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West Africa's wars catch up with Taylor

By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC Africa analyst

Charles Taylor was deported to Liberia, but it is not Liberia which has a warrant out for his arrest.

Charles Taylor
Mr Taylor is accused of backing wars across west Africa

UN forces in the country arrested him and handed him over for trial by the special war crimes court in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

The charges against the former Liberian president relate to the much wider conflict in West Africa, which started in 1989 with the rebellion he backed in Liberia, but later spread to engulf the whole region.

Sierra Leone saw some of the worst atrocities. The war there started just over a year after the war in Liberia.

The basis of the charges against Charles Taylor is the belief that he was the moving force behind that conflict.

The leader of the rebellion, Foday Sankoh, was an old friend of his, and a number of his Liberian fighters also fought with Mr Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

The RUF used Liberia as their rear base; it was through Liberia that they sold their diamonds and got their arms.

End of impunity?

Liberia under Mr Taylor's leadership was a source of instability for Guinea and the Ivory Coast as well, and kept the regional organisation, Ecowas, in a constant state of crisis.

RUF rebels
The conflict in Sierra Leone was blamed on Mr Taylor's old allies

So other West African leaders probably breathed a sigh of relief when he was taken out of circulation and went into exile in Nigeria.

But his transfer to the court also has implications for the worldwide move to hold heads of state accountable for crimes committed during their time in power.

In the past, African leaders, even if they got forced out of office as result of their own excesses, could usually rely on their fellow presidents to protect them and offer them comfortable homes in exile.

A successful prosecution of Charles Taylor would signal that that era may be coming to an end.

Disaster to triumph

Mr Taylor was arrested in north-eastern Nigeria after he disappeared from the villa where he was being held under virtual house arrest.

TAYLOR TIMELINE
1997: Elected Liberian president after leading rebellion
1991-2002: Alleged role in Sierra Leone's civil war
June 2003: Arrest warrant issued by Sierra Leone tribunal
August 2003: Begins exile in Nigeria after civil war at home
March 2006: Detained by Nigeria while fleeing

A Nigerian police spokesman has said Mr Taylor was arrested at a border crossing point on the route which leads to Cameroon and Chad.

The Nigerian authorities said on Tuesday he had disappeared the previous evening from the house in Calabar which had been his home since he was forced out of power in 2003.

It had looked like a disaster for the Nigerian authorities, on the eve of their president's visit to Washington - an internationally wanted war criminal disappearing from under their noses the very day after the special court prosecutor warned he might try to escape.

Now, it seems more like a triumph.

Mr Taylor was identified and arrested by security forces when he turned up at the border, despite the fact that he was using a border crossing as far as possible from the place where he vanished.

Obasanjo's obligations

And so, when Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo met US President George W Bush, shortly after Mr Taylor was arrested, Mr Obasanjo was able to assure his US counterpart that Nigeria had finally and fully complied with their demands for Mr Taylor's surrender.

Charles Taylor's Nigerian home
The Nigerian city of Calabar has been Mr Taylor's home in exile

And he was even be able to do so without compromising his earlier positions.

A Nigerian government spokesman in London said that for Mr Taylor to have left Calabar and be found at the northern border was obviously a violation of his conditions for staying in Nigeria.

So President Obasanjo is now no longer likely to feel bound either by any guarantees of protection which he had given to Mr Taylor, or by his more recent insistence that Mr Taylor would only be surrendered if the Liberian authorities came to collect him.



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