One of the biggest, though sometimes overlooked, issues in the world today is accountability for former heads of state. These leaders leave the political spotlight, but their deeds continue to haunt their countries, presenting their successors – and the international community – with problems that are not easy to solve. Legal cases involving these figures often drag through courts for months or years. Those in a position to hold former leaders accountable often find themselves unsure of how to deal with these old men accused of terrible crimes, and sometimes find themselves unwilling to navigate the political complexities of staging trials – trials that threaten to open old wounds, implicate active politicians, and undermine the privileges of political authority in general.
These complications help explain why, for example, former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, who was deposed in 1990, has been under various indictments since 2000 but has not yet faced trial. Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, may face trial – and even the death penalty – but there are also reportedly significant political players (namely certain Arab governments) who may pressure the new Egyptian government not to try Mubarak. Cases like these highlight how attempts to hold leaders accountable can quickly become bogged down as different groups struggle to control the process.
With cases like these in the background, Niger now faces important decisions concerning ousted President Mamadou Tandja. Tandja, who was elected to two terms before attempting to bypass constitutional limits and gain a third, was deposed by the military and placed under detention in February 2010. He stands accused of overseeing a regime that embezzled millions. In Niger, a poor country prone to devastating droughts and famines, the theft of public money indirectly means the theft of life. Tandja’s case is serious, and how Niger handles it will have ramifications for issues of accountability in the Sahel, in Africa, and around the world.
The military government that took power from Tandja kept him under house arrest for months. In November, the regional court of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ordered the junta to free Tandja, but Niger’s government refused. In December, “The State Court of Niger lifted the former president’s immunity…clearing the way for a prosecution.” In January, a few weeks before the elections that began a democratic transition, the military “moved [Tandja] from house arrest to prison and accused [him] of corruption.”
That’s how matters stood when Niger’s new civilian government took power last month, and now the ball is in their court. Yesterday, AFP reports, Niger’s court of appeals ruled that Tandja should be provisionally released until he faces trial on May 10. But Tandja will stay in prison for the time being. The government, apparently, is unwilling to release him. BBC Hausa gives a slightly different account, writing that the court “exonerated [Tandja] of the crimes he was accused of” but that “the government judge said [releasing Tandja] will not be possible until the court holds another sitting to look into the new case that has been entered regarding Tandja” (my translation, so please offer corrections in the comments if I’ve made mistakes). Whichever account we take, the legal and political complexities are already coming to the fore. How, in other words, will the perceived political needs of the regime (which might include promoting harmony or, alternatively, demonstrating toughness) interact with the intricacies of legal procedure?
Given that Niger had a political transition to complete, and compared with Habré’s legal saga, Tandja’s case is proceeding at a steady pace. But as it comes time to begin a trial or even to pass and carry out a sentence, Niger will confront all the problems involved with accountability. Thus far Niger’s military, and the new civilian government, have won broad acclaim for their handling of the political transition in post-Tandja Niger. How the regime of newly elected President Mahamadou Issoufou handles the matter of Tandja himself will help determine the ultimate meaning, and success, of the transition.