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Nigerian President Lands in Liberia

Aired July 6, 2003 - 11:05   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: A critical meeting is about to get under way in West Africa, just one day before President Bush departs for the continent. We're talking about the president of Nigeria and the president of Liberia expected to hold their meetings at the airport in Monrovia, which is exactly where we find our own Brent Sadler, who is at the airport there for the latest update.
Hi there, Brent. Has the meeting actually begun, or even the arrival taken place of both of the presidents?

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there. Good morning. You join us live here at Monrovia International Airport, such as it is, in this war-ravaged nation. And there in front of me you can see quite a reception committee for the Nigerian president, whose aircraft actually has just flown overhead and is circling, losing altitude, and really coming into its final approaches onto the tarmac, not quite touched down yet.

What you have amongst that crowd are supporters of the Liberian president Charles Taylor. And many of them are carrying slogans there, perhaps you can see some of them, many of them referring specifically to the core of one of the main issues surrounding the background to this very important meeting here in Monrovia today. And that is calls amongst these people for a war crimes indictment issued last month in neighboring Sierra Leone against Mr. Taylor to be dropped. They're not saying that's a condition here on the ground amongst government officials, but it is certainly key to what may happen next as far as the future of Mr. Taylor is concerned.

Now, the Liberian leader arrived here about an hour and a half ago; a rather noisy motorcade drew up to the VIP suite here. Mr. Taylor, dressed from head to toe in white, came out of the motorcade; he spoke a few moments to reporters and said that this is "a very good day, let's see how it turns out."

Now, the Nigerian president's aircraft has just touched down. I understand we're waiting to see it come into view. And Mr. Taylor has yet to emerge from the VIP suite and go out to meet his Nigerian counterpart.

Now, very importantly, the issue of the war crimes indictment is very much seen as, as I say, not a condition, but the main reason why the Nigerian leader is here, as a key member of ECOWAS, the European Community of West African States. Mr. Taylor hopes to be able to convince his visitor that the war crimes indictment must be revoked for there to be an orderly transition of power, for Mr. Taylor to leave office in an orderly fashion. This, they say, according to his officials close to him, is a key component of what they're looking for. They do not want to see a vacuum of power here, and for this country to fall into even greater chaos and bloodshed.

Now, behind all this, of course, are continued calls from U.S. President George W. Bush for Mr. Taylor to leave office as quickly as possible for the sake of his own impoverished people. It's not quite as simple as that.

Now, if we swing the camera slightly off these crowds, you'll just pick up, maybe there, the landing lights of the Nigerian president's plane touching down on the tarmac there. It's going to take several minutes for him to get to the red carpet that's been laid out here.

If you come back in a few minutes, you'll be able to see a military band and various people welcoming this head of state visit, face-to-face meeting, coming at a crucial moment in the history of what happens in this war-ravaged nation. Back to you in the studio.

WHITFIELD: All right. And on board that plane believed to be the Nigerian president, and as soon as he deplanes -- and we'll be able to go back to our Brent Sadler to get a little bit more debriefing on the meetings that are upcoming between the Nigerian president and Liberian president, when we come right back.


WHITFIELD: We're going to take you back out to Monrovia, Liberia, there, where, at the airport, the Nigerian president, President Obasanjo, has just arrived there. He is getting ready to meet with Liberia's President Taylor. They will be talking about the planned asylum, or, at least, the requested asylum, of President Taylor, as -- on this very day.

U.S. assessment team is also making its way to Monrovia today. Later on, they're going to be heading straight to the U.S. embassy and begin talks about trying to make decisions on when U.S. peacekeepers will be making their way there, and if indeed U.S. troops would be following if President Bush makes that decision. President Bush embarking on his five-nation -- African nation tour as early as tomorrow.

Brent Sadler is right there at the airport, watching it all firsthand. Brent, what can you see and what can you tell us?

SADLER: Well, good morning. I'm about to be drowned out by the arrival of the Nigerian president's aircraft. It's just coming up behind me. The picture you have in front there, you look at the steps; at the foot of those steps, engulfed by supporters and the news media, is the man at the center of all this, and that is the Liberian president Charles Taylor.

He just walked out of the VIP suite, such as it is in this war- ravaged nation, and walked along the red carpet to the applause and cheers, even a military band, accepted the congratulations of the crowd. Remember, these are all faithful Taylor supporters. And he came out dressed head to toe in white with the first lady of Liberia, Jewel Taylor, by his side.

