So President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has escaped again. Indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) more than five years ago for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, he has managed to elude arrest ever since and remains a fugitive despite being the head of one of Africa’s largest states.
Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that al-Bashir was allowed to depart South Africa after an African Union (AU) meeting, despite that state being a member of the ICC and therefore obliged to detain this most despotic of rulers. The ICC has long been accused of bias against African states and, indeed, most of those currently being prosecuted – whether in person or absentia – come from Africa. Situations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, Libya and the Central African Republic have been investigated and indictments made, whilst events in the Middle East (such as Palestine) and Europe (such as Ukraine) are yet to draw conclusions.
It may be then that African leaders have a point about the unfairness of the ICC’s critical gaze. Yet could it not be simply that Africa is the most unstable continent, where horrific crimes are committed by politicians and the military alike on a daily basis? Few regimes in Africa score well when subjected to close scrutiny. Even South Africa, a supposedly wealthy and democratic bastion of regional leadership, has proven itself in recent years to be corrupt, crime-infested and intolerant, its leader Jacob Zuma hardly the paragon of virtue.
South Africa’s reluctance to detain al-Bashir is troubling given the crimes he is accused of committing, namely waging a genocidal war against the restive province of Darfur which has rumbled on for over a decade. Indeed, such is the persistent misery and seeming unending nature of the Darfur conflict, that it is barely mentioned today in international affairs or in the global press.
Darfur existed as an independent sultanate from the early seventeenth century until 1916 when, in the midst of WWI, it was annexed to Sudan by British colonial forces and their Egyptian allies. Since that moment, Darfur has not escaped the oversight of Khartoum which refuses to relinquish control over the province or make any concessions to regional autonomy.
The most troubling aspect of British colonialism was its tendency to forge and manipulate unnatural borders, merging disparate tribes into unitary states where ethnic and religious differences were completely overlooked. Unlike most of Sudan, the people of Darfur are generally not Arabs, coming instead from the Fur and Tunjur groups.
Omar al-Bashir has exploited the legacy of ethnic division by providing government support to the Janjaweed, a Darfur-based Arab militia responsible for numerous atrocities against the civilians of the province. Pure racism and a fury at the presumptuousness of the liberation movements in Darfur to seek independence have fuelled Khartoum’s aggression.
As a state that suffered the bitter legacy of colonialism more than most, South Africa would do well to recognise the historical and political conditions in Sudan, and Darfur in particular, which have led to such bloodshed, misery and displacement.
It is one thing to stand by your continent and defend its interests; yet to blindly and hypocritically overlook the tyrannical rule of Omar al-Bashir – whose reign surely defies everything that South Africa claims to stand for (democracy, a ‘rainbow nation’, universal rights) – is unacceptable.
If the recent actions on a Pretoria runway do not result in sanctions, then the ICC can forget about bringing to justice those who deserve it most.
For a useful historical background to the Darfur conflict see: http://www.sarpn.org/documents/d0001277/PNADC475_Darfur_Febr2005_Chap2.pdf