This article was originally published in Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa.
By James Copnail
The International Criminal Court charges against Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, have shaped Sudanese domestic politics and the country’s external relations for more than half a decade—sometimes in very unexpected ways.
On March 4, 2009, Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the ICC. He was charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes allegedly committed in the civil war in Darfur, in western Sudan. The following year, the ICC issued another indictment, this time three counts of genocide committed against the Zaghawa, Fur, and Masalit ethnic groups. Bashir was accused of overseeing murder, extermination, forcible transfer, rape, torture, directing attacks against civilians, and pillaging.
The indictments shocked Bashir and his regime, but not the Darfuris, who have suffered through one of the worst conflicts of the 20th century, and blame the president for it. Even before the indictments, the U.N. had estimated that 300,000 people had died and around 3 million people had been displaced in the Darfur war—a number the government disputes.
Bashir has made it clear he does not intend to ever travel to The Hague to face the charges, which he claims are a Western-backed plot to overthrow him. As soon as the announcement was made, huge rallies were held—with participants bussed in from the capital and nearby areas—to denounce this “imperialistic” assault on Sudanese sovereignty.
Indeed, to the surprise of many outsiders at least, Bashir’s support grew visibly after the indictments. Giant posters of the president were stationed at major junctions in Khartoum, Omdurman, and other large urban areas—a predictable response by the authorities. But ordinary people, especially in the Nile river valley area, Bashir’s home and support base, began pasting pictures of the president on their cars’ rear bumpers and windscreens, a noticeable sign of affection.
Songs were invented, blasting the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and comparing him to the devil. The attempt to bring Bashir before an international court shored up his support with a slice of the Sudanese public who saw the indictments as an attack on Sudan.
Bashir and those around him made great use of this alleged assault on Sudan’s sovereignty. In almost every speech, the president used his verbally creative, yet often offensive style to criticize “foreign powers” looking to overthrow “good” Muslims in Sudan.
Bashir is not the only Sudanese facing charges: Key allies including the long-time defence minister, Abderahim Hussein, and Ahmed Haroun, who became the governor of another wartorn area, South Kordofan, are also wanted by the ICC. Rather than keeping quiet about the indictments in the runup to the 2010 elections, Bashir’s team mentioned them at every turn. The charges even benefited the president, his campaign director, Ibrahim Ghandour, said in an interview: “The ICC was the first thing we campaigned on.”
By this point, two years after the first arrest warrant had been issued, Bashir was obsessed with the ICC and its chief prosecutor. At the inauguration after Bashir’s win in the 2010 polls (marred by serious flaws, and boycotted by many opposition parties), an entire page in the glossy brochure was dedicated to mocking Moreno-Ocampo for his failure to bring down Bashir.
None of this should suggest that the attempt to drag Bashir before international justice was entirely positive for him. Although he received an initial boost to his support in certain circles, the ICC indictments have profoundly damaged Bashir and Sudan. Since they were issued, Bashir’s only concern has been regime security, rather than development or ending the multiple conflicts in the country, accentuating a political dynamic that was already present in the country.
How could Bashir act otherwise? If he were to leave power, willingly or not, and be replaced by someone hostile to him, the ICC would arrest him and he could face a life in prison.
The regime’s growing nervousness became apparent in September 2013 when fuel subsidies were removed and prices soared: protesters seized control of parts of Khartoum, Omdurman, Wad Medani, and other cities. The response, even in Bashir’s heartland, was ruthless: Human-rights groups say as many as 200 unarmed protesters were killed. Such violence is unexceptional in the war zones on the country’s geographical periphery, but almost unheard of in the capital.
The ICC’s indictment worsened Sudan’s long-running governance fiasco: a central government unwilling or unable to provide development and share power fairly in a diverse, multiethnic state. The president simply concentrated all power in his hands or those of his close allies, such as Hussein, and, lately, Bakri Hassan Salih, an old military companion who was made first vice president in December 2013.
Just before the April 2015 polls, Bashir had the law changed so he could appoint the previously elected governors. This concentrated power even more in Khartoum despite the vital need to amplify regional voices in government.
Bashir’s indictment has also profoundly affected Sudan’s foreign relations. In the years since the arrest warrant was issued, Sudan has searched desperately for viable allies around the world who have been defined by one question: Will you let Bashir travel to your country without arresting him and sending him to the ICC?
So far, the president has visited several African and Arab countries, as well as Iran and China, among others. There have been some near misses. In November 2011, a Kenyan court responding to a suit filed by the Kenya chapter of the International Commission of Jurists ordered the Sudanese president’s arrest should he set foot in the country in the future.
However, when Sudan reacted by ordering the return of its ambassador to Nairobi and expelling the Kenyan ambassador from Khartoum, the Kenyan foreign minister flew to Sudan’s capital to apologise profusely.
In July 2013 Bashir left Nigeria in a hurry, fearing arrest. In June, while the Sudanese head of state was attending an African Union summit in Johannesburg, a South African court ruled that he should be handed over to the ICC—only for him to leave precipitously, presumably with the support of his South African counterpart.
Just as Bashir was able to boost his popularity in some Sudanese quarters by cleverly playing the anti-neocolonialist card, he has played this game with many African and Arab countries, which have rallied behind him. The Arab League condemned the charges. The AU complains that the ICC is biased because all of its present indictments are against Africans. The union went a step further and passed a resolution in 2013 saying the ICC should not prosecute sitting heads of state.
This is self-interest at play: Bashir is not the only African leader accused of committing atrocities at home. The ICC has also indicted Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta (although charges were withdrawn in December 2014 because of the government’s lack of cooperation) and vice president, William Ruto.
Yet despite African leaders’ hostility to the ICC, “continental sympathy and support for Bashir would not run deep” if he were arrested, says Alex de Waal, the Sudan expert at Tufts University near Boston.
The ICC charges have also affected Sudan’s relations with Western countries. Even before his indictment, most Western countries disliked Bashir’s regime, in part because of decades of conflict, not just in Darfur, but in southern, eastern, and central Sudan too. In turn, Bashir and his supporters have blamed the West for backing rebel groups.
The ICC indictments—and Bashir’s refusal to face trial—solidified this mutual animosity. This goes far beyond feelings. There is little chance of the U.S. removing economic sanctions as long as the ICC-indicted Bashir is president. Sudan has little hope of getting out from under its debt burden— more than $45 billion according to the IMF—as long as Bashir remains in charge.
The ICC indictments have forced Bashir onto the defensive, cracking down on any perceived threat, while scanning the horizon for friendly foreign faces. What they have not brought, more than six years after the first arrest warrant was issued, is justice for Darfur’s countless victims.
James Copnall is the author of A Poisonous Thorn in our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce. Formerly the BBC correspondent in Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Sudan, and South Sudan, he is now based in London.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]