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Why it’s hard to get strongmen to step down

After Robert Mugabe, the autocratic ruler of Zimbabwe who held power for nearly four decades, announced that he was resigning from office last week, questions…

After Robert Mugabe, the autocratic ruler of Zimbabwe who held power for nearly four decades, announced that he was resigning from office last week, questions quickly began swirling about what would become of the war hero turned president. If history is anything to go by, life after leadership isn’t straightforward for many strongmen, potentially complicating efforts to get them to step down. Whether it’s to avoid prosecution, maintain wealth gained through corruption or in some cases avoid death at the hands of adversaries, many authoritarian leaders cling to their roles. Here’s a look at some who fell from power and what happened to them after.


Charles G. Taylor, Liberia

Charles G. Taylor is an example of how hard it can be for an authoritarian leader to retire peacefully. A former warlord who became president of Liberia, Mr. Taylor led the country from 1997 to 2003. He ultimately resigned after international leaders intervened – and promised asylum – during talks between the government and rebel factions to try to end Liberia’s war.

“History will be kind to me,” Mr. Taylor said during his resignation, before being escorted out of the country by Ghana’s president. Mr. Taylor left the country for Nigeria, where he had been offered asylum. “I have accepted this role as the sacrificial lamb.”

But things did not turn out as Mr. Taylor had hoped.

For a time, he lived in exile in Nigeria with dozens of relatives, financing his lifestyle with money believed to have been stolen from the Liberian treasury. But pressure grew for him to be arrested, and he ended up standing trial in an international court for war crimes for his role in neighboring Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war, charged with murder, sexual slavery and using child soldiers.

Mr. Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison. It was the first time since the Nuremberg trials that a former head of state was convicted by an international tribunal.


Hosni Mubarak, Egypt

Hosni Mubarak is another example of a leader who held power for years, stepped down – and ended up on trial.

Mr. Mubarak was president of Egypt for 29 years, but faced a popular uprising during the Arab Spring of 2011. After 18 days of wide-scale protest in which thousands rallied daily in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Mr. Mubarak stepped down in February 2011.

Just two months later, the military government to which he handed power arrested him. The nation demanded he be held accountable for human rights abuses and corruption during his decades of rule.

He was put on trial for a series of charges, at times wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital bed. He spent much of the next six years in a legal limbo that resulted in him being convicted on one corruption charge. After those six years in custody – some in a hospital and some in Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison – he was freed this year and escorted by armed guard to his mansion in the Heliopolis neighborhood of Cairo.

His trial is often cited as one reason President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who faced a popular uprising during the Arab Spring that has devolved into a protracted civil war, has refused to step down.



Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya

Muammar el-Qaddafi offers another lesson: the risks of holding on too long.

For 42 years, he ruled Libya. Then came the Arab Spring.

Under Mr. Qaddafi, Libyan security forces cracked down on anti-government protesters who gathered on the streets of Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city. The popular uprising in his country quickly spread, and when Mr. Qaddafi refused to budge, the protests evolved into a wide-scale civil war that eventually drew international intervention. In early 2011, he vowed to die as a martyr fighting to retain control of Libya.

“I will fight on to the last drop of my blood,” he told the country in a televised address.

Mr. Qaddafi remained defiant even as it became clear he would not maintain his grip on the country, as rebels overran his fortresslike compound and seized full control of Tripoli in August 2011.

Just months later in October 2011, Mr. Qaddafi died at the hands of rebel groups while trying to flee.



Joseph Kabila, Democratic Republic of Congo

Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was supposed to step down last December at the end of his second term, as constitutionally mandated. But he refused, setting off a protracted political and economic crisis in his country.

This decision to cling to the presidency may have less to do with his desire to lead the country than with his fears for his safety and his wealth. Mr. Kabila first came to office in 2001, after his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated.

In the years since, he has been widely accused of amassing wealth at the expense of the state. Investigators and some government officials say that Mr. Kabila has looted millions of dollars in public assets, and realizes that by leaving his position, he may open himself up to prosecution on corruption and human rights charges and the seizure of ill-gotten gains. Elections have been pushed back to December 2018, and it is unclear if they will actually happen.



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