THE South African government had no choice. If anything President Omar al-Bashir did the country and the continent as a whole a favour by high tailing and leaving the 25th African Union Summit before the Pretoria High Court order that sanctioned his arrest for human rights violations.
While a diplomatic or indeed political case could be made in support of Bashir, there is little sympathy among Africans who deplore the impunity of leaders such as Bashir behind the slaughter and displacement of millions of people on the continent. These are leaders responsible for intolerable economic conditions that have consigned many to perpetual poverty, uncertainty and servitude.
This was a fact admitted by President Jacob Zuma who said that the AU had a long way to go before it achieved its developmental goals. About 585 million people, or 72 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, he said, still lived in or at the brink of poverty.
The Bashir crisis not only sullied but sidetracked the entire conference which was supposed to discuss the role of women in integral economic and social development. The conference was instead in uproar with righteous indignation among delegates who felt belittled and insulted by the arrest threat considering that President Bashir had been to Kenya, Chad and Nigeria to attend similar meetings without the slightest danger of being arrested on account of the International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant of arrest hanging over his head.
The warrants were issued in 2009 and 2010, a time when he reportedly masterminded genocide and other atrocities in his campaign to crush a revolt in the Darfur region. The Darfur conflict claimed more than 300 000 and displaced more than two million within and outside the country.
The Southern African Litigation Centre, a legal rights group, had launched an urgent application demanding the arrest of President Bashir because South Africa was a signatory of the ICC and therefore obligated to effect the arrest, but the African National Congress accused the Hague-based court of being biased against Africans and said it was “no longer useful”.
Judge Hans Fabricius barred Bashir from leaving South Africa until a decision was made regarding his status and government was asked to bar Bashir from leaving, inspite of protestation that such action was in complete contravention of the convention that leaders attending AU meetings were automatically granted immunity.
However as the court sat President Bashir flew out of the country, leaving a storm of internal outrage which the South Africa government must face in days to come.
While the ICC has expressed disappointment that South Africa has failed to arrest President Bashir, delegates took turns to condemn the ICC as the “European court against Africa” because most “victims” were Africans. One of the officials went as far as suggesting that some of the presiding officers at the court were not even trained lawyers, showing a lack of regard for the continent.
However bellying the criticism of the ICC is the reality of serious abuses on the continent which have given rise to mass displacements of populations with thousands preferring to risk their lives on rickety boats to seek greener pastures in Europe.
The AU has failed miserably to provide leadership in the area of good governance. Among the participants who criticized the ICC were leaders who have forced out thousands of their own citizens due to economic as well as safety considerations.
The chairman, Robert Mugabe, attacked Western countries that have insisted on two term presidency countering that European leaders did not talk term limits. He said African leaders were expected to apologize for running for a third term while this was practiced without rancor in Europe.
This, however, is a contradiction because African leaders have urged Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza to step down at the end of the constitutionally mandated two terms.
The lack of direction means that unless more public spirited bodies as the Southern African Litigation Centre, a legal rights group, existed and operated openly in other countries on the continent, leaders would be put in check. President al-Bashir would not have gone to Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria. He did because vibrant civil society is preoccupied with mundane issues.