Reaping The Whirlwind

  • PublishedApril 30, 2009

“I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, has come in and taken its place” – Winston Churchill to the Palestine Royal Commission, 1937.

What perspective gave birth to a Ghanaian proverb which loosely translates like this: “You cannot hide behind your finger.” In 2002, thousands of Britons voted Winston Churchill as the “greatest Briton” that ever lived. Yes, the man had great attributes, including this quote: “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes,” he wrote in 1919 as president of the Air Council. And yet Churchill is the “greatest Briton” that ever lived!

Well, let me look over my shoulder and refrain from upsetting my host country. Let me concentrate on the matter at hand. In 1938 Pastor Martin Niemöller was arrested by Hitler’s Gestapo and was freed by Churchill and his Allies after Hitler had killed himself. Pastor Niemöller then put his thoughts on paper, and what he said rings true today, especially in the case of the current African anger over the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir. Niemöller wrote: “First, they came for the Jews and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.” It was a wise man who said: “There is always something new out of Africa.” How else can we explain the current outrage across the continent about the ICC indictment of President Bashir, when only three years ago Africans folded their arms, kept their mouths shut and watched as a former African president, Charles Taylor, was arrested and flown to the ICC facilities in The Hague in chains?

“Okoto nnwo anoma” (A crab does not give birth to a bird), say our elders in Ghana. If you sow plaintain, you can’t reap cassava. We allowed the Americans who would not permit even their lowliest citizen to be tried by the ICC to seduce us with sheer propaganda about Charles Taylor. Aided by their cousins in Europe, the Americans succeeded in using some misguided African human rights activists dragooned into the unholy alliance that called itself the “Campaign Against Impunity” to lead the chant for Taylor’s head – a man that not only “the African leadership” but also the UN, US and Britain had given an immunity-from-prosecution deal that saw him voluntarily step down as president of Liberia in 2003. At the time of his arrest in March 2006, when the African leadership said nothing in his defence, Taylor, like Pastor Niemöller before him, warned: “Today it is me and only God knows who it will be tomorrow. Indeed, these developments extend well beyond me and require some serious reflection and action by you  [the African leadership] and others for the sake of our continent.” Among other things, Taylor asked the African leadership to set up “a commission to look into the political and legal underpinnings of how I ended up in Europe to face trial and their implications for other African heads of state and governments.” The African leadership still did nothing, to this day! And, strangely, they are now shouting themselves hoarse over President Bashir. Why?

I even hear the former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, is also criticising Bashir’s indictment. Haba, what else can one do with President Obasanjo? This man never ceases to amaze me. In mid-2003, Obasanjo’s government issued a lengthy statement through its high commission in London about Zimbabwe having finished serving its suspension from the Commonwealth and thus should be allowed to attend the next Commonwealth Conference then impending in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in November 2003. On the same day, South Africa, perhaps encouraged by the Nigerian stand, also issued a similar but shorter statement via its high commission in London. A few months later, Obasanjo, lent upon by Tony Blair’s Britain and the white Commonwealth, would not even give the Zimbabweans an invitation to attend the Abuja Conference. The most galling aspect of it all was when Obasanjo’s government banned the SADC leaders in the Commonwealth from holding a press conference in Abuja to express their dissatisfaction at the way Blair & Co had handled the Zimbabwe issue. They were told to go back home and hold the press conference there, not on Nigerian soil.

In that same year, 2003, Obasanjo was one of five presidents (the rest were: Ghana’s John Kufuor, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano, and Sierra Leone’s Tejan Kabbah) who met in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, at the behest of “the African leadership”, to give assurances to President Charles Taylor to step down in exchange for an immunity-from-prosecution deal approved and secured by the UN, US and Britain, that would ensure that he would not be tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Part of the deal was that Nigeria would give Taylor a safe haven in Calabar in southeast Nigeria. Yet, three years later, Obasanjo, again lent upon, this time by the Americans, surrendered Taylor to the very Special Court from which he had been given immunity. And what was worse – the duplicitous way in which Obasanjo’s government went about the job was absolutely disgraceful.

