Moammar Gadhafi is so far making good on his promise to cling to power until "the last drop of blood is spilled" in Libya. That vow, and its gory delivery, can be traced back to a decision forced upon Nigeria five years ago by the U.S. and the international community. Understanding that mistake, which was based on an assumption of what justice entails, is crucial to avoiding more bloodbaths as other dictators near their downfall.
On March 25, 2006, Nigeria announced that it was breaking its 2003 deal with Liberia's former dictator, Charles Taylor. That agreement granted Taylor asylum in Nigeria in exchange for him stepping down, which he did in August 2003. Nigeria's reversal not three years later came after relentless U.S. and international pressure, and paved the way for Taylor to be tried for crimes against humanity in the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The deal to end Taylor's rule without bloodshed was celebrated at the time. When Nigeria's then-President Olusegun Obasanjo visited Liberia in September 2003, he was met by tens of thousands of Liberians chanting, "We love you, Obasanjo." Liberia's new leader, Moses Blah, declared that Mr. Obasanjo was "a savior for the people of Liberia," and Jacques Klein, the U.N.'s representative to Liberia (and a former U.S. State Department official), described the agreement as "the only elegant solution."
But Mr. Obasanjo was soon pushed to break the deal. In November 2003 the U.S. Congress set a $2 million reward for Taylor's capture, and Washington also issued veiled threats of cutting aid to Nigeria if it protected Taylor from justice. Mr. Obasanjo resisted the pressure, saying that Nigeria had given its word.
By 2006 the calls for Taylor's arrest had grown even louder, and on March 24 of that year—shortly before President Obasanjo's planned visit to the Washington—the White House issued a press release mentioning "the need to bring Charles Taylor to justice." The next day Nigeria reversed its decision.