Digging Deeper: Out of Africa, Charles Taylor Sentenced For War Crimes

Africa today is not the Africa of my youth. When I was six, on the continent, only Ethiopia was free. The continent was a spider work of colonies run from Europe by the English, French, Portuguese, Belgians. No country controlled its own wealth in minerals or energy, its agriculture or land ownership or its education and medical care.

Then Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Leopold Senghor, the revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, the psychologist, theorist and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and thousands of others raised their voices. These men corralled the crushed hopes of a people occupied by European colonial authorities. These men guided the conversations of small populations living in villages without water or roads, of people existing by planting and herding, who nevertheless knew the heart’s highest hope—of freedom and greater prosperity, of education, a life disease-free, without worries of hunger, of new ways to work and travel, to have the final voice in determining their own affairs. And after a massive struggle, in some cases with arms, Europe let go.

And almost instantly and unexpectedly, a new struggle began. Resistance leaders against European occupation became rebels in their own country when they refused to surrender their arms. The pursuit of freedom was replaced by a grab for power. These former heroes became warlords. They were backed by a new set of countries seeking to destabilize Africa or to expand their influence in internal affairs. China supplied arms to rebels operating from the bush. Even private corporations funneled payments to these illegitimate figures who disrupted nation-building by murder and rape.

That’s why this morning’s report of Charles G. Taylor, the former President of Liberia receiving a 50-year sentence by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war atrocities in Sierra Leone, is good news. In April, Charles Taylor became the first head of state convicted of war crimes and atrocities since the Nuremberg trails of World War II. His 50-year sentence is longer than the average Liberian life span (37 years).

His lawyers immediately protested. “The sentence is clearly excessive, clearly disproportionate to his circumstances, his age and his health and does not take into account the fact that he stepped down from office voluntarily,” said Morris Anya, one of the Taylor’s lawyers. Taylor joins eight other African figures who have been convicted of crimes against humanity from 1989 forward. Taylor himself spent seven months testifying at his trial, which included 115 witnesses. He denied the orders of murder, rape, recruitment of child soldiers, the sale of blood diamonds, directing a campaign of genocide from 1991 that left 50,000 dead in the country that borders Liberia.

Taylor came to the world’s stage when he led a small force across the border of the Ivory Coast into Liberia to overthrow Samuel Doe, a military sergeant who had seized power previously. In a complicated history of ethnic hostilities, rival differences, factions developed and reformed, the world’s most egregious violence spilled across the borders of several countries, decimating communities, while other countries like Libya used the factions as proxies for their own national aims.

Youth soldiers under Taylor’s command tore the eyes out of rape victims so they could not identify their attackers. One mother was forced to carry a bloody bag of heads that included those of her own children. Limbs were routinely hacked off.

While the people of the earth we share are dying, the world’s most expensive broadcast systems, with the best trained journalists with staffs of researchers and technicians, will tell us about a birth certificate.

When did birth become more controversial than death? And my joy at Taylor’s sentence is a letdown, as it can not replace or solve the grief and global suffering for the living and dead, young and old, women, sick, and hungry. My momentary joy makes me realize how tired I am of old news.