Magazine article The Spectator

Trapped in the Palace

Magazine article The Spectator

Trapped in the Palace

Article excerpt

If we really want Gaddafi to go, we should let him retire in peace

When Barack Obama and David Cameron met in London this week, one problem would have been foremost in their minds. It's more than six weeks since they penned their joint article with Nicolas Sarkozy demanding that 'Gaddafi must go'. It's more than two months since they started airstrikes in Libya. Yet Gaddafi is stubbornly refusing to be toppled.

He is not alone. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh has reneged on two deals to step down and, at the last minute, refused to sign a third - despite an American promise of immunity.

In Syria, Bashar Assad seems determined to stay on through sheer bloody force, unmoved by US and EU sanctions. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has announced that he will run for president again this year at the age of 87.

How do you persuade despots to step down if airstrikes, sanctions, international condemnation, regional pressure, declarations that they are war criminals or even offers of immunity won't sway them? The problem becomes particularly acute when they know only too well you don't want to put boots on ground to oust them militarily. It's easy for Obama and Cameron to say 'go'. But where?

Once, dictators could just step down, and go off to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth in villas in the South of France. But for nine years now, the International Criminal Court has been scouring the planet for people to prosecute. It was intended to deter those in power from committing atrocities, but many argue that it has actually made it harder to end wars by removing a tyrant. For despots who already have blood on their hands - Gaddafi was indicted by the court last week - the threat of prosecution is a reason to fight until the bitter end.

Diplomats who have wrestled with these problems before can see how the court has complicated things. 'If Gaddafi's option is to go from king of kings to handcuffs in T he T T Hague you know which choice he's going to pursue, ' says Charles Stith, the former US ambassador to Tanzania. His experience in Africa convinced him that one of the biggest challenges in the post-colonial world is getting leaders to move aside. 'Power is a seductive mistress and once she has kissed you on the lips it's hard to walk away. A lot of these guys get used to trappings of power and begin to think they're indispensable.'

His solution is a rather unlikely-seeming idea: to lure them away with fellowships at American universities. He set up the African President-in-Residence programme at Boston University, funded by the US State Department, to offer leaders a dignified exit.

Starting with Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, he has hosted six former presidents and is always looking for recruits. 'It's not a perfect world, ' he says. 'The importance of our programme is it gives leaders an option to leave office in a dignified manner and continue to have status and an international platform. We try to turn them into elder statesmen.'

The idea of tutorials from Professor Gaddafi may sound ludicrous. But in January, Obama tried to persuade the Ivory Coast's strongman, Laurent Gbagbo, to step down in favour of a post at Boston. He turned it down and, in his three further months of power, killed 1,300 people.

Exile is an alternative. Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda for eight murderous years in the 1970s, lived out his final decades in the top two floors of the Novotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It might have been galling to see such a monster enjoy a luxury retirement, but it almost certainly saved thousands of lives. …

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