GIVEN THE INTENSE EMOTIONS THE WAR AND THE establishment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) engendered over the years, the reaction to Charles Taylor's guilty verdict was equally emotion-filled.
For instance, SCSL Prosecutor Brenda Hollis called it a historic conviction. "Today's historic judgment reinforces the new reality, that heads of state will be held to account for war crimes and other international crimes," she said. "This judgement affirms that with leadership comes not just power and authority, but also responsibility and accountability. No person, no matter how powerful, is above the law."
Equally upbeat about the conviction was the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who said it was an immensely significant verdict, which constituted a stark warning to other heads of state who were committing similar crimes or contemplating doing so. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reacted in the same manner.
So, after spending between $100m and $250m trying Taylor, he was found guilty of something that has always been recognised: that he backed the RUF after ECOMOG (the Ecowas military intervention force in Liberia, where Taylor had launched its insurgency in 1989), used Sierra Leone's international airport to launch air raids against Taylor's forces in Liberia in 1990. Months later, in 1991, the RUF began its war in Sierra Leone.
The country's former President, Tejan Kabbah, who had to deal with the brunt of the RUF's atrocities and instability between 1996 and 2007, noted this last October when he spoke at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria: "Military leaders of ECOMOG are of the strong opinion that had there not been a Liberian conflict, there would in all certainty not have been a conflict in Sierra Leone. The use of Sierra Leone's territory by ECOMOG for operations against Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) instigated attacks in the border areas of Sierra Leone where the RUF had easy access."
Indeed, the seeds of discontent that germinated into the RUF had been sown in 1977 when the government of the late President Siaka Stevens unleashed the army against rebellious university students; and in 1982 after a violent election campaign left scores dead in the Pujehun District in Sierra Leone's Southern Province. The disaffected young people, traumatised by these two incidents, gradually made their way to Libya where they received military and ideological tutelage under the aegis of Muammar Al Gathafi, who was using his Green Book philosophy to spread instability in West Africa.
So, long before Taylor "escaped" from prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the USA in 1985 and went on to Libya for military training, Sierra Leoneans were already there.
The issue of Taylor's "escape" has been long debated by conspiracy theorists who suggested that the US government was behind it all. After all, Washington had got tired of Samuel Doe's idiosyncrasies as Liberia's leader and wanted him out of power.
The four other prisoners who escaped with Taylor were captured while he made his way to Africa to start his insurgency four years later.
Colin M. Waugh, author of Charles Taylor and Liberia, noted: "There had never been a breakout from the red-brick correctional facility in Obery Street, Plymouth, and the controversy over how Taylor and his group managed to do it was to continue for years afterwards. Divergent accounts of the Taylor escape and conspiracy theories involving the US authorities' complicity in the breakout were in abundance, emanating both from within and from outside Plymouth."
Waugh quoted a 1992 Taylor allegation that the CIA engineered his escape. The former Liberian leader was quoted as saying: "I wouldn't even be in the country [Liberia] today if it weren't for the CIA. My escape ... I think they must have arranged that. …