Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Africa hosts a rogues' gallery of exiles

SCOUNDRELS' LAST REFUGE From thugs who killed thousands to brutes who ate their enemies, African nations are the destination of last resort for dictators


Liberia's former president, Charles Taylor, traded his seaside palace for a squat lodge in Nigeria's jungle. Former Ugandan leader Milton Obote's home is now a dilapidated bungalow in the Zambian copper belt.

When Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide flew into the Central African Republic on March 1, he joined a list of ousted leaders who went into exile in Africa.

"That's one continent where he'll be in good company," said Ade Omoniyi, a banker in Nigeria's sprawling port city of Lagos.

The US, France and Gabon arranged Aristide's flight to this former French colony, a poor, geographically remote nation that has produced its own share of exiles.

The tyrannical Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled here from 1966 to 1979, was widely accused of killing -- and eating -- opponents. Bokassa spent seven years in exile in Ivory Coast and France and returned home in 1987 expecting a warm welcome.

Instead, Bokassa was tried and imprisoned until 1993. He died three years later.

Another Central African Republic president, Ange-Felix Patasse, was toppled last year after a disgruntled army general seized power. Patasse eventually found sanctuary in Togo.

Finding a place for fleeing leaders is not an easy task.

"It's always a diplomatic issue and an embarrassment to be seen as the home for a failed autocrat," said Ross Herbert of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg.

Aristide's stay here was likely to be short-lived because he was expected to depart Monday for Jamaica. A Jamaican official said on condition of anonymity that Aristide likely would eventually seek asylum in South Africa.

His temporary home has been an apartment inside Bangui's presidential palace. Barbed wire separates the compound from a market street where shoeless boys push carts loaded with rice and women sell plantains.

Former leaders living quiet lives as outcasts in Africa sometimes attract deep resentment in their new homes. That is true for Aristide, who has his share of detractors.

Leopold Zokande, a Central African Republic schoolteacher who is owed three years of pay, said his desperately poor country was bullied into taking Aristide.

"They dumped Aristide on us, and that's going to create other problems," Zokande said.

Host governments often order notorious guests to keep a low profile so they do not cause trouble. Liberia's Taylor was banned from speaking publicly in Nigeria, where he has lived since resigning in August as rebels closed in on Liberia's capital.

Former Ethiopian military ruler Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, in exile in Zimbabwe since being overthrown in 1991, has been seen publicly only occasionally. Tens of thousands of political opponents were killed during Mengistu's 17-year reign.

Africa is a natural destination for exiles because many former heads of state forged close friendships with African presidents who are still in office. Mengistu, for example, helped train current Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's guerrillas in the run-up to that country's independence in 1980.

Some ex-presidents are being sought for justice.

A truth commission set up by Chad has accused ex-dictator Hissene Habre, now living in Senegal, of orchestrating thousands of political killings.

Taylor is wanted by a UN-backed tribunal that indicted him for his role in supporting Sierra Leone's vicious rebels, who killed tens of thousands of civilians and hacked the limbs off thousands more.

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