So, they finally bustered the bastard…that’s what many might think at the 50-year sentence Charles Taylor received by the Special Court for Sierra Leone yesterday. And indeed, it’s not in any way regrettable that someone like Charles Taylor should disappear in some prison for a couple of decades, yet what is utterly bizarre that he was not sentenced for whatever murder, deaths, cruelty, torture and killings that occured in the Liberian civil war but for “aiding and abetting” the RUF in neighbouring Sierra Leone. His apparent crime was to have sold weapons to the RUF and “advised” them on attacks on Sierra Leonean towns in 1998 and 1999. But of course, this alone would not allow to construct a case against Charles Taylor, so according to the prosecution, Charles Taylor’s real crime was to have elaborated a plan with Foday Sankoh in which the terrorization of the populations by all violent means available played a key role. As for any mundane murder, prosecution had to prove that the terror of the Sierra Leonean war was the planned, intentional and voluntary outcome of Charles Taylor’s plan. Hence, the entire indictment is built on the assertion that Taylor and Sankoh had met in the late 1980s in Libyan training camps and that they had elaborated such a devilish plan sometime 1988 or 1989 prior to the RUF entering into Sierra Leone.
There are a number of things that are very fishy in the entire trial, from its timing to the final court announcement of the sentence in which allegedly one of the judge’s microphones was switched off to silence his reservations over the trial’s procedures. These are footnotes to the much larger problem of international criminal justice and how it (im)possibly can render justice, all of these having been brilliantly discussed by Martti Koskenniemi. What I found interesting for this post is how this judgment contributes to the construction of a particular narrative of the war in Sierra Leone that is less and less based on documentary evidence, of which very little was presented at the trial, and more and more on hear-say as well as retrospective reconstruction of ideas, motives and interpretations of events. The Sierra Leonean war is an excellent case to observe how war narratives are constructed. The country was too small and insignificant before the war broke out to have attracted huge amounts of research into its political, economic and social structure and yet, as an anglophone country, it had already served as case study for the state failure literature, notably with the analysis of William Reno, in the wake of Zartmann’s “quasi-state” analysis. It is actually this mixture of a little evidence we have, which, despite its internal thoroughness and consistency, comes together to a picture that conveniently suits some powerful states in this world (see also Chris Mahoney’s comment on the Charles Taylor trial).
The merits of Reno’s excellent analysis notwithstanding, this partial, generalized ignorance of Sierra Leone’s social conflicts prior to the civil war lent itself conveniently to uphold three basic claims throughout the war and now in its aftermath: a) the government of Sierra Leone, i.e. Siakah Stevens, mismanaged the country for personal motives but the basic governance structure of the country, which was not fundamentally changed since the colonial times, is by and large ok; b) the only problem of the lopesidedeness of the Sierra Leonean economy which relied/s heavily on multi-national companies for the exploitation of its mineral resources is that the government was/is too corrupt (see a.); and c) consequently, Sierra Leoneans would live happily if only the government were not corrupt OR, to talk in the present time, without a corrupt government they have all reason to live happily. This three-layered argument conveniently conceals the detrimental nature of multi-national companies’ engagement in the mineral exploitation of Sierra Leone, it hides from our eyes the miserable living conditions of notably the rural populations before the war and also after, which have been, additionally, hardened after the ravishing effects of the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s, and it finally points exclusively to the domestic government as main actor of politics, hence silencing the numerous external influences on Sierra Leone’s politics, from the IMF to the former colonial power Great-Britain.
However, if these three elements are re-integrated into the analysis the narrative of the war in which Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh played Risk in large scale on the Liberian-Sierra Leonean border appears overly simplistic and actually not that right anymore (some this can actually be pieced together through a careful reading of the rare literature on Sierra Leone before the war, whether by Paul Richards, Alfred Zack-Williams, William Murphy, Caroline Bledsoe or Marianne Ferme) . The real problem with the verdict’s thin documentary base lies exactly there: for all these other aspects, too, there are only very few documents. Whether it is the shadowy role of the British FCO, army and secret services or the ghost-like appearance and disappearance of private security companies all over the country, whether we look at lack of serious analyses of the Sierra Leonean economy before the war and its criminal features or at the ways the Sierra Leonean political structures shape social forces in a way that violent dissent is “the last way out” (to take up Jeff Goodwin’s title), and if we simply, for just a moment, assume seriously that Sierra Leoneans maybe did not live happily before or even now after the war…then we quickly stumble over questions we need to ask about the appropriateness of the global economic structures, the role of international organisations and of former colonial powers, of neighbouring countries like Nigeria or South-Africa, and about the inappropriateness of tools like peacekeeping and peacbuilding in these contexts.
Yet, the documents that could answer these questions are well hidden or simply inexistent. We will have to wait at least another 10 if not 30 years until we can access the archives of the British FCO and MI5 in order to understand the role the British forces played in support of the private security companies and the so-called Self Defence Forces of Sierra Leone (and the same is true for South Africa which is the country from which many of these private security companies originated and which might also hold valuable documents on them); we will probably never be able to access any documents which will tell us much about the transnational networks of money and diamonds through which people like Jamil Sahid Mohammed financed the Sierra Leonean and the Lebanese war; nor will we probably ever have any access to any documents which might exist on the overall very unglamourous role of the African Union peacekeepers; and we will most certainly never find any documents that tell us anything about how it comes that in the current economic situation of Sierra Leone the large majority of businesses engaged in the mineral exploitation sector are financed through British, Israeli or American capital.
Yet, whereas in the one case, namely Charles Taylor’s trial, the lack of written evidence was taken as prove that the hear-say is true, the lack of written documents will be for a very long time considered as prove that there is not and never has been any other problem in Sierra Leone than that of too greedy elites and weirdo, illuminated warlords. By the time historians will be able to access those other documents, this narrative will have become the standard narrative in history books and that conflict analysis that does not like to look far beyond the policy reports of the same international organisations which have constructed exactly this narrative (as for instance the Uppsala Conflict Encyclopedia).