Cape Town - 120508 - Guess Fashion Show at department store in V&A Waterfront. REPORTER: WENDYL MARTIN. PICTURE: CANDICE CHAPLIN

One of the most tragic African political offenders of the second half of the 20th century was Nigeria’s Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the failed breakaway Republic of Biafra.

Ojukwu spearheaded Biafra in the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War. The bloody secessionist battle cost more than a million lives. Biafra lost the war and Ojukwu was demonised as its villain.

When the war finally ended after three agonising years, Ojukwu fled into exile in the Ivory Coast. He probably feared that Nigeria would follow him in hot pursuit as a war criminal. To deter other home-grown rebels, Nigeria may have been keen to throw Ojukwu in jail for life, or have him face a firing squad for dramatic effect.

But the Giant of Africa was not contemplating punitive acts. In a remarkable gesture of restraint, Nigeria issued a 1982 presidential pardon for Ojukwu. After 13 years in exile, he returned to a hero’s welcome in Nigeria. In time, he became an active politician in his motherland until his death last year. Even his funeral was held with the honours of a very important person.

On the other hand, the most dramatic African-related news of the first half of the 21st century is the guilty verdict against Liberia’s Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Not far from Nigeria geographically and only two decades after the Biafra fiasco, another African political offender emerged and has been found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Taylor outshines Ojukwu as the west African Prime Evil.

In both instances, Africa has sought justice. In Nigeria, Ojukwu was the lucky recipient of “justice tempered with mercy” in the interest of what Nigeria’s president, General Yakubu Gowon, called the “dawn of national reconciliation”.

Sentencing for Taylor is scheduled for May 30. In all likelihood, he will face prison time, probably a case of “justice untempered with mercy”.

Nigeria’s response to Ojukwu’s wrongdoing was driven by a desire for national reconciliation.

Regarding Taylor, questions puzzle Afro-optimists everywhere. Is serving prison time a fitting option for a former head of state, defiled by human blood though he is? What should be the prime driving force behind his sentencing?

Unlike Idi Amin, Taylor was not a dictator from the start – he was essentially a democrat gone awry. Is sentencing him to a long prison term consistent with the aspiration of regional reconciliation?

There are convincing reasons that it is proper that Taylor endured a gruelling trial. The most compelling of these is that Africans must assimilate the principle that nobody is above the law, not even the head of state.

It is a clear articulation of the principle “My nation before any man”. This is a critical call on a continent where, despite rampant human rights abuses, no sitting or former head of state had ever been called upon to account for human rights violations against his own people. Until Taylor.

The legal path was a justifiable course of action relative to Taylor. At the minimum, he was entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Yet it is equally compelling that Taylor’s legal culpability is balanced against the public interest of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

That public interest is captured in the word “stability”, which is vital to the region. So, what is required of Taylor to ensure lasting stability in Sierra Leone and Liberia?

Court trials and long jail sentences are not enough; indeed they may act as further destabilisers.

The trial of a sitting or deposed head of state can be a tricky business. In the quest for stability, Iraq and the US tried and executed Saddam Hussein. They came to regret this as they destabilised the country big time.

Closer to home, the Western military fraternity (Nato) recently deposed and assisted in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, but stability still eludes that country.

Walking gingerly against a national leader is a lesson that even young post-apartheid SA has learnt the hard way in connection with President Jacob Zuma. In the late 1990s, attempts to establish his guilt or innocence before the courts strained the fabric of society to the limit. And Zuma was not even head of state then, he was merely head of state in the making.

Punishing or putting a national leader on trial endangers national cohesion. Was a Taylor trial within west Africa a danger to the stability of Liberia and Sierra Leone where he still enjoyed a considerable following? The UN seemed to think so. Thus the decision to transfer the legal proceedings at substantial costs to The Hague.

The stability of the region was a factor.

Fortunately, Liberia and Sierra Leone have not exploded over the legal tribulations of Taylor. But what happens if Taylor is sentenced to such a lengthy jail term that it is construed as overkill?

Could such a long sentence trigger riots and hurt the chances of ultimate reconciliation?

Oscillating swings of revenge in the west African states is a real possibility. The grudge cycle of “You hurt our man today, we shall hurt your man tomorrow” should be avoided at all costs. There is wisdom in limiting ourselves to dethronement without decapitation.

This is no way an attempt to exonerate Taylor’s evil acts. It is a bid to spare the victimised citizens of Sierra Leone and Liberia from additional savagery. What is more, we dare not waste the lessons from the Nigeria-Biafra experience. Kindness and mercy by Nigeria towards Ojukwu made peace easier to uphold in Nigeria after the Biafra war.

Africa longs for a peaceful Liberia and its neighbours. Given the choice, we should encourage the option of shaming Taylor by smothering him with ubuntu, the African kindness that he denied his victims. Then set Taylor free, but conditionally. He must never set foot on any part of west Africa. The two are incompatible and should be forced to remain mutually exclusive.

n Kariuki is a freelance writer and professor emeritus (international relations). He is former head of the African diaspora unit at the Africa Institute of SA in Pretoria