African leaders, like some police officers who won't cross a "thin blue line" to help nab a bad cop, have long coddled the continent's dictators. That code of inaction, however, broke last week when Nigeria handed over Africa's worst war-crimes suspect.
Charles Taylor, a former rebel and Liberian president who unleashed 14 years of savage war and atrocities in West Africa, was captured in Nigeria as he tried to flee and was sent to a special international court in Sierra Leone. He was arraigned Monday on 11 charges, ranging from murder to unlawful use of child soldiers.
It should be a historic marker that Mr. Taylor is the first former African head of state to face international justice. But that symbolic step must not overshadow the fact that Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo - albeit under strong pressure from the United States - helped put him in the dock.
The risks for such actions are still high in Africa. The US-educated Taylor, who is largely responsible for wars that led to an estimated 400,000 deaths, is still so revered by his former militias that his trial must be held in The Hague in the Netherlands for fear of a rescue attempt in Sierra Leone or renewed violence.
Nigeria's breakthrough move should send a message to African leaders in Zimbabwe, Sudan, and elsewhere that their days of impunity for brutalities and the harboring of war-crimes suspects may not last. The world has seen how international interventions have put Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Iraq's Saddam Hussein on trial (and, maybe soon, Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge leaders). Africa's despots cannot remain immune to a global trend toward making sure war atrocities don't go unanswered in court.
Rwanda's 1994 genocide is being handled in a special international tribunal in Tanzania. And last month, the Democratic Republic of Congo transferred a militia leader, Thomas Lubanga, to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face warcrimes charges. That court also has arrest warrants for leaders of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.
Holding Africa's leaders and warlords accountable, either by democracy or foreign sanction, is necessary if the region's many problems, from AIDS to famine, can ever be fully addressed. Recent attempts by the G-8 industrialized nations to tie their aid and trade to better governance in Africa are off to a rough start. Only two nations, Ghana and Rwanda, have been closely examined by other African nations under a "peer review mechanism."
Just as the US attempt to reform the Middle East requires Arab leaders to stand up for human rights in other Arab nations, reform in Africa demands courage at the top. South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, for instance, needs to be more outspoken about authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe.
International pressure on an Africa still prickly over its colonial past can often backfire. But US nudging of Nigeria to hand over Taylor was pressure well spent. A stronger US hand is also needed on Sudan to resolve the Darfur conflict. Many African leaders know what course they need to take to end wars, achieve justice, and solve social ills. A right mix of carrots and sticks should generate reforms that actually stick.