THE BEAUTY, THE BEAST AND NIGERIA
Diamonds are forever. So are the troubles that go with them. Like old sins, they cast long shadows. Ask Naomi Campbell, the British super model. Now, she knows that, as glittering and priceless as they may appear, not all diamonds are safe to accept or keep. Some diamonds are blood- tainted and come in a bagful of controversy. Call them blood diamonds. Toxic diamonds. No matter. Diamonds have caused the delectable Naomi a headache she couldn't have bargained for. Poor girl!
Please, don't get it wrong. The damsel, who has kept heads turning, hearts pounding and jaws gaping for many years running on the runway, neither traded in diamonds nor coveted them. The beast thought he could charm the beauty with the precious substance. Naively, she had accepted, not knowing she was courting trouble, that the day would come when she would be accused of 'flirtatious relationship' with the diamond robber and asked to declare all she knew about the murderous beast and the illegal business which he exploited to commit genocide against his people.
According to reports from the Special Court in Sierra-Leone, the embattled Liberian war lord, Charles Taylor, had at a charity ball in South Africa which had the revered global icon, Nelson Mandela, in attendance, offered a gift of some diamonds to the model. Naomi saw them as 'dirty-looking' diamonds and gave them to a South-African cop. She didn't see them as valuable or didn't know how to take them along. However, by so doing, she also escaped the country's immigration laws which forbid the possession or export of diamonds and such substances.
End of story? Not quite. A few years after, she's being quizzed by the court in a bid to ascertaining if the diamonds she had received from Taylor was part of those the war lord had stolen from his country when he seized the treasury and unleashed terror on its people and other nationalities, including hundreds of Nigerians. Naomi denies that she neither bedded Taylor nor knew the diamonds had blood soaked in them. The trial continues, even as the prosecution tries to establish its case that the free wheeling Taylor had tried to use the diamond bait to woo Naomi, the queen of the runway. Did the model actually date Taylor? Did she accept diamond gratification from the warlord knowing they were looted? Should she be held liable for accepting gifts from a male admirer, even if the man is now facing criminal charges? As the court pleases!
However, this piece is not really about the Taylor/Naomi alleged tryst. Just like the rest of the world, I see the Naomi episode as the comic interlude in the Taylor trial which has been on in the last three years or so. It's about the lesson of the rise and fall of Taylor. It's about the consequences of ruthless ambition for power and unbridled greed for wealth. It's about African leaders and how they loot their countries, while pretending to serve them. Indeed, there is a day of reckoning for every Taylor in Nigeria, at the centre, the states, local government councils, as well as, other government officials who are inflating contracts, over-invoicing and diverting funds meant for the development and well-being of their people.
Taylor was a struggling civil servant in Monrovia who fled his country to escape justice when he was to be put on trial for alleged fraud in his ministry. Once abroad, he rallied the opposition to fight the country's president, Master- Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, who himself had turned into something else in power. A combination of efforts by the mushrooming militia groups finally ousted Doe. Enter, Taylor. Instead of unifying his country and forging a new path, Taylor learnt nothing from the past. He carried on with the war of attrition, plundered the nation's resources which came mostly in smuggled diamonds and the country's other rich mineral resources. The internecine battle in Monrovia still leaves soured tastes in the mouths of many Liberians, even after Taylor's exit, five years after.
On a visit to Monrovia a year ago, I saw the relics of Taylor's war against his country. From the Robertsville airport to the streets, you see a country battling to bounce back to life. You see a people still traumatised by the horrors of war when brothers took arms against brothers. Morris Washington, our cab driver told the story of rape, carnage, starvation and destitution. He told Austin Agbonsuremi, the versatile journalist with AIT and I: 'Men, war is ugly. You couldn't pass through any street in Monrovia. Taylor's boys were everywhere, raping our girls and mothers and extorting the people. That man deserves every punishment he's getting.'
Today, the country's leaders are working their bones trying to reconstruct the nation and the minds of their people. President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson confessed that it's not been quite easy: 'I have to work till late most days. There's enormous work here. We lack skilled labour. We lack resources. We have to re-orientate our people and get them thinking straight again. The war affected us in many ways you can't imagine.'
Not only did Taylor deal with his people, his savagery knew no territorial limit. Nigerians became his main target, because he felt that the military junta of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida had a soft spot for Doe. He massacred hundreds of hapless Nigerians, including those who had taken refuge in churches and the embassy. This is August, and we remember that it was in August 1991 two young, Nigerian journalists: Krees Imodibe of The Guardian and Tayo Awotunsin of The Champion, were violently murdered by the butcher of Monrovia. Truly, like President Sirleaf-Johnson said, 'the war affected us in many ways.'
If Taylor is paying for his sins today, it ought to be a reminder to Nigerian politicians, especially those who hold political offices, that no abuse of office will go unpunished. Sooner than later, justice will be done to the memory of hundreds of Nigerians who have been dispatched to their untimely graves as a result of the decrepit state of facilities and infrastructure.
A nation that ought to be one of the richest in Africa has been profusely bled to the extent that health care has become a mirage; majority of the citizenry wallow in abject poverty, unemployment and destitution. Not because we can't afford these things, but simply due to the insensitivity and greed of those who occupy temporal office. When top government officials throw champagne parties, paint the town red in exotic parties or siphon billions abroad in a foreign bank or engage in a senseless and wasteful jamboree in the guise of seeking the elusive investor, do they ever ponder how many lives would have been saved in the theatres, on the roads or rescued from the pangs of starvation if the funds had gone to useful ventures?
When these men get to power and begin to behave as if there is no tomorrow, do they ever worry that they may end up like Taylor? Taylor had money and fame(infamy, rather). But he didn't give a hoot. He needed more money, and committed more havoc. When the day of reckoning came, it was like a bad dream, a movie. At the Sierra-Leonean Court, where he's being grilled by ruthless interrogators, he surely would know this is no dream or movie. For him, it's payback time, for all the evils against his people. Who will tell our brothers in the business of ruling and ruining our people?