And the aircraft is now just about 100 meters from the red carpet there. And hopefully, when the engines are switched off and the doors open, we'll be able to see the Nigerian leader coming into what I can only say is an extraordinary scene here. Because one of the first things that Mr. Obasanjo will see from the windows of his aircraft is a crowd of several hundred people here, many of them carrying slogans, which say, drop the war crimes indictment against Mr. Taylor. That's what is being held up.

Many of those signs you may be able to see amongst the umbrellas that are shading people from the fierce sun here. That's what many of those slogans are saying and they, of course, refer to a war crimes indictment that was issued only last month on June the fourth, from neighboring Sierra Leone, which indicted Mr. Taylor for war crimes -- alleged war crimes committed in Sierra Leone's civil war.

Mr. Taylor accused of exchanging conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone to support an insurgency, supplying weapons and mercenaries from a pool of Liberian mercenaries to fight in Sierra Leone, creating bloodshed there. So that indictment is really crucial to what may or may not happen to the timing of Mr. Taylor's departure as the president of Liberia.

Now, as those aircraft steps are rolled up to that incoming aircraft, the background to why there is so much attention here, why we're reporting to you live on this crucial meeting today, is that President George W. Bush has really raised the stakes, as far as Liberia is concerned, by making it absolutely plain that the future of the Liberians themselves, about 3 million people, and to try and bring about greater stability in this very unstable part of west Africa, that Mr. Taylor must leave office. Mr. Bush has said that repeatedly and he also said he will not take no for an answer.

Now, on the other side of the fence, just before this aircraft pulled up here, I was talking to some of Mr. Taylor's cabinet members, not least his defense minister, Daniel Chea, who made it quite clear that this meeting should last about two hours. It will take place here exclusively in the airport, will focus on how ECOWAS, that's the Economic Community of West African States, how ECOWAS can somehow put, if possible, that war crimes indictment aside.

Now, there are very many legal problems, complications involved in that, to say the least. But certainly, that is perhaps a mission impossible, we can't say. That Mr. Taylor is, it seems, although he's not saying it, putting maybe a condition for him departing office. Now, there's a lot at stake here. There's a lot of negotiating going on behind the scenes, not least from Nigeria, which is the powerhouse in ECOWAS. Also the United Nations, Kofi Annan involved.

And also the United States getting actively on the ground. Because even as this meeting of these two heads of states begins here in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, a U.S. assessment team, an initial group of about 15, plus about the same number of U.S. Marines, expected to be down on the ground at the U.S. embassy here in Monrovia by the end of this day. Really the vanguard, if you like, to try and find out what elements will be needed, how U.S. forces in a military humanitarian mission could be brought to bear on the ground providing the conditions are right.

Now, if we take a look at the aircraft steps now, really being put in place. And the Nigerian leader making here his first arrival into the Liberian capital, first time to Liberia, Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo. There protocol officials going up the stairs to greet him. It's going to take several minutes yet before we see the Nigerian leader. And at the foot of those stairs, once they actually greet, shake hands, in the midst of that melee, dressed in white, Charles Taylor himself.

Now, this meeting taking place here, because the security perhaps cannot be guaranteed outside the aircraft. There we have the arrival and applause of Mr. Taylor's supporters here as the Nigerian president walks down those stairs for this very, very crucial meeting, being watched closely, of course, by the United States. No western diplomatic presence here. Certainly the U.S. ambassador wouldn't expect to be invited to this kind of arrival by a head of state, given the U.S. position toward Mr. Taylor right now.

So this meeting a red-carpet treatment, here. We'll see some ceremonial events taking place here. There's a military band. People are pretty quiet at the moment, waving those banners calling for the indictment to be dropped. And, incidentally, calling for the United States and the United Nations to "help Liberia find peace."

So as these exchanges of greetings get on the way, get under way, here at the airport, let's look at some of the other issues that they'll be talking about here. One of the big problems is how a transition of power can take place. Let's look at Liberia as a whole. In the north you have a rebel group that only last month was able to enter parts of the outer limits of the capital, Monrovia. There was bloodshed on the streets, bodies strewn across parts of the Monrovian (sic) capital. Mr. Taylor, really he was elected back in '97 through a democratic process here, under intense military pressure from the rebels to quit office. A second rebel group, also from the south, assembled, inactive from the last offensive but nevertheless armed and dangerous to Mr. Taylor's continuation.

