MONROVIA, LIBERIA — The local ataye center is a small, leisurely oasis on an otherwise bustling commercial street in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia. Here, men sip bitter green tea, play checkers and Scrabble, and debate the day’s politics.
At first, the name of Charles Taylor, an ex-president and notorious warlord, hushes the crowd. But by the time the afternoon’s heat peaks, blustery opinions drown out the latest Akon music video as some 70 men gathered here on a lunch break argue over Mr. Taylor’s ongoing war crimes trial.
The trial resumed this week in The Hague, where Taylor has been held since his arrest in 2006. He faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor is the first African head of state to face an international criminal tribunal. But the indictment – and the court’s jurisdiction focus only on crimes allegedly committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. Prosecutors have argued that Taylor backed rebel groups during the same civil war portrayed in the film “Blood Diamond.”
Many Liberians want Taylor to face trial in Liberia for the suffering he caused in their own country during 10 years of brutal warfare that killed some 250,000 people and crippled the nation’s economy. Others actually miss the charismatic leader who showered loyalists and foot soldiers with money and benefits. Still, most Liberians eking out a living on less than a dollar a day, and far from the courtrooms of The Hague, are more concerned with other aspects of life, analysts say.
“I definitely think Liberians are not well informed” about the trial, says Paul James Allen, a program associate in the Monrovia office of the International Center for Transitional Justice. “Only a very small group of elites within civil society and even among journalists are ‘informed.’ Liberians in general do not care about this kind of thing. Generally they are more concerned with daily life.”
Lack of information about the trial
There is a plethora of opinions on Taylor’s guilt or innocence in Monrovia, but it’s not clear how much factual information about the trial is getting through the din. Over the summer, when Taylor testified in his defense, locals say the trial was front-page news; now, it gets only a small mention on the inside of the paper.
Officials from the Special Court’s headquarters in Freetown, Sierra Leone, occasionally hold outreach activities in Liberia, including video screenings of trial excerpts and town hall-style conversations. But the urgency of the issue seems to have faded. Last summer, when Taylor first took the stand in The Hague, video clubs across Monrovia broadcast videotapes of his testimony. Today, soccer lineups and music videos crowd out the warlord.
Robert Weah, who lives in Monrovia, thinks the Liberian government should be doing more to make the trial accessible to Liberians.
“The government should pay for air time on TV and radio stations,” he says. “Liberians need to follow the former president’s trial so that they’ll be able to get actual facts.”
But those facts are of little interest to most Liberians, especially in the rural areas, who are struggling to survive. “People here are poor,” says Mr. Allen. “They are concerned with what they will put on the table tonight, with survival…. And if you are concerned with those things, you will not pay too much attention to the trial.”
Those who do follow the trial want to know if Taylor will ever face justice for crimes he committed at home, where he won a democratic election (after nearly 10 years of brutal fighting) with the slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I vote for him.”
“I don’t want to know about Sierra Leone. What about Liberia?” says Kollie Dwanah, taking shelter from a morning rain under the umbrella of a roadside shop in the shadow of Taylor’s former home.
“I would like to see him brought to Liberia in handcuffs, to be tried here,” says Richmond Kaydea, who studies communications and works at a gas station. But he’ll be content, he says, with any guilty verdict at all. “I would like to see Charles Taylor go to jail. It [would be] a poetic justice.”
Others refuse to weigh in on Taylor’s guilt or innocence. Instead, they accuse the tribunal – and international justice in general – of bias against African leaders. “A number of Liberians believe that Charles Taylor will not be acquitted,” says Allen, “because they believe this is a kind of big power play against Taylor.”
(Many Africans see the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in a similar light )
As evidence of that conspiracy, Liberians compare Taylor’s alleged involvement in Sierra Leone to George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. “If there is transparency in justice, and if Taylor is in the Hague, let George Bush follow,” says Michael Wehdah, a sociology student.
Why some Liberians miss Taylor
But Elisha Johnson, a history teacher and a soccer referee, says there’s no alternative to international justice. He says that Taylor should be tried, but he would never face justice in Liberia. Despite the devastation he wrought, he simply has too much support, especially from young men willing to take up arms to free him, Johnson says. “Children love him. They love him. When Taylor was here, there was cash floating [around], and now times are hard,” Mr. Johnson says. Young people “believe Taylor made that happen, that he made free money float.”
In Taylor’s old neighborhood, called Congo Town, it’s not clear if Taylor could do any wrong. Most men and women milling about on a recent Saturday morning say they miss Taylor. “If even there’s an election in Liberia today, Charles Taylor will win. People love him,” says Maria Bappu, who was born in Sierra Leone but grew up in Liberia. She’s not convinced of his guilt.
“He opened our eyes to things hidden from us, things we never knew about. Now we’re thinking about education: Everybody should go to school. About human rights – we never knew about human rights,” Bappu says. The small crowd gathered around her hums in agreement. “If the war had not entered here, we would never know these things.”