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Did the cannibals get too close for comfort for Naomi Campbell?

2010 August 6
by Paul Vallely

For the man right at the very back of the room in the dark suit, and the expensive pearl grey tie, the appearance of Naomi Campbell in court in The Hague yesterday must have been a welcome relief. For the past three years the focus in the courtroom has been fairly unremittingly on him. He is Charles Taylor, the man accused of war crimes in Sierra Leone.

To say ‘war crimes’ understates it. Taylor is accused of being responsible for a decade long slew of killing across West Africa. The deaths of tens of thousands of people – in an orgy of murder, rape and systematic mutilation in which machetes and axes were used to hack the feet or hands from adults, children and even babies – can be traced back to this unsmiling cuff-linked character, the court alleges.

Even in the grim annals of African history Charles Ghankay McCarthy Boye Dakphanna Taylor, the small man with a big name, stands out as a grotesque figure.

Taylor is a former president of Liberia. His history there is a bloody one.  Born to a wealthy family he was sent to the United States at the age of 24 to Massachusetts to study economics only to become charged with embezzlement. After a successful jailbreak he fled to Libya.

There he received military training under Colonel Gaddafi. He used it to return to Liberia where he headed an eight-year insurgency which ended in the overthrow of the  government. Some 200,000 people were killed, and more than a million forced from their homes, in one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa’s bloody history as seven rebel factions fought for control of Liberia’s iron, diamonds, timber and rubber.

At the end of the war in 1997 he stood for president on the slogan: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”.  The voters did, presumably thinking he would be less trouble in the presidential palace than heading a rampaging rebel army in the bush.

Ordinary Liberians did not prosper under him. Unemployment and illiteracy remained above 75 per cent. He did not invest the country’s huge mineral wealth in schools, hospitals, roads or other infrastructure.

But what he did do was interfere in the civil war of the country next door. Taylor backed the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone,  who were accused of countless atrocities. The accusation is that he supplied arms to the rebels in exchange for diamonds mined in the war zone which peace campaigners dubbed “blood diamonds”.

Over recent months the court has heard some pretty revolting testimony against Taylor. One of his former commanders has claimed that he ordered human sacrifices of those he thought had betrayed him and then feasted on their intestines. He is said to have had a pregnant woman alive buried in sand. He has been accused of forcing cannibalism on his soldiers to terrorise their enemies.

Taylor’s time in power came to an end in 2003 when he was overthrown, while out of the country, by his vice-president. He fled to Nigeria. That year the UN’s Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted him for crimes against humanity.

Three years later, within weeks of taking office, the current President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – a former director of the United Nations Development Programme and vice-president of Citicorp – submitted an official request to Nigeria for Taylor’s extradition.

His trial began in the International Criminal Court in The Hague in June 2007.

It has been a turning point for the continent of Africa. In the past its corrupt leaders knew that, even if they were eventually forced from office, they would find safe haven somewhere on the continent courtesy of another member of the African presidents’ club. The trial of Charles Taylor has signalled an end to that cosy old arrangement.

It is another step in Africa’s long march to democracy and freedom. If he is convicted he will serve his sentence in a jail in Britain.

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