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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Africabeat has moved!

Africabeat as moved to a new home:

It's still in the process of a visual redesign. All of the old posts are there, but sadly the comments are not. If you would like to read old posts & old comments, I'm keeping this shop open, but turning off comments. To add new comments and to read new entries, visit:

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Charles Taylor Flees

Charles Taylor fled his villa in Nigeria. So I guess all of the discussion of the Special Court and Sierra Leone has just become moot.

What did everyone expect would happen after the president of Nigeria publically announced his intention to hand over Taylor before bothering to actually arrest him?


Charles Taylor and the Special Court for Sierra Leone

I was happy when I read the news that Nigeria has finally pledged to give up Charles Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. I'm not sure if President Obasanjo just grew tired of Taylor or if the Americans offered him a really sweet deal, but I'm thrilled that finally, the Special Court has caught its big fish.

At least that was my initial reaction. Although I really do feel that for many Liberians, and for Sierra Leoneans as well, seeing Charles Taylor leave his comfortable exile in Nigeria and stand trial for his role in two disastrous civil wars is an important step on the path to closure, I can't help but wonder what good, in the end, all this can serve.

The gist? This court and perhaps all courts of its kind are created by the West for the benefit of the West with very little reference to the actual needs of the people for whom they are supposedly seeking justice. The result is a process and an institution painfully out of step with local realities.

Special Court for Sierra Leone – Out of Step?

In 2004, I spent ten weeks in Freetown where I had the chance to meet foreigners working both within and without the massive Special Court machinery.

For me, so much about the multi-million dollar court was strange, out of step, incongruous, and irrelevant.

Maybe it was experiencing the physical contrasts between the court compound and the rest of the city. When I went to observe the court proceedings, I'd walk out of the sweltering heat, out of the city that had no functioning power grid and only a few blocks of paved roads and into a compound full of flat screens, high pressure water, automatic lights, and an army of foreign personnel. Every judge, every defense attorney, every member of the prosecution team had their own, brand new computer. A building the Sierra Leonean government no doubt eyes greedily, but will be too expensive and sophisticated to maintain once the Court leaves Freetown.

The prisoners - those that bore the "greatest responsibility" for the atrocities committed during the civil war - lived in absolute luxury when compared to the local population. They had televisions, phones, air conditioning, visitors, trained defense teams and absolutely no prospect of the death penalty. Why? Because our standards and conventions dictate prisoners must be treated well even when our idea of "well" is a standard living out of reach of 99 percent of the population.

Meanwhile at Pademba Road Prison, the foot soldiers of the war, the men and women who were just children when they murdered and maimed, endure squalid conditions in overcrowded cells, awaiting trial, often without a lawyer, in a court that will likely convict and execute them long before the Special Court's prosecution of the RUF and CDF leadership conclude.

Some of the staff I met confided in me that they didn't particularly like Sierra Leoneans and that although they had never set foot in Africa before coming to Freetown, it seemed like a good place to earn ones stripes on the way to the ICC. "That's what you wish for in this field. A country with massive human rights violations and good beaches." Similarly, for Sierra Leoneans working there, a gig at the Special Court was probably one of the highest-paying jobs you could get in Freetown. And so you had this feeling that everyone was moving through a ritual, reciting the company line of "ending impunity" - and spending massive amounts of money doing so - without being the least bit invested in the process.

I remember talking to one lawyer about the Court and asking whether it meant anything in a place where educated people still believed that the workings of computers could be partially explained by the powers of magic spirits, where child soldiers who fought in the war were protected by magic that made them impervious to bullets. In Sierra Leone, could people really connect with all of these concepts of justice and "international law" we had imported here, concepts of arguable value to local life? Why wasn't anyone out in the villages where most of the violence actually happened talking with chiefs, holding public meetings, asking the Sierra Leoneans who actually did the killing, the suffering, the dying what would make them feel safe and whole again. He found that course of conversation a bit annoying, I think, and dismissed it by telling me quite simply that he had no interest in what was going on outside the Court's walls, in learning the local language. He was there to do a job. He was doing it. And when he was done he would leave.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was supposed to provide that public, grassroots component. But it was never allowed to finish its mandate. Yes, there were programs to reintegrate ex-combattants, programs focused on reconciliation, programs designed to reach out to larger numbers of people. But the energy and money pale for these endeavors pale in comparison to what's been spent on the Special Court.

And so at the end of the day you have this costly project to prosecute a small handful of people in a forum few Sierra Leoneans really understand when the mass of people who were actually hurt by this war have seen no tangible justice or healing.

What Will the Court Accomplish?

Shortcomings aside, what really matters is whether the Court can really help to "end impunity" - whatever that means - and prvent Sierra Leone from going through another civil war.

In 2004, few people were hopeful. "Sierra Leoneans hate themselves and each other," I was told. "As soon as the United Nations leaves, the country will be right back where it was before 2001 because none of this is addressing the root causes of the war."

And if that's true, then what good was all the money spent, the careers made, when the people are still hungry and justice is beleaguered by so many glaring incongruities?

Filmmaker Farai Sevenzo: "For Africa and here in Sierra Leone, almost $100 million (2003) has already been spent on an experiment. As I see U.N. personnel relaxing on the beaches and see the four-by-fours littering the streets of Freetown, I wonder if the U.N. has got this all wrong. What is the point of spending millions on trying a handful of men, some of whom are dead, in a land that is desperately poor? The money being spent here is not consolidating the peace. It is money that will not be seen by Sierra Leoneans. The West, it seems, is imposing justice when they have little part in ending Sierra Leone's war." (

I just think of Milosevic, or Saddam Hussein, or any of the ex-dictators who stand trial in these forums and inevitably end up using them to win press and flatter their own vanities and need for public love. I cannot imagine Taylor being any different.And so in my mind, the prospect of his trial extending the mandate of the Court, dragging on for years, and eating millions of dollars all so new generation of Yalies can get their feet wet - it just doesn't seem worth it.

But in the end, these kinds of courts will continue to exist, fueled by our own guilt and our failure to do nothing while people were actually getting killed, and the agendas of people who genuinely want to create an international system of rules and norms – a noble goal if it were not for the fact that the people upon which these rules and norms actually end up being tried and tested are not the ones who wrote them. They are the ones who were nearly destroyed by war and all too happy to have the money that comes along with these giant, "ending impunity" projects.

David Crane, the Special Court's American prosecutor, has said: "Someone has to account for the 500,000 murdered, dead, raped, maimed and mutilated. This is the 21st century. This isn't the 15th or 14th century. We are better than that now." (

Ah yes, so parts of Africa are living in the 15th or 14th century, and it's up to us, the West, or us the Americans to save them from themselves. Because we, the ones who understand justice, who have no blood on our own hands, are the ones who can go and teach this kind of enlightenment to the dark places in the world.

Maybe the rules and norms by which the world should be governed are actually universal. But our ways of understanding and interacting with them are not. And to think it's our job to preach rules we ourselves refuse to live by is nothing less than arrogant.

Money spent on the Court as of 2003: $100,000,000

2005-2006 Budget: $25,539,700