A former Chadian military leader accused in the deaths and torture of thousands of opponents lives in this pleasant, seaside capital [Dakar, Senegal]. An infamous Ethiopian dictator has a haven in Zimbabwe. Uganda’s Idi Amin, perhaps the most notorious of all, died peacefully in his place of refuge, Saudi Arabia.
When Africans play “Where are they now?” the answer is rarely “facing justice.” But that may be changing.
Hopes have been raised by the case of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president accused of greed and savagery extraordinary even for a continent that has known some of the worst tyrants of modern times. He was extradited Wednesday to face crimes against humanity charges at a U.N.-supported Special Court for his role in fomenting civil wars in Sierra Leone.
Taylor’s case warns African leaders to “be very careful how they are governing their people,” said Sierra Leonean civil rights activist Abdul Gilles.
Taylor fled to Nigeria in 2003 as part of a deal to end the civil war in Liberia, which he had financed with his trafficking in Sierra Leone’s diamonds. Last week Nigeria, under pressure from the U.S. and others, said it would hand him over to the U.N. court. He tried to flee and was recaptured early Wednesday, reportedly with two 110-pound sacks of dollars and euros.
The arrest set the precedent that leaders accused of atrocities “must be judged,” said Ismail Hachim, head of a Chadian group working to put their former dictator, Hissene Habre, on trial in Belgium.
Belgium, whose laws empower it to try crimes against humanity wherever they are committed, issued an international arrest warrant for Habre last year, though his Senegalese hosts have resisted pressure to extradite him to Belgium.
Habre was ousted by rebels and fled in 1990. Two years later a commission in Chad accused his regime of 40,000 political killings and 200,000 cases of torture.
As democracy spreads in a continent that used to be a Cold War battlefield, it’s getting harder to run a dictatorship.
Nigeria’s Olesegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator, is now an elected president who portrays himself as a democrat who respects human rights. Liberia has Africa’s first woman president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank technocrat who took office in January pledging reform. Sierra Leone has an elected government.
“The chances each day are greater that if you commit atrocities, you will be brought to book,” said Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch.
Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga last month [March] became the first suspect to stand before the new International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. He was charged with war crimes, including recruiting child soldiers. And Jean Kambanda, prime minister of Rwanda at the beginning of that country’s 1994 bloodbath, pleaded guilty to genocide before a U.N. tribunal and was jailed for life.
But some of the most notorious have evaded court. The colonial past colors some African attitudes to the West’s prescriptions for good governance, and dictators stand together, fearing they could be next to go on trial.
Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia is blamed for the killing of hundreds of students, intellectuals and politicians during the “Red Terror” against supposed enemies of his Soviet-backed military dictatorship. He fled a rebellion in 1991 and was taken in by the authoritarian regime of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. His army had helped train Mugabe’s guerrillas in their struggle for independence from white rule.
Mengistu was charged in Ethiopia with crimes against humanity, but Zimbabwe refused to extradite him.
Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s then-president, cited shared history as anti-colonialists when he granted refuge to Uganda’s Milton Obote. Obote had come to power by ousting Amin, and is himself blamed by the current Ugandan current government for more than 500,000 deaths from his urbanization policies in the early 1980s.
Then there’s Sudan’s Darfur region, which the United Nations has described as the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis. Along with tens of thousands of dead, more than 2 million people have been displaced by fighting between ethnic African tribes and the Arab-dominated government and militias it backs.
Some analysts think the refusal by Sudan’s leaders to let U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur stems in part from fear they will be pursued for war crimes.
(subhead: “Some analysts see the prosecution of Liberia’s Charles Taylor as a milestone. Others say despots are left with no incentive to step down.”)
Until last week, former Liberian President Charles Taylor seemed nearly untouchable.
He was forced from power in 2003, exiled to Nigeria and under pressure to face war crimes charges before an international tribunal. But justice couldn’t reach him. His vow upon leaving Liberia that “God willing, I’ll be back” added to his almost mystical aura of power in West Africa.
Many analysts regard his arrest last week and transfer to the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone as a watershed for the region, sending a message that the richest and most powerful are not beyond the reach of the law. Those who favor prosecuting Taylor argue that it will deter other African tyrants and warlords.
