World View; When It Comes to Africa, Our Thirst for Justice Is Best Not Satisfied: Let Corrupt Leaders Know That Giving Up Control Means a Life in Peaceful Exile, and They May Consider Doing So

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So, the old bastard has accepted the inevitable. Spurned by voters, despaired of by his generals, nudged by diplomats, he has realised it is time to go. The first lady has stuffed her Versace into her Gucci bags, the presidential motorcade has crunched down the State House gravel driveway one last time and the butler has quietly removed the colonial silver set, which the new incumbents are unlikely to miss.

And what could be more fitting, more natural or more satisfying, when one of Africa's dinosaur presidents quits the scene, than to deliver the justice so long denied? Throw the former Big Man into the cell where he had opposition leaders tortured, drag him in handcuffs before the judges he threatened, read out the gory details of the killings he ordered and publish the list of companies he snatched. Let the boil be lanced. For, as every human rights group can tell you, nothing has done more to undermine ethical leadership in Africa than a climate of impunity. Right?

Well, up to a point. As time goes by and the number of African leaders facing reluctant retirement grows, I find I'm becoming rather a fan of watered-down justice. Not impunity per se, but a pragmatism that falls well short of a true settling of accounts. In years to come, already long-suffering African electorates will be obliged to become models of magnanimity, for one simple reason: it's the only way to ensure Africa's thugocrats leave in the first place.

Take Charles Taylor, Liberia's psychopathic former president. Since he flew out of Monrovia last August, western journalists have taken their cue from the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Why, they keep asking Taylor's Nigerian host, President Olusegun Obasanjo, has a man charged with crimes against humanity by Sierra Leone's special court not been surrendered to the prosecutors?

Taylor is a nasty piece of work. But if he handed him over, Obasanjo would be welshing on the understanding on which Taylor's departure was premised: I'll go quietly now as long as I'm not humiliated later. And if the Nigerian president breaks that promise, what message does that send to the likes of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who will one day be facing a similar dilemma? Arrest Taylor, and the lesson to decaying autocrats is clear: best die at the controls. In a roundabout way, the Zimbabwean people risk paying the price for the human rights groups' moral principles.

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Mugabe raises another interesting question. …