On Monday 25 June ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor went on trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague accused of crimes against humanity committed during the Sierra Leone civil war.
Taylor opted to remain in his cell prompting Judge Julia Sebutinde to order the trial to proceed in his absence.
“A lot of the country was still under rebel control,” says Arnauld Akodjenou, who headed the UN refugee mission to the country between 2000 and 2003, of the situation on taking up the post. “I was ashamed at what I saw,” he adds, describing a country still under curfew in which people were barely surviving.
A ceasefire a year earlier had done little to make Sierra Leoneans feel safer. “People were really scared,” says Akodjenou.
“In a nutshell, the living conditions were really painful; water was a problem, electricity was a problem. All these things made people believe it was better to live outside the country despite the peace agreement that had been signed.”
By April 2000 it had become clear the ceasefire was not going to hold. According to Akodjenou that was largely because “the UN peacekeeping force… did not have the mandate and appropriate resources to respond to violations in the ceasefire.”
Adding to the tensions, rebel troops had caught and held hostage 500 peacekeeping troops – an incident in which Charles Taylor “played some role,” Akodjenou suggests.
In May 2000 800 British troops arrived in Sierra Leone to evacuate Europeans and secure key areas of Freetown – an event Akodjenou believes was one of Tleony Blair’s’ finest foreign policy moments.
“Their arrival saved not only the government but the UN mission – and, de facto, saved my life” he says.
The British intervention was a vital turning point; “The mission started to become more and more successful,” says Akodjenou. As a result, a lasting peace agreement was signed in 2002.
Throughout the war, a key contributing factor to the conflict had been control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines. Indeed, says Akodjenou, diamonds have been Africa’s worst enemy, “far more than oil”.
The UN’s decision to place a ban on the export of Sierra Leonean diamonds, preventing their sale for guns, is lauded by Akodjenou.
“We were not in a position for security reasons to provide appropriate protection to these people,” says Akodjenou when discussing the UN refugee agency’s work during the civil war.
The sufferings of IDPs (internally displaced people) made a lasting impact on Akodjenou, who witnessed at first hand “those who suffered, those who got their rights violated and those who got shot,” as well as the “many many child soldiers.”
Looking back, Akodjenou is adamant the UN could have done better. “The mission somehow failed in sowing the seeds of sustainable peace,” he says. “The [Sierra Leonean] government remained too dependent.”
That, however, is not a problem unique to Sierra Leone, he points out: “We may go through the same in Liberia and in the Congo.”
Taylor’s trial at the Hague is the first time a former African head of state has been held to account for alleged crimes against humanity.
The importance is not missed on Akodjenou who says the trial will “bring to light many issues of which we are not told, but [also] symbolically it sends the right message” – that the days when despotic African leaders could act with impunity without fear of international incrimination are numbered.
Akodjenou is hopeful the age of lawlessness is over and that there will soon be peace in West Africa.
“Having Charles Taylor is a great symbol,” he adds, “The trial will sparkle all over the continent in terms of the way people govern their country. The future will be a bit brighter.”