But others argue that it could lead autocrats to the opposite conclusion: It makes no sense to leave power peacefully.
So far, the courts have gone after leaders from weak or rogue states, not major powers, a point some Africans cite in characterizing international justice as something applied unevenly at the convenience of the most powerful countries.
Two recent high-profile cases are examples: Taylor faces trial before a tribunal set up to investigate war crimes during the civil conflict in Liberia’s neighbor, Sierra Leone. At the new International Criminal Court in The Hague, the first defendant is Thomas Lubanga, who was a militia leader during the civil war in the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Analysts say some African leaders are reluctant to set a precedent for international prosecutions because of their own dubious records.
Taylor’s escape from custody in Nigeria, carrying a large amount of cash and making no attempt at disguise, raised questions about that government’s role, as did his arrest as he tried to cross into Cameroon just 24 hours after news of his disappearance.
Eric Witte, co-director of the Democratization Policy Council, a group based in Washington and Luxembourg that promotes democracy, said he believed Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo was complicit in Taylor’s escape as well as his capture a day later. Obasanjo was in Washington to meet with President Bush and under strong U.S. pressure not to let Taylor get away.
“The level of resistance to Taylor’s arrest and transfer and trial demonstrates precisely why it is so important,” Witte said. “Obasanjo and others in West Africa were so reluctant to see Taylor arrested because so many of these leaders have skeletons in their own closets. This was an old boys’ network and they were looking out for each other’s interests while failing to look after their people’s interests.”
Others fear that warlords will be deterred not from atrocities, but from agreeing to peace deals.
Peter Penfold, former British ambassador to Sierra Leone, said Taylor’s exile to Nigeria took him out of the equation and allowed for peace in Liberia. Putting him on trial three years later sends a message that such deals are ultimately worthless, he said.
“You have to persuade both sides to put down their guns and stop shooting, and there are often quite difficult negotiations,” Penfold said. “If it is felt that the international community can come in and trample over these agreements and cart people off to war crimes tribunals, what is the incentive for these people to sign these agreements?”
Charles Stith, director of the African Presidential Archives and Research Center at Boston University, argued that prosecuting leaders of the apartheid regime in South Africa would have undermined the negotiated settlement that ushered in the successful transition to democracy.
“Given that Taylor left office because of a negotiated settlement, does this commitment to prosecuting him help or hinder African efforts to deal with problems in future?” Stith asked.
Corinne Dufka, West Africa specialist for Human Rights Watch, said it was rare for tyrants and warlords to give up power unless they had no choice, as was the case with Taylor in 2003.
“Taylor left because his arms supplies dried up. His back was up against the wall,” she said. “I think the message should be loud and clear that any exile is a temporary arrangement.”
The role of the Special Court for Sierra Leone is to prosecute those with the greatest responsibility for war crimes, but with most of those either missing or dead, it was limited to lower- and mid-level suspects — until Taylor’s arrest.
Gary Bass, author of a book on the politics of war crimes tribunals, said victims are often frustrated by the length of trials and the platform they offer the accused.
“There may be strong dissatisfaction with Charles Taylor having the opportunity to make his case in court,” Bass said. “But it’s better than private vengeance and it’s better than impunity.”
People in Sierra Leone have low expectations for the justice system, but the prosecution of Taylor could motivate them to hold politicians accountable for corruption and human rights abuses, Dufka said.
In the old West Africa, the fastest way to power was the gun.
“I think there’s a demonstration effect for warlords and would-be warlords,” Witte said. “There’s a promising new effort [under way] to reorder the region along the lines of accountability. Bringing Taylor to justice is the single biggest symbol that could shake people from apathy in the region and give them hope there’s a different way.”
It could be the beginning of the end for Africa’s long era of impunity, during which awful deeds committed by presidents, dictators, and warlords have gone largely unpunished.
The highest-profile evidence: This week’s arrest of notorious ex-Liberian-president Charles Taylor on war-crimes charges, which follows the recent booking of former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Meanwhile, former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba is on trial for corruption, and upheaval in Kenya over graft allegations has led three cabinet ministers to resign.
