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Era of impunity wanes for African leaders

Charles Taylor, Liberia's recently detained ex-president, will face trial for war crimes.

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It could be the beginning of the end for Africa's long era of impunity, during which awful deeds committed by presidents, dictators, and warlords have gone largely unpunished.

The highest-profile evidence: This week's arrest of notorious ex-Liberian-president Charles Taylor on war-crimes charges, which follows the recent booking of former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Meanwhile, former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba is on trial for corruption, and upheaval in Kenya over graft allegations has led three cabinet ministers to resign.

In fact, the Zambian and Kenyan cases may be more important in the long run, experts say, because they're home-grown examples of holding leaders accountable for misdeeds. By contrast, the arrests of Messrs Taylor and Lubanga came in large part because of Western pressure. Ultimately, observers say, the extent to which the toppling of impunity is done by Africans - not because of American or other outside arm-twisting - may determine how thoroughly impunity falls.

Either way, however, "The arrest of Taylor is really good news for Africa. It sends an important signal that impunity might be a thing of the past," says Peter Kagwanja of the International Crisis Group here. Furthermore, it's evidence that even if "you're protected by [continental] heavyweights like Nigeria or South Africa" - as Taylor and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe have been - "you may not be protected" any more.

Taylor was arrested in Nigeria this week and is expected to appear as early as Friday before the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in that country's capital, Freetown on charges of committing crimes against humanity. He's the first African head of state to be put on trial for such crimes. The trial, which will probably not start for several months, is expected to actually take place in The Hague. The venue change is apparently due to regional security concerns.

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