Where tyrants run to after they’re kicked out of power

Monday April 25 2011

Former Cote d’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo sits beside his wife Simone and son Michel (in cap) after his capture in Abidjan. Photo/AFP

Former Cote d’Ivoire president Laurent Gbagbo sits beside his wife Simone and son Michel (in cap) after his capture in Abidjan. Photo/AFP 


Chinua Achebe in his 1966 novel A Man of the People, quoting an Igbo proverb, says that when one slave sees another cast into a shallow grave, he should know that when the time comes, he will go the same way.

Libyan strongman Muammar Gadaffi must have been watching in horror as Laurent Gbagbo was pulled out of his bunker in Abidjan after holding on to power for over four months, following a disputed election in Ivory Coast.

Gbagbo had spurned offers to cede power to his rival, Alassane Ouattara, and go into exile.

The former president is now in the custody of president-elect Ouattara’s government.

It appears that options are fast running out for Gadaffi if he wants to avoid Gbagbo’s fate.

Forces led by Nato continue to strike targets in Libya and after a four-week assault, Nato and rebel ground forces appear to have beaten Col Gaddafi’s forces back on the eastern front.

The rebel military effort now appears to be shifting to the western city of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city.

If Gadaffi decides to learn from Gbagbo’s experience and go into exile now, what are his options?

The world has become a much smaller place since the end of the Cold War.

With its clear ideological demarcations, it was easier then for a fallen despot to find an “enemy of his enemy” and pitch tent.

In the past, ousted African leaders usually went into exile in friendly African countries, and sometimes in Arab countries.

Today, however, there are few options for a quiet exile that are out of the reach of the International Criminal Court and the threat of asset freezes and seizure.

Some 114 countries are currently members of the court, including 31 African countries.

A further 34 countries have signed but not ratified the Rome Statute, and the law of treaties obliges these states to “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.”

Zimbabwe, which has signed but not ratified the treaty, could be a possible destination for a deposed tyrant.

The country has been hosting former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam since his ouster in 1991, owing to his personal friendship with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

Mengistu was tried and convicted in absentia of genocide during Ethiopia’s Red Terror, a violent political campaign against the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party and other political groups opposed to Mengistu’s Communist Derg regime.

After Mengistu’s conviction in December 2006, the Zimbabwean government said that he still enjoyed asylum and would not be extradited.

A Zimbabwean government spokesman explained this by saying that “Mengistu and his government played a key and commendable role during our struggle for Independence”.

However, Zimbabwe’s future is itself uncertain.

According to William J. Dobson, senior correspondent with The Washington Post, a stable, friendly regime is key for an exile as “no one likes to move twice.”

Mugabe is 87, and it is not clear what a post-Mugabe dispensation will look like — whether Mugabe’s successor will continue to adopt a strongly anti-Western stance, or will steer the country toward international consensus.

Morocco is another possible exile destination: The country hosted former Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who spent his last days in Rabat after he was ousted by rebel leader Laurent Kabila in 1997, as well as the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, after he was deposed in Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Morocco was also proposed as a possible exile destination for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat by former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during a 2002 siege on Arafat’s West Bank headquarters.

Morocco has signed but not ratified the Rome Statute.

On the other hand, Morocco’s location in North Africa lends to its potential instability as the spillover effects of Tunisia’s revolution earlier this year continue to spread to the rest of North Africa.

A deposed leader could also look to Equatorial Guinea as a refuge.

The tiny, oil-rich West African country is ruled by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who according to Dobson “may be sympathetic to ageing strongmen.” If Gadaffi flees, Obiang would replace him as Africa’s longest-serving dictator. 

However, Obiang was elected the African Union chairman this year, and hosting a fallen despot would hardly lend to his credibility.

Obiang has been working to gain some respectability for Equatorial Guinea: In 2008, Obiang offered to fund a Unesco prize for research in the life sciences, that would be named after him. However, Unesco declined to award the prize.

Venezuela is also a possible option for a left-leaning dictator.

The South American country is ruled by Hugo Chavez, who is a vocal critic of capitalism and particularly of US foreign policy, thus he could be seen as sympathetic to the cause of any opponent of Western imperialism.

Nonetheless, Chavez’s own political future is on shaky ground: The country is suffering from 31 per cent inflation, the highest in Latin America, and the economy shrank 5.8 per cent in the first three months of 2010 compared with the same period the previous year.

In 2010’s parliamentary elections, Chavez’s socialist party suffered major defeats, with the opposition coalition claiming 59 seats, which prevented Chavez from retaining a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

Venezuela is also a signatory to the Rome Statute, and the ICC could catch up with an ousted dictator holed up there.

The best bet for a fallen tyrant, especially if he professes the Islamic faith, is Saudi Arabia.

The country has hosted many a deposed leader in the past — from Uganda’s Idi Amin, who spent close to a quarter century there until his death in 2003, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ousted by a popular revolution earlier this year, as well as deposed Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who fled to Saudi Arabia in 2000 after being toppled from power by Gen Pervez Musharraf 14 months earlier.

According to UK-based magazine New Statesman, Saudi Arabia’s kings are not inclined to question the past actions of authoritarian rulers who are fellow Muslims.

Amin reportedly had an easy life, with a monthly stipend, cars, servants and home all provided, although he put it at risk once in 1989 when he travelled to Zaire (now DRC Congo) on a false passport in the belief that he could return to power in Uganda.

But after making a show of not letting him back into the kingdom, the Saudis relented. The kingdom is not a signatory to the Rome Statute.

The lesson that besieged tyrants could learn from Gbagbo is that when it comes to contemplating exile, time is of the essence.

Dobson wraps it up nicely: “One can imagine [an ousted dictator] pacing their new quarters late into the night, arguing with themselves over where and when they went wrong.

But hopefully, a few of those still clinging to power will... draw a lesson: It may be better to negotiate an exit early, while there is still a place — any place — to call home.”