In fact, the Zambian and Kenyan cases may be more important in the long run, experts say, because they’re home-grown examples of holding leaders accountable for misdeeds. By contrast, the arrests of Messrs Taylor and Lubanga came in large part because of Western pressure. Ultimately, observers say, the extent to which the toppling of impunity is done by Africans – not because of American or other outside arm-twisting – may determine how thoroughly impunity falls.
Either way, however, “The arrest of Taylor is really good news for Africa. It sends an important signal that impunity might be a thing of the past,” says Peter Kagwanja of the International Crisis Group here [Johannesburg]. Furthermore, it’s evidence that even if “you’re protected by [continental] heavyweights like Nigeria or South Africa” – as Taylor and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe have been – “you may not be protected” any more.
Taylor was arrested in Nigeria this week and is expected to appear as early as Friday before the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in that country’s capital, Freetown on charges of committing crimes against humanity. He’s the first African head of state to be put on trial for such crimes. The trial, which will probably not start for several months, is expected to actually take place in The Hague. The venue change is apparently due to regional security concerns.
“One of the problems of trying Charles Taylor is that there has been insecurity in the region for quite some time, and he has been at the epicenter,” says the court’s chief prosecutor, Desmond de Silva. “There is a lot of anxiety in neighboring countries that his trial in Freetown might produce some sort of regional instability.”
Taylor’s arrival in Sierra Leone came a few days after the March 20 appearance of Mr. Lubanga at the ICC, where he’s expected to be charged with war crimes. He’s the first person to come before the ICC.
In Zambia, meanwhile, Mr. Chiluba is on trial for stealing about $500,000 during his 1991-2002 presidency. And, in Kenya, a series of graft scandals has left President Mwai Kibaki weakened, and may lead to an investigation of the vice president. The central bank governor has been asked to step down, pending a corruption probe.
Yet one Kenyan politician with possible links to corruption, former President Daniel arap Moi, isn’t likely to be prosecuted, says Kagwanja, because, in the African view, “the war against impunity should not be war against stability.” Taking down a powerful man like Mr. Moi could create instability.
Likewise, left to their own devices – and given Taylor’s still-considerable influence throughout West Africa – African leaders probably would have asked newly elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf “to cool her heels and stabilize herself before dealing with the question of Taylor,” says Kagwanja. This would have given Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo time to “get his house in order” about possible plans to change the constitution so he can run for a third term – plans that may be affected by his actions on Taylor. It would have been at least a year, Kagwanja says, before African leaders dealt with Taylor.
Instead, amid strong US pressure, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf announced at the UN headquarters in New York on March 17 that she was requesting that Mr. Obasanjo send Taylor to Sierra Leone to face trial. When Obasanjo demurred, saying Africa’s leaders needed to be consulted, even more US pressure was applied. When Taylor escaped from Nigerian custody on Tuesday, there were hints President Bush might cancel his Oval Office meeting with Obasanjo on Wednesday. Suddenly, Taylor was found, arrested – and promptly shipped to Sierra Leone.
While effective, such outside pressure can be risky, experts warn. First, it implicitly binds the US to helping keep the peace in Liberia, should the trial of the still-popular Taylor spark unrest there. Also, if Taylor’s trial is seen as biased – or a product of US pressure – it “has the potential of turning Taylor into a hero or a martyr,” says Kagwanja, “and that doesn’t augur well for Liberia.”
Taylor still has many backers in Liberia, including the country’s third-most-powerful official, Speaker of Parliament Edwin Snowe, who is Taylor’s ex-son-in-law.
Johnson-Sirleaf addressed this Thursday, saying anyone “who would try to use these circumstances as an excuse for insurrection to undermine the stability of the nation” would be “dealt with harshly, without mercy.”
Still, another sign of declining impunity is the fact that African leaders didn’t overtly criticize Obasanjo for handing over Taylor, says Ayesha Kajee of the South African Institute for International Affairs here. In an effort to boost Africa’s image in the west – and respond to grass-roots rumblings – African leaders have been moving away from impunity, she says. “There’s a recognition that this is an increasingly globalized issue – the issue of justice on the basis of human rights.”