Charles Taylor, Boko Haram, And The Fire This Time

by Okey Ndibe

Last week was filled with events that touched home in a personal way.

First, last Thursday, an international tribunal at the Hague found former Liberian leader Charles Taylor guilty of eleven counts of sponsoring and spurring on the brutal civil war that devastated neighboring Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. Krees Imodibie, a friend and colleague of mine at the [Nigeria] Guardian, lost his life at the hands of Mr. Taylor’s forces whilst on assignment in war-torn Liberia. If one counts the casualties in Liberia and Sierra Leone, then it’s possible to argue that Mr. Taylor was linked in wars that claimed more than 250,000 lives.

On May 30, Mr. Taylor will know how many years he’s going to spend in a British jail for his manifold crimes. For me, no sentence would be long enough. The former Liberian ruler has earned the harshest possible sentence.

The same day that the murderer of Monrovia was convicted at The Hague, Nigerians awoke to yet another attack by the dreaded Boko Haram. This time, the group targeted a building in Kaduna that houses three of Nigeria’s major newspapers: Thisday, Daily Sun, and The Mirror. Another bomb exploded at the Abuja headquarters of Thisday. Not only do I have friends who work for Thisday, I am also a columnist for Daily Sun. On several levels, then, the attack hit home.

The guilty verdict against Charles Taylor has elicited a variety of responses from Nigerian/African quarters. Some Africans contend that the idea of the international court is an inherently unjust one. They insist that the only reason Taylor could be arrested and tried had to do with the address where he strutted his “presidential” stuff: Africa. Were he to be a former US president – or a Chinese Premier or a British Prime Minister – he would never have lost sleep for one second. For some, therefore, the Taylor trial translated into humiliation for a continent. It was an occasion of Euro-Asian-American imperialism demonstrating Africa’s marginality, its serfdom.

Taylor’s British lawyer, Courtenay Grifiths, mined the vein of that argument. He characterized the trial as politically motivated. Taylor, he said, was a legitimate leader who decided to offer aid to rebels in Sierra Leone. He stated: “If such behavior is to be deemed illegal, then I’d like to see it be deemed illegal across the board.” Mr. Griffiths’ statement was an oblique way of wondering whether leaders in the UK, Europe and the US would be held responsible for crimes committed by rebel groups they backed with funds, weaponry or logistics.

No reasonable person would dismiss the above argument. I for one want to see a world where the same standards are applied to leaders who choose to enable the gruesome acts of groups like Sankoh’s RUF. Former President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq – on the basis of questionable claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction – deserves round condemnation. Scores of thousands of Iraqis perished in the invasion, and continue to die in the reign of violence unleashed since. If Mr. Bush were an African president, it is altogether conceivable that his invasion of Iraq could have triggered an invitation to the dock at The Hague.

Only a fool would insist that all nations are treated equally. Different measures are used for different leaders – there’s no question. That’s a reason to work, by all means, to achieve a fair measure of accountability that is blind to the complexion, prestige and power of the perpetrator of inhuman acts. But it would be a grave mistake to invoke the reality of unfairness to let a man like Mr. Taylor get away with his cruel deeds.

In fact, I am more sympathetic to those who dream to have more African rulers docked. Taylor and Sankoh, the man he sponsored, collaborated to create widespread death and destruction – general mayhem – in Sierra Leone. Many Nigerians believe that their so-called leaders, past and present, military and civilian, easily dwarf Mr. Taylor’s blood-soaked record. Still, the internal political as well as judicial systems in Nigeria (as well as many African countries) are arranged to protect the same men and women who, on the strength of their actions, are the biggest criminals in town.

Isn’t it curious that no Nigerian judge – all the way to the Supreme Court – had the courage to make the simple determination that former Governor James Ibori was the selfsame Ibori who was convicted of stealing building material in Nigeria? Is it not telling that the machinery of Nigerian justice couldn’t convict Mr. Ibori on a single count of money laundering? By contrast, once Ibori was extradited from the United Arab Emirate to the UK, the man lost his swagger. He pled guilty before his trial proper began – thereby averting a stiffer sentence.

Which brings us to the scourge of Boko Haram. A few years ago, I wrote that the war Nigeria ordered had arrived. I was referring then to the rising militancy in the Niger Delta where members of the Joint Task Force were using artillery and air bombardment to repel the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). It was, for all intents and purposes, a war. And I suggested in that column that the war was one we deliberately asked for – desperately ordering it with the currency of economic injustice, money laundering, the pauperization of the vast majority of Nigerians. In short, we asked for war then – as we do today – by acting counter-intuitively, playing ostrich, denying reality, blinding ourselves to the lessons of history. Nigeria had fought a costly civil war from 1967 to 1970, but its leaders and people persist in acting as if the war never happened, as if there were no lessons to be taken away from that devastation, as if close to two million lives could perish in vain.

And so, here we are, again, with another (Boko Haram) phase of a long-running Nigerian war. And again, there’s misrecognition of the import of the war. In fact, both the press and the country’s political leadership have achieved the evasive genius of refusing to call what the country is going through by its proper name: war. Nigeria is at war, and not (as some might assume) against the entity that has come to loom in our imagination as Boko Haram.

The enemies are the same politicians (some of them former khaki boys who now favor embroidered agbada) who have stolen the nation to a state of stupor; the same presidents, governors, ministers, legislators, past and present, who use their loot to send their children to foreign schools (because they have destroyed Nigerian schools); those who shamelessly ferry themselves to India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Canada, the UK, Germany etc, etc for medical treatment (because they wrecked Nigeria’s health care system); those who claim fuel subsidy payments for fuel they never supplied; those who approve these fraudulent payments; those who, for a slice of the eba, refuse to prosecute these fraudsters; those who bury reports of financial scams and scandals (Siemens, Halliburton, fuel subsidy etc) under the carpet; judges who arm big-name embezzlers with protective orders; journalists who, for a small hand-out, are happy to report that black is white and white black; electoral officials whose magic touch makes winners of losers and losers of winners.

In a book titled “The Fire Next Time, the late African American writer James Baldwin had warned his fellows about the prospect of conflagration unless the nation found a way to slay the monster of racism. Baldwin, a prophetic writer, spoke about a coming combustion. In the case of Nigeria, it is the fire this time.

In other words, the war we ordered is not only here, it is also feeding on its own fuel.

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