- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

After ex-President Augusto Pinochet barely escaped a trial in Europe for human rights abuses, the Chilean Parliament voted to give immunity to all former presidents. Africa's remaining strongmen may not be so lucky. Nor can the peoples of Africa look forward to a replacement of their current strongmen by democratic rulers and the kind of stable economy that Chileans have enjoyed since Mr. Pinochet's retirement in 1993. To the contrary, in Africa the odds favor the kind of anarchy and economic collapse that followed the fall of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko three years ago.What African states now under strongman rule need is help from the international community to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy and to negotiate an exit strategy for the strongmen who now feel that their only option is to tighten control in order to stay in power and thus avoid the threat of prosecution.

In February, a Senegalese court indicted Hissene Habre, Chad's ex-president living in exile in Dakar since 1990, on torture charges and placed him under house-arrest until his trial later this year. For the first time, a court in an African country charged a former head of another African state with human rights violations.

After Mr. Pinochet's 17 months under house arrest in Britain, no head of state in the world could feel immune to a protracted legal struggle over responsibility for "crimes against humanity." Following the less-publicized indictment in Dakar of Mr. Habre, Africa's remaining "Big Men" in Gabon, Guinea and Cameroon, among others, face a problem unforeseen only a few years ago: Their Western allies can no longer guarantee a comfortable exile arranged in the Third World, Europe or the United States. Increasingly, courts recognize "universal jurisdiction" for violation of human rights, and the plaintiffs have the advantage of a Zeitgeist urging revenge on the strongmen, regardless of what may happen to their countries.

Paradoxically, Africa's worst ex-tyrants and those to whom the West owes nothing seem so far unaffected. Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose successors call him responsible for the deaths of a million of his people, remains in exile in Zimbabwe, and Uganda's disgraced Idi Amin Dada is so far protected in Saudi Arabia.

On a recent visit to Togo, I spent some private time with President Gnassingbe Eyadema, as he celebrated the 26th anniversary of what he calls a miracle proving that God singled him out for a special purpose: He was the only person out of some half-a-dozen people aboard to walk out alive from a plane shot down by a missile launched by assailants unknown to this day. On Jan. 24, he hosted a lunch for 300 in his hometown Kara, in his gleaming white palace. The multicourse meal could have been served in Versailles during the Sun King's reign.

Surveying this splendor from a dais, Africa's longest-reigning strongman showed no emotion. But he listened avidly to my presentation which voiced regret that the international community had not made a concerted effort to help Mr. Mobutu, Mr. Eyadema's closest friend and ally, to exit Zaire peacefully in 1997, after 37 years in power. I reminded Mr. Eyadema that two weeks before Mr. Mobutu's fall I had flown to Kinshasa to talk him and his family into accepting a U.S. plan for a dignified departure. During those meetings, I helped persuade Mr. Mobutu to receive President Clinton's special envoy Bill Richardson who carried with him a U.S.-designed plan to get their Cold War ally and his money to safety.

But the letter Mr. Richardson carried from Mr. Clinton was somehow misplaced, and advisers convinced Mr. Mobutu that a miracle would save his rule. Rebel forces penetrating the capital nearly captured Mr. Mobutu, who diddled until his family had to trundle him and his many possessions into a waiting cargo plane. As the rebels were closing in, the plane took off and flew to Morocco, whose King Hassan II had promised him sanctuary and kept his promise. I suggested to Mr. Eyadema that it might have been the last time that one of Africa's "Big Men" could rely on a safe haven abroad.

I have heard "paternalistic" leaders, as Mr. Eyadema refers to himself, express their anxiety that they could suffer a fate similar to Mr. Mobutu's. Equally unattractive are the emerging risks of tribunal accountability by special prosecutors with a new international jurisdiction. With such options, what choices are left to these longtime rulers, but to ratchet up their control and try to ride out the storm?

I wonder if we may not prevent more civil wars, save tens of thousands of lives and avoid the rise of a new set of dictators if we and our allies could find ways to guarantee the safety of the remaining African strongmen, either abroad or, if they require it, in their own country. Our conditions should include that they stop the repression and agree to a timetable on a peaceful, negotiated transfer of power. They must also return some of the millions they ferreted away in foreign accounts. We could also specify that what we offer is a one-time deal, with a deadline attached. If rejected, we could say we have tried, which is more than we can say about our lack of efforts to save the 800,000 victims of Rwanda's recent tribal conflict.

There, of course, remains a question of moral justice. Local and international human rights groups might be shocked at the notion that these autocrats would enjoy a comfortable retirement, free from retribution. But if we hope to avoid the kind of bloodshed and carnage which has currently left 1.3 million Congolese displaced from their homes, 14 million more lacking food and health care and tens of thousands murdered, then an aggressive strategy must be undertaken.

Edward J. von Kloberg III is chairman of Washington World Group, a lobbying and public relations firm.

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