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African Dictatorships: No Place to Hide

Africa is becoming less safe for dictators and warlords. Facing growing pressure to step aside, Charles Taylor, the warlord-cum- President of Liberia, finally left Monrovia for exile on August 11. Besieged by rebels, indicted by Sierra Leone’s Special Court for war crimes against humanity, and publicly told to go three times by US President George Bush, Taylor was finally escorted into exile by the presidents of South Africa, Mozambique and Ghana following a ceremonial handover of power. But exile may no longer offer comfortable retirement for the continent’s tyrants.

Charles Taylor’s exit from Liberia has thwarted any immediate possibility of his arrest by the Special Court in Sierra Leone. Taylor was indicted on June 4 as he attended the opening of peace talks in Ghana. The timing of the indictment surprised many, ending secret talks in Belgium about an exit deal for Taylor and eclipsing the Ghana negotiations.

The indictment was also a catalyst for Liberian rebels to vigorously increase their efforts to overthrow him. It set off a bloody chain of events, with Taylor seeking the lifting of the indictment as the condition for his departure. He failed to achieve this, but did accept sanctuary from President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria; he now resides in a hill-top mansion in Calabar.

Soft Landing

In a deal supported by West African leaders and welcomed by the UN, Taylor handed the presidency to a stop-gap government which will in turn give way in the middle of the month to a transitional national unity administration, whose chairperson will lead the country until shortly after elections in late 2005, when a new president will be elected.

Even the Catholic Archbishop of Monrovia, Michael Francis, stated at Chatham House in July that the only thing he agreed with Taylor about was that he needed a ‘soft landing’, to avoid further bloodshed. Taylor’s departure was important for Liberia. He could have retreated to his jungle headquarters at Gbarnga and continued a protracted conflict from there. Peace talks progressed quickly once he went.

Human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International have protested loudly against such impunity for Taylor. How long he and other Liberian tyrants such as exwarlord Prince Johnson enjoy sanctuary in Nigeria remains to be seen. Johnson became infamous for his role in the torture and killing of Liberian President Samuel Doe in September 1990. This was captured on film and became a notorious video nasty, distributed around Monrovia and beyond.

Under the new peace agreement, a Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission will hopefully look at this and many other crimes against umanity. Taylor’s indictment will not expire and he remains vulnerable, especially if his relevance in Liberia weakens or there is a change of government in Nigeria.

Brought To Justice

In recent years, quiet exile for former African despots and warlords has become less predictable. The establishment of the new International Criminal Court could also provide an important deterrent. Ninety one countries have ratified the court treaty and this July the prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, announced that his first investigation might be into crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The war crimes tribunal in Rwanda and the Special Court in Sierra Leone both also have important functions.

Foday Sankoh, the former leader of the rebel Sierra Leone Revolutionary United Front, died in the custody of the Special Court in August. The Court indicted him in March for war crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law. Sankoh was among twelve people, Taylor included, indicted as bearing the greatest responsibility for these crimes.

National courts and domestic and international human rights NGOs are also playing an increasingly important role. The arrest of General Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998, on a warrant from a Spanish judge for crimes allegedly committed in Chile, set a precedent from which Africa was not exempt.

Mengistu Haile Miriam, Ethiopia’s former dictator, lives in Zimbabwe but fears to travel abroad after a trip to South Africa in 1999 for medical treatment had to be cut short because South African human rights activists and the Ethiopian government issued an extradition request. Mengistu has been accused of responsibility for multiple human rights abuses, especially during the Red Terror campaign of 1977-1978. Luckily for him, the South African government ignored the request until he had left.

A less known but equally significant effort has been launched against Chad’s former President Hissene Habre. Habre ruled Chad from 1982 until he was deposed in 1990 by current President Idriss Deby and fled to Senegal. His tenure was marked by widespread human rights abuses. In 1992 a Truth Commission accused the Habre government of tens of thousands of political murders and systematic torture.

In 1999, encouraged by the Pinochet case, a Chadian NGO teamed up with New York-based Human Rights Watch, which sent one of its most senior staff, Reed Brody, to assist in bringing Habre to justice. A coalition of NGOs was formed to support the case, a criminal complaint filed in Dakar and a hearing quickly started. On February 3 2000, the judge called in Habre and indicted him on charges of torture and crimes against humanity, before the Senegalese courts ruled he could not be tried there.

This ruling did not end efforts to bring Habre to justice. Some of his victims sought his extradition to Belgium, based on that country’s then law which gave its courts jurisdiction over human rights crimes worldwide. Senegal has greed to hold him pending an extradition request. Last year, a Belgian judge and police team visited Chad to investigate the charges and the Belgian government has since announced that the Habre prosecution can go forward despite the repeal of its universal jurisdiction law.

Many African leaders are also watching what is happening to former President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia. This year the Supreme Court endorsed parliament’s stripping of his immunity. He’s since been charged with sixty five counts of theft during his decade in office up to September 2001, and given bail. Chiluba denied the charges and a trial will begin shortly. If found guilty, he could serve a maximum seven years in jail.


Former dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, died in hospital in Saudi Arabia in August. He had lived in exile there for twenty five years after being ousted from power in 1979. Amin was responsible for gross human rights abuses including murder and torture, as well as the almost total exile of his country’s Asian population. He was removed by an intervention force led by Tanzania, which replaced him with former President Milton Obote. Obote’s second five-year reign was even more brutal than that of Amin. In what is today called the Luwero triangle, there are many monuments to his excesses and between one and three hundred thousand civilians are estimated to have been killed.

Obote was himself deposed in May 1985 by a military coup and has lived for many years in Zambia. His mansion, behind high red-brick walls in a leafy upmarket Lusaka suburb, has so far been surprisingly undisturbed.

In Harare, President Robert Mugabe must be considering his choices should his term in office come to an end. Exile destinations now require careful thought, and it is rumoured that Mugabe is looking towards Asia for possible retirement. Taylor, Habre, Sankoh and Chiluba’s recent fortunes are a warning to Africa’s leaders and warlords that they may at some point be made accountable for their actions. Unlike Idi Amin, they will not be guaranteed comfortable exile for a quarter of a century.

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