This was not how Muammar Gaddafi wanted to start his tenure as chair of the African Union. The priority of the Libyan leader was to hit the ground running with his dream to create a United States of Africa. Now, the urgency of Gaddafi’s grand ambition must wait as the continent’s leaders struggle to come to terms with last week’s arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir issued by the International Criminal Court.
For decades, Africa has been plagued by notorious leaders. When one of the continent’s most gifted writers, Chinua Achebe, says in his book that the trouble with Nigeria is squarely that of leadership, he is perhaps speaking not only of his nation, but of Africa as a whole. From Mobutu Seseko to Idi Amin and from Sani Abacha to Robert Mugabe, the continent has had to grapple with leaders who would rather destroy their countries than give up political power.
Once in a while, a Julius Nyerere, Joachim Chissano, or Nelson Mandela comes along to renew hope and the promise of a future. But, more often, the continent’s landscape is blighted by tyrants who start off on a promising, even messianic note, and yet end up leaving their countries in the throes of war, disease, and deeper misery than before. That’s the story of al-Bashir, who the continent’s political leaders condoned for six years—because confronting him meant confronting the very demon that haunts many of them.
So, what will the African Union do about al-Bashir’s indictment? It has called for a suspension of the sentence. There are muffled concerns about the safety of the civilian population, especially around the Darfur area, and also the fate of the 7,000-strong AU troops that had only in January received UN reinforcement. In a foretaste of the grimmer days ahead, Khartoum kicked out 10 major humanitarian agencies struggling to provide food and water to about 1.5 million people, prompting suggestions of a possible AU emergency meeting to discuss Sudan.
But talk is cheap.
Rwanda was a hot topic at the height of the almost unimaginable violence there. Yet in spite of the nice, impassioned speeches at many continental gatherings, African leaders did too little too late to save the country from a genocide that claimed nearly one million lives in 1994. Somalia has been a hot topic, too. But can anyone explain the military misadventures of Ethiopia, which hosts the AU’s headquarters, that have been central to the dispute that left Somalia fragmented and marooned?
What about Zimbabwe, the continent’s showcase of empty talk? There are those who would argue that the current semblance of peace in Harare is proof that “soft diplomacy” was perhaps the most effective way to rescue the country…but I’m not so sure about that. I have tried in vain to convince myself that the delicate alliance between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai is the beginning of the end of Zimbabwe’s woes.
And that was even before the car crash from which Tsvangirai escaped by the skin of his teeth, but which claimed his wife. The real cost of the devastation and decay brought on by months, if not years, of pussyfooting by the continent’s leaders will not be known until Mugabe is finally out of the way and the country open up for a full accounting.
The continent’s tragedies can be measured by looking at what Africa used to do and what it does now. African countries once played a leading role in the resolution of some major crises, such as the Congo crisis, apartheid, the liberation struggle in southern Africa, and even the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict. Now, leaders fiddle while the continent burns. The continent’s giants—South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt—are too engrossed in their internal political and economic problems to pay attention. Little should be expected of the AU under Gaddafi. His record, until six years ago when he renounced terrorism, could have made him a candidate for jail cell shared with al-Bashir.
So, what’s the point in suspending the sentence against al-Bashir? There are those who argue, in good faith, that an arrest warrant against Sudan’s leader will only inflame his anger against weak, vulnerable groups and prolong the conflict in the south. The argument sounds good but misses the point.
If al-Bashir was serious about peace he would not have repeatedly prevented the Human Rights Council from visiting Darfur or turned his soldiers on the UN peacekeeping force. He believed, like most tyrants, that while the world may have its say, he will have his way.
And so it has been since the conflict started in 2003 that he has skillfully exploited the impotence of the AU and the cauldron of cultural and religious differences that plagues the continent. Al-Bashir signed a peace deal with one of the main rebel groups in 2006 only after a UN report accused his government of mass murders, rapes, and torture against his own citizens. Where the brutality of the regular Sudanese soldiers cannot reach, al-Bashir’s government uses the Janjaweed militia to pursue and murder fleeing civilians as far as the neighboring Chad.
What began as a conflict between northern nomads and southerners in the Darfur region over grazing rights after decades of famine, overcrowding, and desertification, has escalated into a full-blown war that has claimed roughly 300,000 lives and displaced nearly three million people.
The cause of the conflict is almost forgotten, but in the daily reality for most ordinary people beyond the capital, Khartoum, death and misery are constant companions.
Who will, in the end, speak for Sudan? As I watched al-Bashir on television last week riding on the wave of an excited pro-government crowd and flaunting his walking stick in spite of the ICC warrant, it wasn’t hard to see that his performance was yet another hollow ritual. His show of defiance and the pay-as-you-go crowd do not represent the authentic voice of the millions of children, women, and elderly whose lives have been ruined by the conflict.
Sure, there may be a few in the crowd fired up by patriotic fervor, or others elsewhere who would argue that the heightened interest in Sudan is linked to a nasty contest between the West and China for the country’s vast mineral resources. These sentiments do not diminish the fact that for millions of Sudanese—and indeed oppressed people all over the world—the ICC warrant will serve notice to tyrants everywhere that they will be held to account while they hold office.
Tyrants can run, but there are fewer and fewer hiding places. Gaddafi will have to find a place for this truth on his journey to a United States of Africa.
Azu Ishiekwene has been an investigative reporter, a features writer, a member of the editorial board, and the editor of Punch Titles, Nigeria’s highest selling newspapers. He is currently the executive publications director of Punch and writes a weekly Tuesday column. He is the author of Nuhu Ribadu, a book on Nigeria’s stalled anti-corruption war, the chair of the CNN/MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year Award panel, and a member of the board of the World Editors Forum.