The recent indictment by the International Criminal Court accusing the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir of masterminding genocide in Darfur must have sent a shiver down the spines of African and Arab leaders whose grip on power seemed until recently unchallenged.
For more than half a century, leaders from these two regions have followed the example set by the late Egyptian revolutionary President Jamal Abdul Nasser: to rule recklessly without a mandate and no accountability.
But who is Omar al Bashir, and is he really responsible for this heinous crime? This former Sudanese military attaché to the UAE led a coup against his country’s government in 1989, and appointed himself (in chronological order): Chairman of the Revolutionary Council, Chief of State, Prime Minister, Chief of the Armed Forces, Minister of Defence and finally President, effectively for life.
His keenness for expanding power was evident from the beginning. However, to paraphrase Stan Lee’s first Spiderman comic book, with great power comes great responsibility. This is where the issue facing corrupt Arab and African leaders rests; can one seek the power but deny the responsibility?
Issuing an arrest warrant against Sudan’s sitting president is the ICC’s first truly landmark case since it was established in 2002. Given that the vast majority of Arab and African dictators only vacate their positions to go six feet under, there is no alternative but to prosecute them while they are in power.
Africa is a sad case indeed; so sad that Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese entrepreneur, felt the need to set up a foundation bearing his name to literally pay (read: bribe) African leaders with US$5 million (Dh18.4m) each to leave their posts voluntarily. One can only hope the award will eventually be extended to Arab leaders as well, although it is clear the inducement would need to be enhanced exponentially to entice Arab leaders to relinquish their posts.
Contrary to some claims, the ICC indictment is not racially motivated. The fact that Muslims and Arabs have an extremely selective memory is something that we in the Middle East are well accustomed to. For instance, we forget that it was America that twice saved Europe’s Muslims in the Balkans in the span of 10 years while we stood idly by. We also forget that the so-called Janjaweed militias are murdering our fellow Muslims – but we don’t care so long as no outsider does. Nor is Bashir the first leader to be summoned to an international court; that dubious honour goes to the likes of Slobodan Milosevic.
It is imperative the ICC does not waver in its resolve to bring Bashir to justice, as this is a test case being monitored by other sitting heads of state in the Arab world, Africa and beyond. The international community must not be intimidated as it has been in the recent case of Zimbabwe by countries such as China and South Africa.
In Sudan’s case, the Arab League’s Secretary General, Amr Mousa, and his native Egypt are acting the role of designated apologetic guardians at the gates that Thabo Mbeki and South Africa currently hold to Zimbabwe. Naturally, China expressed “grave concern” over the ICC’s decision as it seeks to safeguard its stake in the country’s biggest oil producer, the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company. Coincidentally, China was thoughtful enough to extend a US$13million (Dh47.7m) interest-free loan to Bashir to build himself a brand new presidential palace in addition to writing off US$70 million (Dh257.1m) worth of loans to Sudan.
It may be greatly challenging to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Bashir is directly responsible for the massacres that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent African Muslims. Yet it is equally important to remember that from the moment a leader, especially a dictator such as Bashir, assumes power, he is effectively responsible for his people’s well-being, or lack thereof.
The tragedy of Sudan sadly doesn’t stop at the Darfur crisis, as the country is constantly ranked among the most corrupt nations in the world along with Somalia, which is effectively a non-state. For example, life expectancy stands at 50 years, unemployment hovers around 20 per cent, and 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty.
Sadly, it is unlikely the Sudanese dictator will stand before this fledgling, powerless and yet noble court considering that the countries that voted against its creation include both the US and China. Both great powers came together to vote against a house of justice.
If only people read comic books more often.
This article is originally published in The National on July 20, 2008.