Uganda’s Attorney General on April 4 assured proponents of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the government will not live up to its threats to pull out of the court, despite President Yoweri Museveni’s consistent tongue lashing of the court.
William Byaruhanga, in a statement short on detail and clarity, assured parliament that the Executive had not yet made up its mind on pulling out from the ICC, which has been chastised by African leaders in a chorus led by among others, President Museveni as “a fascist tool targeting African leaders” while abetting war crimes by the West. Mr Byaruhanga told legislators, “I wish to restate that Uganda has not yet decided to withdraw from ICC and continues to co-operate with it. Accordingly the apprehension that we are withdrawing from the Rome Statute both within and abroad is purely based on conjecture.”
This affirmation by Mr Byaruhanga is likely to be read as a betrayal of some of Uganda’s allies especially those that drew inspiration from President Museveni’s attacks on the court and calls for Africa’s non-co-operation with it.
While Kampala led the assault on the court at every given opportunity — the inauguration of Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013, at President Museveni’s own inauguration in May 2016 and at the Africa Union summit in Addis Ababa recently — yet behind the scenes it continued to co-operate with the court on the trail of the Lord Resistance Army’s commander Dominic Ongwen and fruitfully canvassed support for a retired justice of the supreme court, Balungi Bbosa, to join the bench at The Hague.
Addressing the public during his fifth inauguration, President Museveni used the introduction of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to tear into the ICC. The first warrant for arrest for President Bashir was issued on March 4, 2009 and the second on July 12, 2010 for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region.
President Museveni called the court, “a biased instrument of post-colonial hegemony,” adding that it was, “a bunch of useless people.”
In fact, the US envoy to Uganda Deborah Malac led a walk-out on the president not because of his remarks but to protest President Bashir’s presence, an indication that Uganda was not committed to handing him over to the court for trial, per established obligations of signatories of the Rome Statute.
In November 2016, Mr Byaruhanga told the 16th session of the Assembly of State Parties at The Hague that Uganda had not taken steps to walk out of the ICC, a response elicited by a question from a participant.
That was an early indication of Museveni’s anti-ICC comments and support for AU reconsidering the continent’s co-operation, were after all what Uganda’s human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo calls, “political posturing and inciting other leaders against ICC.”
According to Mr Opio, “there was never a change of heart. Museveni was publically posturing for political ends. The only field office of the ICC in Africa (since 2004) is in Kampala and top army officers were working with ICC to find incriminating evidence on Dominic Ongwen and even testified against him. So President Museveni was only inciting other African leaders and posturing.”
Former leader of opposition in parliament Prof Ogenga Latigo, also a senior member of the opposition party Forum for Democratic Change opined that Museveni and his government’s decision was borne out of political exigency.
Prof Latigo thinks the once all exciting anti-ICC sentiment has now turned into a political hot potato and the president, on his last term, as the constitution bars him from seeking re-election past the age of 75, wants to avoid being fingered especially the possibility that his own record as a former rebel leader and Commander in Chief during the execution of the anti-LRA war in the north.
“In the first place it was silly for us to talk about withdrawing yet we had a case there. There is a problem of Uganda assuming it influences regional affairs but for the fact of what we are economically and politically, those efforts are futile and a diversion from the real challenges in this country. So President Museveni tried to posture but the ICC exodus that was exciting is now a hot political potato and he doesn’t want to get burnt,” Prof Latigo said.
And yet President Museveni is not a politician to put all his cards on the table he often opts to keep some cards to his chest to check critics and potential opponents in political chess games.
That was apparent in the lack of clarity in the government’s communication to the MPs.