Correction to This Article
An April 23 Outlook article incorrectly said that the New York Times has closed its West Africa bureau. The bureau remains open.

African Pillagers

By Douglas Farah
Sunday, April 23, 2006

In sub-Saharan Africa, rapacious despots with bloody hands traditionally die in office or retire to luxurious exile. They do not usually find themselves in handcuffs heading to trial for crimes against humanity, as former Liberian president Charles Taylor did when he was captured at the Nigerian-Cameroon border last month.

As heartening as Taylor's arrest is -- he is charged with fomenting wars marked by using drugged children as foot soldiers and cannon fodder, the hacking off of limbs and the systematic use of rape -- it also points to the numerous tragedies of governance that still plague the continent today. Taylor may be gone, but there are many more Charles Taylors.

Indeed, his trial was resisted by many African leaders precisely because so much of the continent is still ruled by megalomaniacal "Big Men," who should be held accountable for the systematic destruction of their own countries. Some of the worst include Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, who has pillaged his country since 1979; Omar Bongo, who has ruled Gabon since Lyndon Johnson was president; Robert Mugabe's kleptocracy in Zimbabwe; and the teetering dictatorship of Idriss Deby in Chad.

But when the Bush administration speaks of spreading democracy around the world, these petty and cruel tyrants, who make Saddam Hussein seem tolerant, are not condemned. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice just days ago called Obiang a "good friend" while being photographed beaming at his side during his visit to her office. This is the same Obiang whose regime her own department routinely denounces for its macabre brutality.

There are historic reasons that this tragic style of leadership has prospered. Among them are the legacy of colonialism and the Cold War perceived imperative of supporting anyone who was the enemy of your enemy. In sub-Saharan Africa, these dictators were U.S. allies against Soviet- and Libyan-backed regimes. But independence for most of the nations came more than 50 years ago. The Cold War is long over. The regimes survive today because of their ruthlessness, international indifference, their control of vital resources or a combination of these factors.

Taylor's arrest to stand trial before a U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone shows that a small amount of international attention and sustained pressure can help end this traditional impunity. But it is only a first step in bringing accountability to those who have brought misery to millions.

One of the richest and most repressive of this group is Obiang, since 1979 the ruler of the only Spanish-speaking nation in Africa. In 2004 Riggs Bank admitted criminal liability for illegally taking Obiang's illegal proceeds. In the late 1990s, according to a 2004 report by the Senate's subcommittee on investigations, Obiang and his cronies had at least $700 million in Riggs, making Equatorial Guinea the bank's single largest depositor. At the same time, his country's inhabitants were wallowing near the bottom of almost every global index of health, literacy and life expectancy.

Obiang seized power by murdering his predecessor and uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema. Obiang was Macias's chief of police and ran the notorious Black Beach prison, where Macias reportedly showed up to execute prisoners by smashing their heads with concrete poles. Now Obiang runs a police state of his own, surrounded by Moroccan bodyguards because he doesn't trust anyone, even his own family.

He survives in part because his tiny country pumps 350,000 barrels of oil a day and has reserves of 1.2 billion barrels, along with 1.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. As a result, oil companies and governments are willing to support a regime that has long since silenced the press, driven almost a third of its population of 540,000 into exile and crushed any hint of dissent.

In recent months Obiang has been making overtures, through the offer of oil deals, to the leader of one of Africa's most astonishing stories of failure--Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. In recent years Mugabe, who took office in 1980 as a national hero, has gradually strangled his nation's political life and economy. He now controls the closest thing the region has to the Disneyland for terrorists and transnational criminal groups that Taylor created in Liberia.

Under Mugabe's despotic rule, Zimbabwe, long a net exporter of food with a vital economy and functional health and educational facilities, teeters on the edge of starvation. The nation has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world.

In the meantime, Mugabe and his inner circle have stashed millions of dollars outside the country, much of it acquired by renting the nation's armed forces to fight in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Omar Bongo, another Obiang neighbor and friend, has ruled Gabon with an iron hand since 1967, when LBJ was trying to decide how to get out of Vietnam. He has made his son the minister of defense to ensure loyalty in the armed forces and brooks no dissent. Concerned about his international image, he was in contact with now-disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the summer of 2003. Abramoff asked for $9 million to help Bongo cozy up to the Bush administration, according to documents later released by Congress. It is not clear if the deal was consummated, but on May 26, 2004, Bongo met with President Bush.

A little farther north is Taylor's longtime partner in fanning the wars of West Africa, Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaore. Compaore and Taylor helped lead a 1987 coup that toppled Compaore's erstwhile best friend, Thomas Sankara, who was murdered. When Taylor launched his revolution in Liberia, Compaore loaned him troops and materiel. Throughout the West African wars, according to U.N. reports and human rights investigations, Compaore provided Taylor's troops and the Revolutionary United Front with training, end-user certificates to facilitate the purchase of hundreds of weapons and ammunition, banking facilities and sanctuary. In return he received diamonds and the promise that there would be no trouble for him.

To the east is Idriss Deby, who has ruled Chad since 1990. When oil was discovered, Deby agreed to a series of stringent conditions on how the new wealth would be spent on health and education in exchange for the World Bank financing needed to build a pipeline from his landlocked nation to the Gulf of Guinea. His first purchase with the oil money was weapons worth $4.5 million for his security apparatus.

Deby took power by overthrowing another notorious dictator, Hissene Habre, who left behind mass graves that rival those of Iraq and Bosnia and systems of torture, including grotesque mutilations of living prisoners, that stand out even among his peers. Habre, who received hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid during his eight-year rule, sits in luxurious exile in Senegal, under the protection of other Big Men who have refused to exert any pressure to have him tried for his crimes.

Taylor fell where the others have not because he picked a fight with the international community. And still it took years to bring him to justice, as he benefited from the indifference of world leaders obsessed with other threats.

As long ago as 2000, Taylor gained notoriety outside West Africa by helping to orchestrate the abduction of some 500 U.N. peacekeepers in neighboring Sierra Leone. He also developed ties to al-Qaeda through the sale of diamonds. Publicity about his atrocities, and terrorist ties, forced the United States, Britain and others to isolate him.

Ultimately, it was the relentless work of the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which on March 3, 2003, indicted Taylor on 17 counts of crimes against humanity, that made him an international pariah. The court's efforts received little attention from the White House. Eventually, however, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) led a bipartisan congressional coalition that threatened to cut off aid to those nations that did not cooperate with extraditing Taylor to stand trial. A dedicated band of officials in different branches of government was able to make it the policy of the Bush White House to support Taylor's standing trial. They were aided by a wide range of humanitarian organizations that lobbied tirelessly for Taylor's trial.

Because the other dictators have seldom picked open fights with the international community or allowed themselves to be caught helping terrorists, there is no comparable effort to bring them to justice. News organizations have slashed their coverage of Africa -- both The Washington Post and the New York Times, for example, have closed their West Africa bureaus -- meaning that the stories of these leaders are seldom in the media.

Despite the suffering they inflict and the threat to progress they represent, these despots are widely viewed as presenting no strategic threat outside of Africa. The Bush administration's embrace of a moral imperative to bring democracy to the world does not include them.

Taylor's case shows that the conventional assumptions about what constitutes a real threat to the United States are wrong. His harboring of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah terrorists and his hand in pushing the entire region to the brink of chaos, fueling numerous humanitarian interventions, show how dangerous this type of leader is. The question is whether the world cares enough to help end the misery.

Douglas Farah is a former West Africa bureau chief for The Washington Post and author of "Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror" (Broadway).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company