Leaders at the recently concluded African Union summit voted to back a proposal to withdraw their recognition of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which puts war criminals on trial. As a model, they point to the United States which never signed the 2002 treaty that created the court.
But this is a red herring. The U.S. wanted to protect its soldiers from frivolous and politically motivated trials, African leaders are threatening to withdraw from ICC as a strategy for protecting themselves from being held accountable for atrocities which they commit while in power. As Kenya’s national newspaper, Daily Nation said in a recent editorial, “leaving the ICC with no credible mechanism for justice for mass crimes in sight would be an error of colossal proportions.”
This decision by African leaders only reinforces the fear of many Africans that victims of genocide and war crimes will never get justice if the process is left in the hands of self-serving leaders. Many current and former African leaders are complicit in some of the worst forms of atrocities in the continent in the last three decades.
I do not see how the security, sovereignty and dignity of Africans, which President Kenyatta claims as reason for pushing for this withdrawal, are imperiled by the trial of crimes against humanity. I also do not see any alternative and credible system and structure in place in any African country to bring former leaders to justice for these crimes.
The argument that Africa is being unfairly targeted is not logical. No African leader has faulted the process and procedure of ICC. As the chief prosecutor of the court, Fataou Bensouda who is African, recently told the International Bar Association “If you look at the reality on the ground you will see… that it’s actually African governments, African countries and African Member States that are coming towards the ICC to request intervention.”
The perpetrators of some of these crimes are still in power or are protected by the government while the memories of their victims are forgotten. The more fundamental question that needs to be answered by African leaders is not why or where perpetrators of these crimes should be tried but rather why so many of these atrocities are being committed on African soil.
Today, the ICC has 23 cases and situations of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Apart from the situation in Georgia and the Comoros, the rest are in eight African countries—Kenya, Ivory Coast, Libya, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda, and Mali. The ICC has also opened inquiries into crimes against humanity in Nigeria and Guinea.
While there are many unreported cases of crimes against humanity in many parts of the world, no one can deny that these statistics point to a troubling reality in Africa. Why is it that the lust for power has led many African leaders to stew in the blood of their fellow citizens? Why is it that the African spirit of Ubuntu, that is, the priority of the community over the individual is no longer respected in Africa today, especially when it comes to the retention of power in many countries in Africa? Why are so many African leaders changing their national constitutions to perpetuate themselves in power while triggering off national crisis which often lead to suppression and crimes against the innocent?
Who can forget the atrocities committed by former President of Chad, Hissène Habré who is standing trial in the Extraordinary African Chambers, a court set up for this trial by African governments under the supervision of the ICC. A truth commission in Chad found that more than 40,000 people were killed and thousands more tortured during Habré’s repressive 17 years in power which ended in 1999. He was, however, the friend of the US, France and Britain who saw him as a counter-balancing power to Libya’s Ghaddafi.
I remember as an elementary school kid in Nigeria in the 1980s seeing the massive influx of Chadian nationals—women, young people and children—especially members of the Zara, Hadjeria and Zaghawa ethnic groups who were particularly targeted by Habre’s killing force, the DSS. These unfortunate Chadians were begging in the streets of Nigeria, living under the bridges, and often exposed to the elements. The painful recollection of the suffering of these Chadians is still fresh in my memory.
The other former African leader who is standing trial is Laurent Gbagbo, who is indicated of war crimes and crimes against humanity for post-election violence and civil war in Cote d’Ivoire which led to the killing of more than 6,000 people. President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto have not been convicted of the crimes for which they were charged, but the Kenyan government under him has not fully investigated the deaths of more than 12,000 Kenyans in the post-election violence of 2007-2009.
Sudan and South Sudan continue to witness the worst form of violence, semi-permanent humanitarian disaster, and displacement of thousands of people. But these are the result of President Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorial regime. He is facing three counts of genocide, two counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity in ICC but has refused to turn himself in to face trial. He continues to walk freely in Africa while Darfur continues to be in ruin.
Rather than cry that they are being “hunted” by ICC, African leaders should make a commitment to respect human rights, be faithful to fix-term limits, free and fair elections, rule of law, transparency and good governance. They cannot run away from the ICC through false accusations. Rather they should co-operate with this court to bring closure to several atrocities committed in Africa and help bring healing, justice and reconciliation in these troubled lands.
Stan Chu Ilo is Research Professor at the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago, IL