This is indeed extraordinary. Al-Bashir has been an international persona non grata outside of Africa since his indictment by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to the conflict in Darfur. But it is also not surprising that the view from Europe or North America is very different from that in Africa or Sudan when it comes to this controversial figure.
Al-Bashir’s indictment was met in the West by a chorus of approval. The man was a butcher. Finally, the ICC was stepping up and aggressively going after political leaders responsible for serious breaches of international law. Little was said about the delicate political process in Sudan and the upcoming referendum in the south on independence. Al-Bashir had been at the centre of these negotiations, for better or ill. For those more familiar with politics in Sudan, the indictment—whatever its merits—threw a cloud of uncertainty over the end of what was turning out to be a successful divorce between north and south, one which had the possibility of putting a permanent end to the long Sudanese civil war.
A major sign that the indictment was not universally hailed came this past summer. In July 2009, I was in central Africa, traveling north by land into Sudan. In the early part of that month, the African Union passed a resolution stating they would not enforce the arrest warrant against Al-Bashir. The AU special envoy, Salim Ahmed Salim, told journalists that the indictment would create severe instability in the peace process. “[Bringing Al-Bashir to justice] is not the priority right now. To indict President Al Bashir will create insurmountable obstacles. How do you indict a president and negotiate with that person?”
Little is said about how the people of Sudan themselves view their president. Al-Bashir has been head of state for nearly 21 years (he first took power in a military coup). He certainly qualifies as a dictator and the wars he has waged within his own country have appropriately drawn international sanction. But during my time in Khartoum and in the north of the country, Al-Bashir seemed to be a genuinely popular figure. A rally-around-the-flag attitude seems to have taken hold of northerners since the indictment: the president is seen to be more of a victim of international machinations than a worthy indictee.
To be certain, he is viewed very differently in the southern and western regions of the country. But in what will soon perhaps be the rump of Sudan, the north, his image appears in shop windows and on windshields. This hardly means much—in countries like Syria, posting images al-Assad, the unpopular president, is de rigeur—but in conversations with Sudanese from all walks of life I was surprised to hear much less cynicism about Al-Bashir than in comparable conversations with Syrians or Zimbabweans. The images of Al-Bashir throughout Khartoum are often emblazoned with anti-ICC slogans. In part these are likely orchestrated by the regime, but there seems to be popular feeling backing the president. This is a likely outcome when a faraway court of which you know nothing tells you your leader is a criminal.
If one were to compare Al-Bashir to a figure such as Mugabe, almost universally despised in Zimbabwe, the issue over the indictment becomes starker. The peace process in that country is equally fragile and yet Mugabe, responsible for economically devastating his country, is free of indictment. Al-Bashir, while responsible for attacks in Darfur and campaigns in the south before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, has at least presided over a burgeoning economy in the north. His country is not in ruins; Zimbabwe is.
And while Mugabe has plainly dragged his feet throughout the life of his "reconciliatory" provisional government, often attempting to thwart his prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan appears to be on reasonably good footing. It makes more sense to remove or invalidate an obstacle such as Mugabe through an indictment, rather than Al-Bashir, who is an important instrument of the CPA.
And the CPA is moving forward. For example, this past summer, the Abyei arbitration ruling by the Permanent Court in the Hague sorted out a number of thorny issues remaining between north and south. Both sides accepted it without reservation. If Al-Bashir were to be arrested on a foreign trip under the warrant these developments would be placed in serious jeopardy.
A large win by Al-Bashir in the coming election—assuming it is credible—will be an endorsement in the face of international opprobrium. The opposition appears to see this is as a likely outcome and has had trouble attracting candidates to participate in the north. The deadline for the SPLM to nominate candidates has been extended for a five-day period (which will end tomorrow, January 25th). A presidential candidate has still not been selected. Will a new term for Al-Bashir be an absolute good? No, but it will be better than his arrest at such a delicate time.
The civil war between north and south Sudan was one of the most devastating in the latter half of the 20th century. Reconciliation is not a likely possibility, but a peaceful divorce is very much in the cards. That is the way things are heading now with a referendum on independence expected in the south in January 2011. Al-Bashir has promised that the north will be the first country in the world to recognize the south, should they vote in favour of independence.
Taking all this into account, it would be best for the international community to pursue its reckoning with Omar al-Bashir at the end of what will likely be his next term as president.
Above image: Men fix tires on the outskirts of Khartoum in July 2009. Posters of Al-Bashir hang on the wall behind them. (Photo by the author.)