Era of impunity wanes for African leaders

Charles Taylor, Liberia's recently detained ex-president, will face trial for war crimes.

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. 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."

Hans Nichols contributed from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Wire services were used in this report.

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