Pearl Browne Bull, who distanced herself from the final report, some have argued that the recommendations are unconstitutional. Others have argued that they broke the mold of impunity, and should be implemented fully. Some believe it is unlikely the recommendations will be implemented because they were too politicized, barring President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from public office for 30 years. Still others claim that we need to let bygones be bygones, that Liberia does not have the time or money to prosecute war criminals.
It is clear from the divergent opinions on the TRC recommendations that we are still at a crossroads, but conversations should not be muffled because the government insists on prioritizing roads, ports, electricity, and youth employment. At the Liberian Studies Association Conference (LSA) held in March at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, I asked former TRC chairman Jerome Verdier about the way forward given the obvious stalemate emanating from the recommendations. He had a simple answer: “Without justice, there can be no peace or reconciliation.” It seems to me that justice and development are two sides of the same coin.
African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King once said that justice long delayed is justice denied. I’m afraid that if we continue to delay justice, it may never reach our doorsteps; that the phrase ‘never again’ will continue to haunt us. I’m afraid that our children will grow up thinking that the Prince Johnsons, George Boleys, Alhaji Kromahs, Sekou Damante Konnehs, and General Buttnakeds, etc., of our lifetime should be revered rather than reviled.
I am hopeful, however, that Liberia too will have its Hague moment one day. After all, transitional justice is a painstaking process. Peter T. Kahler, a veteran Liberian journalist who had been covering the Taylor trial since 2008, reminded me moments before Taylor’s verdict was announced that it took nearly a decade for Sierra Leone to “nail” our former president on war crimes.
Taylor’s verdict is a reminder to all Liberians, perpetrators and survivors, and those who fall somewhere in-between, that the laws of gravity do not discriminate. Indeed, Taylor’s guilty verdict is a clear indication that what goes up must eventually come down.