The decision by the transitional government in Khartoum to hand over former president Omar al Bashir to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution is likely to reignite old questions about the court’s relationship with Africa. But it nevertheless marks a turning point in the continent’s troubled relationship with the court.
Since the voluntary appearance by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto there are only a handful of precedents in which former African strongmen have been handed over to the court.
Whether they finally go through with it, Khartoum’s decision also reflects a decisive shift in the fortunes and influence of Bashir loyalists in Sudan.
Like many of his peers, for the more than three decades during which he ruled Sudan with an iron fist, Bashir took liberty with executive powers, giving his army unlimited licence as it battled dissidents in West Darfur.
This sense of unlimited power resulted in horrific abuses, some so unimaginable that there might be no adequate provisions in Sudanese domestic jurisprudence to ensure justice for both Bashir and the victims of his excesses.
Like a number before him, Bashir can still walk out of The Hague unconvicted. But his appearance should wake African strongmen both in power and those fighting wars against governments to the growing traction of the ICC.
The lesson in Bashir’s present circumstances is that short of dying in power, however long it takes, the law will one day catch up with those seemingly omnipotent strongmen who superintend over crimes against their own citizens.
The African Union (AU) is also challenged to walk the talk of the ideals that inspired the ICC as a court of last resort with near universal jurisdiction.
Nearly two decades old, the ICC was set up in recognition of the justice deficit and the absence of effective human rights courts in many conflict-ridden regions of the world.
In recent times, the AU has appeared to validate the emerging narrative that the ICC had an anti-African bias because the guests in its docks have been mostly African.
The inordinate number of Africans indicted and tried by the court should however not be surprising. African countries were enthusiastic supporters of the ICC because it then spoke to their problems.
Uganda brought the first case before the ICC when rebel leader Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army was indicted by the court. Before it began to touch their own, African leaders probably saw the ICC as basically an opportunity to bring their elusive adversaries to justice.
Today, with many incumbents becoming potential candidates for an appearance at The Hague, the narrative is changing to try and cast the court as a failed model for achieving criminal justice universally.
The ICC’s preoccupation with Africa could simply be because African conflicts tend to be synonymous with crimes against humanity. Minus an honest stance that forces its members to build independent and strong domestic courts, Africans will not run away from being guests of the ICC.