“Time to bring Taylor issue to closure,” says Sirleaf

Liberia has requested the extradition from Nigeria of former Liberian head of state Charles Taylor, the Nigerian presidency said on Friday.

President Olusegun Obasanjo’s office said in a statement that Liberia’s newly elected head of state, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, had made a “formal request” for the extradition of the former warlord.

And while on a visit to the US on Friday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf told the UN Security Council in New York that “it is time to bring the Taylor issue to closure.”

Taylor, who was indicted for war crimes by a UN-backed Special Court in Sierra Leone, fled into exile to Nigeria in 2003 as rebel forces closed in on the capital Monrovia and the United States led international calls for him to step down.

Taylor’s exit from power was crucial to the signing of a 2003 peace deal in Liberia that ended 14 years of a brutal on-off civil war, and despite repeated calls for his handover to the court, Obasanjo had always insisted he would only hand him over to a government that had been democratically elected.

Johnson-Sirleaf, who is currently on a visit to the United States, was elected to office last November in the first democratic polls held in the country since the peace deal.

“In keeping with his commitment to give consideration to any formal request from a democratically elected government of Liberia for the return of former president Charles Taylor, President Olusegun Obasanjo has duly notified the chairmen of the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that President Johnson-Sirleaf has made such a request," the Nigerian statement said.

Nigeria will consult with the AU and ECOWAS before responding to Sirleaf’s request, it added.

While Human Rights Watch representative Corinne Dufka, who is based in Dakar, praised Sirleaf’s “enormous step,” she criticised Nigerian plans to consult with regional bodies.

“Nigeria needs to respond favourably. We do not believe [Obasanjo] needs approval from the African Union or ECOWAS,’ Dufka told IRIN.

Representatives of the Special Court in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown also welcomed the news.

“This is a breakthrough in many ways – we are glad to hear that things are finally progressing and would also like to see a conclusion as soon as possible,” Harpinder Athwal, Special Assistant to the Prosecutor told IRIN.

The Special Court, due to close in 2007, is currently facing a funding crisis and only has enough money to last three or four more months. However, if Taylor were to appear in the dock donors would likely stump up the cash necessary to complete his trial, said Athwal.

“It would take about six months to organise and conduct his trial… [but] if Taylor were to arrive by April, his trial could be completed alongside the others,” Athwal said, adding that the life of the court could always be prolonged if Taylor was sure to face trial.

But on the streets of the Liberian capital Monrovia, where some fear that Taylor’s arrest could re-ignite old quarrels, reactions were mixed.

“We fought for Taylor to leave power and he left. Peace is now in Liberia,” said Swaliho Mansaray a 30-year-old former fighter with the largest rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, that was originally established to chase Taylor out of office.

“It is unfair at this moment to have him sent to court for crimes he committed in Sierra Leone. We should not encourage that. Sierra Leoneans and Liberians have all decided to put the past behind them,” he continued.

But others want to see Taylor in the dock: “Taylor made us suffer too much in this country and helped to destroy Sierra Leone just for their diamonds,” said Jerry Carter, who hawks cosmetics on the war-blackened streets of Monrovia. “Now it is time for him to face justice for all the wicked things he did.”

Although Taylor has left Liberia, many of his former allies as well as his ex wife won seats in the new parliament and senate during elections held late last year, the first since the end of war.

Lawrence George, chairman of Taylor’s former ruling party, the National Patriotic Party (NPP), told IRIN that the fate of the former leader should go before the legislature.

“Now that the Nigeria government has confirmed receipt of a formal request to have Taylor turned over, it is up to all stake holders - local party leaders, the regional body and the international community - to jointly decide, not only the president,” George said.

The NPP has formally requested that the legislature debate the matter, said George. Sirleaf holds the presidency, but her party the Unity Party, does not have a legislative majority.