Abuja claimed that Taylor was arrested when he tried to escape from Calabar into Cameroon. But the facts of the case, as published by New African in May 2006, are that there was no “escape” in the normal sense at all.  Abuja had, in fact, impressed upon Taylor to leave Calabar and seek refuge in another country because Nigeria could no longer withstand American pressure to give him up. Abuja did give Taylor money, two getaway cars, and security escorts to spirit him away. But midway through a journey that saw Taylor and his escorts travel over 1,250 km to Maiduguri in the far north of Nigeria, Obasanjo’s government shamelessly double-crossed Taylor by announcing that he was a fugitive! But tell me, who goes to Cameroon from Calabar via Maiduguri? Please check your map.

I have just finished reading a 109-page record of a Congressional Subcommittee hearing held on 8 February 2006 on “The Impact of Liberia’s Election on West Africa”. But don’t be deceived by the title because, in reality, it was a hearing on Charles Taylor and why it was “a top US priority” to see him tried by the Special Court. Everybody who testified that day, including the Special Court’s former prosecutor, David Crane (see story on pp. 30–33), made the important point that bringing Taylor to trial was “in the US national interest”, despite the US having agreed to Taylor’s immunity deal two years before. In his testimony, David Crane, an American lawyer who in earlier life had worked as the “assistant general counsel for the Defence Intelligence Agency”, congratulated the Congressional Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations for working with him over three years to indict Taylor. “I think it is very important for the record to recognise the tremendous, steadfast, and bipartisan support this Committee has given me personally, professionally and politically during my tenure as the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone,” Crane enthused. “For three years, we all worked together to face impunity in West Africa…” Crane went on to cite the US House of Representatives 420–1 vote in May 2005 calling for Taylor to be handed over to the Special Court for trial, which itself had followed a similar 95–0 vote by the European Parliament in February 2005, asking for the same thing. And then, Crane went for the hyperbole: “In this period when we celebrate and recognise the principles laid down at Nuremberg 60 years ago,” he told the Subcommittee, “we must resolve as human beings who care about humanity and the rule of law, that there cannot be an African exception to those principles.”

Crane had earlier been introduced at the hearing as a “distinguished visiting professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law in the summer of 2005”. But what a poor “distinguished professor” he is when he pretends to know no history. Where was the Distinguished Professor Crane when “an African exception” was made to the “Nuremberg principles” in South Africa in 1994? And in Zimbabwe in 1980? And Namibia in 1990? And Mozambique and Angola in 1975? And Kenya in 1963? And everywhere else in Africa where white people had been the killers of Africans before independence! And even in DRCongo in 1996–2003 where the US had used Rwanda and Uganda as the public face of an American project to overthrow President Mobutu (and, as a booty, hand over the exploitation of Congo’s strategic minerals to Western companies), a project which saw an estimated five million Congolese dead, directly and indirectly from the war! And yet, the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda who had allowed their armies to be used to do America’s dirty work are free from prosecution today! An exception to the Nuremberg principles indeed!

Dear Distinguished Professor Crane, you and the Congress should not deceive yourselves that the world doesn’t know why you picked on Charles Taylor. In any case, since when did America care about human rights in Africa? Didn’t Washington support the hateful apartheid system all those years? Hasn’t America supported some of the odious dictators in Africa? For the avoidance of doubt, let me say here that I’m not against African leaders being made to answer for their crimes, using international justice. But don’t do it selectively! And if international justice is to have any meaning, American and European leaders, like Bush and Blair whose disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, should also be made to answer for their crimes. For Africa, there is one lesson in this for us. We allowed ourselves, in Taylor’s case, to be dragooned into what is patently a political trial serving “American and British national interests” more than Africa’s, and we shouldn’t complain when the ICC comes for more, in the shape of President Bashir. We dug our grave, and it is only fair that we lie in it.

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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