JOHANNESBURG -- Nigeria's government agreed yesterday to hand over former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who faces international war crimes charges, to Liberia's new democratic government, effectively ending the former warlord's more than two years of asylum in Nigeria.
Taylor, who left Liberia in 2003 under an internationally brokered asylum deal, faces charges in neighboring Sierra Leone of backing a rebel movement there infamous for hacking off limbs. He is also considered one of the key figures responsible for a 14-year civil war in Liberia that left 250,000 people dead.
Human rights organizations praised the agreement to extradite Taylor as a step toward justice, but some Liberian analysts questioned whether the fledgling Liberian democracy has the resources to successfully extradite the exiled strongman.
Nigeria's statement said yesterday that "the government of Liberia is free to take former President Charles Taylor into its custody," but a number of Taylor's family members, who had been living with him in Nigeria, were reportedly fleeing the country in the days leading up to the new agreement.
"Liberia's army was dismantled. How do they come and get him? It's incredibly worrisome," said Emira Woods, who is from Liberia and is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, a U.S.-based think tank. International pressure on both Liberia and Nigeria to quickly bring Taylor to justice "is putting really a tremendous burden on this newly installed government," she said.
If extradited, Taylor, charged with backing brutal rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds and helping fuel regional conflict, would probably be swiftly transferred to Sierra Leone to face trial there before a U.N.-supported war crimes court.
In granting the warlord asylum, Nigeria had agreed not to hand him over to the court. The decision to offer him to Liberian custody was widely seen yesterday as a way to satisfy international pressure, particularly from the United States, without directly violating the asylum agreement.
Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is thought to be seeking international backing for a third term in office, is scheduled to visit Washington on Wednesday, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia's new president, was in the U.S. capital last week.
Laurie Goering writes for the Chicago Tribune.