The Magazine

A Retirement Plan for Tyrants

Do bloodthirsty dictators really deserve a comfy exile?

Jul 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 44 • By RICHARD W. CARLSON
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ONE OF MY PARTNERS as an observer at the South African elections of 1994 was General Olusegun Obasanjo, now president of Nigeria. We traveled around together a bit during those two weeks in May, through Soweto and the migrant labor camps near Johannesburg. We talked a lot. A smart, decent fellow, it seemed to me. Lucky, too. He returned to Nigeria soon after the election, was hit with trumped-up treason charges, and sentenced to hang. But he beat the gallows, was released from prison, and in a few years went on to win election as president, a man with a good reputation in a country with a bad reputation.

Why then, I wonder, would the general, as he did last week, offer asylum to Charles Taylor, the oafish leader of Liberia--a thug and a barbarian, an escapee from a Massachusetts jail who murdered and raped his way across the once benign West African country? Did the State Department ask Obasanjo to do this to get Taylor out of Liberia?

Maybe, because that is the way it has long been done--democracies in the West turn a blind eye to Criminals in Chief and rescue them from the vengeful payback of their citizens. The old school of diplomacy held that asylum and a life of idle luxury were an acceptable means of dealing with murdering dictators. The trouble with this is that the dictators know they have a waiting refuge from punishment. Would that knowledge help you curb your sadistic appetites if you were in charge?

I remember a dozen years ago, when the same Charles Taylor, amused and chuckling, caught Samuel Doe, then the Liberian president, cut off his ears, and made Doe eat one of them as Taylor's men ran the dying Doe around in a wheelbarrow. A Taylor lieutenant, wearing a woman's girdle on his head, danced joyfully, firing his AK-47 skyward as Doe chewed sadly on himself.

Maybe if Taylor accepts Nigeria's offer, he'll step into a trap and be turned over for trial, his own metaphorical ears at risk. But don't count on it. That isn't what's done with genuinely evil men, not if they are despots. Look at Idi Amin. He did to Uganda what Taylor did to Liberia: brought it to its knees and heaped misery on its people. Now he lives happily in Saudi Arabia, under the protection of the royal family, as an act of "Muslim charity."

Amin took over Uganda in 1971 in a bloody military coup against the corrupt President Milton Obote. Amin and Obote had been partners in the economic rape of the country for a number of years. "The Gold Dust Twins," the Economist called them, in reference to their ambitious gold and diamond smuggling. As soon as Amin seized power, he ordered death by firing squad for hundreds of soldiers he didn't trust, and then personally participated in the decapitation of dozens of their officers. Beheading was a favorite of Amin, a leader who truly enjoyed getting his hands wet.

He once placed the severed heads of two opponents on a table and dined with them (and forced his wives and friends, their own necks still intact, to join him), berating them for not supporting his presidency. Still, western governments, knowing well of Amin's long army career of rape and torture, fell all over themselves to cheer him on as the new president. There were more than a few clues as to what was to come.

The list of Amin's crimes is scroll-length: He killed two of his wives. One, Kay, he had dismembered, and then ordered her parts sewn back together for display to their children. He kidnapped the distinguished Ugandan chief justice and murdered him. He expelled tens of thousands of Indian merchants and civil servants from the country--where many had lived for generations--and seized their businesses, homes, and possessions, turning them over to his cronies. In vengeance for the successful Israeli raid to free passengers being held hostage at Entebbe airport by Palestinian terrorists, he personally ordered the murder of an elderly British passenger, Dora Block, who was at a Kampala hospital when the other passengers were rescued. (Amin hated Jews and once announced he was going to erect a statue of Hitler in Kampala, the capital.) He led a drive against rival tribes and was responsible for the torture and murder of approximately 300,000 innocent Ugandan men, women, and children.