Those two rebel groups now abiding by a trilaterally negotiated cease-fire, which the United States and the United Nations, as well as ECOWAS, are involved in. That is now holding, that cease-fire. But according to western officials here, and that's primarily the United States, of course, most everybody else has left the capital, that is still tenuous. And everybody, all eyes really, those fighters, those rebel fighters in the bush, as well as the U.S. diplomatic presence on the ground here, as well as the U.S. administration, looking at what kind of statements are going to come out of this meeting.

We understand that Mr. Taylor is looking for some kind of assurances from Mr. Obasanjo that if he were to leave Liberia that he could expect to enjoy in Nigeria, which is about a three-hour flight from here, temporary political asylum. Now, what that adds up to, how that is defined, it's too early to say. But certainly, it could give, according to the parlance being used by Liberian officials, a soft landing, not least for Mr. Taylor, who's attempting to dodge that war crimes indictment, to have it revoked. But also to give a chance for there to be a soft landing for a transitional change of power here on the ground in Monrovia. Because everybody here is acutely aware of the problem that if this happens in a disorderly fashion, it means Mr. Taylor goes without guarantees, then a power vacuum could trigger off another bloodbath.

If you take a look around, as I have done over this past 48 hours or so of being inside the country, the poverty levels, the state of this country is absolutely at rock bottom. I was with the U.S. ambassador just a few hours ago. He tells me this is perhaps now the poorest country in the world. You can't tell really by these pictures, because this really is a well-choreographed reception committee here, a band playing music there, anthems for the two leaders. But beyond this rather colorful scene here, just step outside the airport, outside the city, and, in fact, most of the capital itself, the scenes are indeed quite shocking.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees in cities, not just the capital, but other lesser cities throughout the country, as well as extraordinary difficult and dangerous security conditions in the bush areas to the north and south of this country, which does have some amazing natural resources, not least rubber. Firestone, that great American brand name, that has a huge plantation here. There are also vast iron ore reserves, gold reserves, and possibly untapped oil reserves, as well. But, of course, over the many decades war has been the main feature of this country, and that really has brought it to rock bottom.

Now, as I say, before this reception committee, this official arrival got under way, I was chatting to Mr. Taylor's closest ministers in his government. And they're really looking for some wise leadership, they say, from President George W. Bush, for him to really to get to grips with what they say is the absolute necessity for Mr. Taylor to leave office. And he said he will leave office, quotes, but the conditions have to be right. According to some observers here, that unless that happens in an orderly fashion, that really the possibility of even further bloodshed is very high.

Now, according to the U.S. ambassador, who occupies a compound on the seashore about an hour's drive from the airport, this is really going to be a crucial meeting here today. There you see in the center there, both leaders, Mr. Obasanjo from Nigeria waving to the crowd on his right. On his left, closest to the camera here, the side shot of Mr. Taylor there, as they work their way through the cameras, through the media here, and supporters, to go into this VIP suite here.

A couple of hours at least of face-to-face talks. Some really hard talking going to be going on behind closed doors here. Mr. Taylor hoping to persuade his Nigerian counterpart that ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, must somehow find a formula to put aside that war crimes indictment so that Mr. Taylor can leave office. Meantime, at the same time as this is going on, that U.S. assessment team gathering in Spain should, or could, be in Monrovia, flying in, we expect, by helicopters by the end of this day, possibly during the hours of darkness, to deploy with a Marine security guard.

So they've gone in there behind the closed doors. We expect statements, some sort of a press conference afterwards, and we expect there to be a continuation of information coming out of this meeting. So if we just swing ourselves round from the live shot position and you'll be able to see the crowd here. They're going to be kept out here, doubtless, throughout this two hours of talks that are going to be continuing here behind these closed doors. And we'll continue with live coverage. Brent Sadler, CNN, live from Monrovia.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks very much, Brent.

We'll be right back.


WHITFIELD: We continue to watch for you the meeting taking place in Monrovia, Liberia, involving the president, Charles Taylor of Liberia and Nigerian President Obasanjo. And when we get more on that meeting, we'll be updating you throughout the day.


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