Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 March 2009
Issue No. 937
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trial by ordeal

Sudan's president remains defiant in the face of his indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Omar Hassan Al-Bashir

The story seems to be nearing its end. After months of deliberations International Criminal Court Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo issued an arrest warrant yesterday for Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir. The ICC claims to have ample evidence that President Al-Bashir and his henchmen have indulged in "murdering, exterminating, raping, torturing, forcibly transferring civilians and pillaging their property".

Public opinion in northern Sudan remains pro- Bashir. Crucially, the pro-Bashir stance is not restricted to President Al-Bashir's own ruling National Congress Party (NCP), but also includes important segments of the fractured opposition to his rule. Most significantly the Umma Party -- Sudan's largest opposition party whose leader, Al-Sayed Al-Sadig Al-Mahdi, the last democratically-elected prime minister of Sudan, was overthrown in the 1989 military coup that brought Al-Bashir to power -- denounced the indictment of the Sudanese president.

"The indictment of President Al-Bashir is disastrous for all of us Sudanese, government and opposition. It is totally unacceptable and regrettable," Al-Mahdi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It hampers Sudan's incipient steps to restore fully- fledged democratic rule. It infringes on Sudanese national sovereignty."

The indictment of the Sudanese president was welcomed by several Sudanese opposition groups, among them the two main armed opposition groups in Darfur -- the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA).

"The Darfur tragedy has gone on for too long. Our people are suffering and it is high time Al-Bashir was brought to book," Abdel-Wahid Mohamed Nour, the Paris-based leader of the SLA, told the Weekly. "Our people will hand him over to the ICC because we do not believe his hypocritical lip service concerning peace in Darfur."

JEM Chairman Khalil Ibrahim agreed with Nour. Though he was engaged with the Sudanese authorities in peace talks in Qatar only last week Ibrahim still supported the indictment.

"In Doha we were negotiating with representatives of the Sudanese government. We were not talking to emissaries of an individual," Ibrahim told the Weekly.

The Sudanese courts that Ibrahim insists are subservient to the country's president sentenced his brother, Abdel-Aziz Asher, and scores of other JEM fighters to death.

President Al-Bashir remains in defiant and uncompromising mood. In a bellicose speech on Tuesday he told supporters at the official opening of the Meroe Dam in northern Sudan that he would fight the ICC indictment "to the death".

"We are engaging in a jihad against the unjust infidels. Why do they not issue arrest warrants for the Israeli leaders who committed heinous crimes against humanity in Gaza?"

Like most politicians the Sudanese president dresses up personal ambition in much larger causes. While this might help keep a majority of northern Sudanese on his side the same cannot be said of the south.

The position of the southern Sudanese leadership remains ambiguous. When Al-Bashir flew to Juba, the southern Sudanese administrative capital, to consult with his Vice-President Salva Kiir, leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), Kiir said that it is no secret that southern politicians have reservations about Al-Bashir's rule. The SPLA has been critical of NCP policy in Darfur and the ICC indictment might be viewed as an opportunity for the SPLA to strengthen its position vis-a-vis Al-Bashir's NCP in the Sudanese government.

Sudanese politicians may have more important things to do than settle old scores. And while the SPLA understands that Sudan must not descend into political paralysis it must also realise that with Al-Bashir beholden to the SPLA his political position will inevitably be weakened as theirs is strengthened.

The European Union has promised to ensure swift enforcement of the ICC arrest warrant for Al-Bashir. The SPLA is poised to play the role of mediator between the Sudanese government and the international community. The leaders of the SPLA have so far shown creditably little inclination to leave the barracks though fighting between SPLA forces and pro-NCP militias has claimed 500 lives in the last month.

The SPLA appears to hold all the cards just as the people of southern Sudan are to vote in a referendum on self-determination. It is possible, though unlikely, they will opt for secession.

The Sudanese leadership, including southerners, needs to abjure backward-looking score- settling and forward-looking nest-lining. They must transcend any preoccupation with the status of their president and start tackling the serious development concerns facing Sudan.

Economic hardship is feeding extremism, secessionism and armed opposition to the Bashir regime. The threat posed by the Darfur armed opposition groups is troubling. Sudan's politicians must avoid repeating past mistakes.

The United Nations Security Council is unlikely to pass a resolution deferring the ICC prosecutor's investigation of the Sudanese president. That is the backdrop against which Egypt is urging an emergency UN Security Council session to discuss the ICC indictment of Al-Bashir. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit has already warned that the world needs to examine Sudan's domestic position carefully and sympathetically and reprieve the indictment.

Such calls are unlikely to carry weight with Western leaders who seem to have focussed on getting rid of the president. For the moment they are unlikely to allow him to leave with much in the way of dignity though that does not mean a face saving mechanism cannot be formulated in the future. Al-Bashir's chances of hanging on are, in any case, not small.

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