In his 1988 novel ‘Prisoners of Jebs’ the late Nigerian writer and political activist Ken Saro Wiwa set out with biting cynicism the vision of an artificial island created in front of the Lagos shoreline to accommodate all deposed African dictators. A journalist ventures to observe what is going on, is promptly apprehended by the community of ex-potentates, and put into a cage. From there he reports and comments on the extraordinary dynamics in a group of people whose instincts push them to be on top, but in this company find it hard to play by their usual rules. Picking on and criticising their peers may fall back on them. Jebs is a safe haven. All of its residents have a lot to answer for, but in their confinement they are only accountable to themselves, which is going nowhere.
The Libyan situation is complex, but at the heart of the question of intervention lies the quest for preventing the repetition of behavioural patterns in politics that allow governments and the individuals leading them to abuse human rights and deny citizens the right to change their government. Ensuring accountability for the gravest crimes set out in international criminal law is one of the prime tools that the international community has equipped itself with to reach this aim. And the International Criminal Court (ICC) is therefore rightly investigating in Libya.
At the same time direct action is taken by a UN mandated alliance to prevent the Libyan government (or what remains of it) to continue meting out violence against civilians. Clearly, many people and political leaders around the world would like Col Gaddafi to go, and there seems to be much local initiative to that effect too. In result a debate has started whether offering a ‘safe haven’ for Col Gaddafi is an option, and where it might be. Col Gaddafi having few friends, commentators argue that the choice is largely limited to a country that itself refuses to recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC (albeit all UN members states being under a duty to collaborate with the UN). One may add that some form of personal loyalty or kindred spirit of the rulers of the place will help too, as would tacit toleration of the agreement by the international community could ensure safe retirement, at least for now.
There is precedent for this kind of approach. Charles Taylor was allowed to go to Nigeria, Idi Amin sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, Mobutu in France and Morocco, the Sha in Egypt, Morocco, Mexico and Panama, and again Egypt. On a less grand level, Valentine Strasser, of Sierra Leone was allowed to go to the UK for studies, and the short term Guinean military coup leader Dadis Camara was hosted in Burkina Faso in a bid to prevent his return after the assassination attempt against him to lead to further instability. But there is also a trend to find a judicial end to the exile story, such as Taylor’s case shows, which should, rightly, make any dictator wary of taking up the international community on offers of a safe exile.
Beyond the question of facilitating political transitions, the issue is however whether the international community is not undermining its own progress towards the systematic use of international criminal law as a tool to reduce and prevent (not only punish) instances of abuse of power against citizens endowed with inalienable human rights, and aspirations to realise democratic rights of participation and change of government. Arguably, Gaddafi should face the very clear prospect that eventually he has no place to go except to The Hague, should the case of the prosecution be sufficiently firmed up. Even mid term plans for retirement in Burkina Faso, Khartoum, Harare or Equatorial Guinea should not be mooted as an acceptable solution by anyone, however attractive the thought of a ‘Jebs’ of some sort may be, simply to get rid of a problem.