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African Leaders Should Not Flee from Justice

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There is something seriously troubling and painful happening in Africa which should worry the rest of the world. At their recent meeting in Addis Ababa, African leaders under the aegis of African Union voted to withdraw from the international criminal court (ICC). If African nations proceeded with this proposal, this will not be a first. The US, for instance, is not a signatory to the Rome statute of 2002 which created the ICC as the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.

Whereas the US is reluctant to ratify the Rome statute because it wants to protect the rights of American 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 committed 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 in Africa will never get justice if the process is left in the hands of self-serving African leaders. Furthermore, unless perpetrators of these crimes are held to account no matter their position or status, there is no guarantee that even more heinous atrocities will not occur in the continent in future. Many current and former African leaders are complicit in some of the worst forms of atrocities in the continent within the last three decades. They must be brought to justice.

The argument that Africa is being unfairly targeted flies in the face of logic. No African leader has picked holes in the process, protocol, and procedure of ICC. In addition, the chief prosecutor of the court, Fataou Bensouda who is African, in a recent interview with the London-based International Bar Association was equivocal in rejecting any claims of bias against Africans. According to her, "there has never been an African bias, there is no African bias and there never will be an African bias. 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."

What is unfair is the fact that the perpetrators of some of these crimes are still in power or are protected by African governments 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 in African soil. I do not see how the security, sovereignty and dignity of Africans which President Kenyatta claims as reason for pushing for this withdrawal will be imperiled by the trial of African leaders who committed crimes against humanity.

As at 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 two other African countries, 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 accession to power and 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?

The socio-political history of Africa within the last three decades is littered with violence and blood as a result of actions of serving or former African leaders. Just to give one example, no African 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 Hissène Habré's repressive 17 years in power which ended in 1999. During his time in power, Habré, whom Human Rights Watch called 'the Pinochet of Africa', was the most destabilizing political force in the West African sub-region. 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 80's 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 bridge, and often exposed to the elements. The then Nigerian government did not have a well developed system for Internally Displaced People. Besides, the Structural Adjustment Program was biting hard on the country making it impossible for the Nigerian state to support these Chadians many of whom died from starvation and diseases. The painful recollection of the suffering of these Chadians is still fresh in my memory.

Another 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 6000 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 1200 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 3 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. And the list goes on...

In his speech at the close of the AU summit, the new chairman of AU and Chadian President Idris Deby who has been in power for 25 years since overthrowing Habré bemoaned that Africa is being hunted as if it was the only part of the world where human rights are being violated. It is shocking that President Deby will make such an assertion rather than condemn human rights violations in Africa. 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, rule of law, transparency and good governance. They should not flee from ICC. Rather they should co-operate with this court to bring closure to several atrocities committed in Africa and help bring healing, justice and reconciliation to these troubled lands.