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When Sudanese President Bashir visited South Africa recently for a meeting of the African Union, the South African high court ordered the government to detain him. However, Bashir did leave South Africa as planned and returned to Khartoum. The South African government has faced a lot of flak for allowing him to leave.  My 2 cents on the controversy.

I am not the least puzzled by the South African government inaction. I read the news about the South African High Court directing that the government honour the International Criminal Court warrant. I remember a frisson of excitement, at the possibility of the genocidal tyrant seeing the inside of a jail. That feeling passed soon. The reason was that the South African Government could not realistically have done anything else but let him go.

If they had arrested Bashir they would

  • have faced the opprobrium of the other 53 African States. May be the South Sudanese may have really liked seeing Bashir in jail but then again they may prefer the known devil to the unknown who would replace him. Let us not forget that Bashir had visited Kenya in 2010 after the new constitution was adopted. He had not been arrested though the warrant was outstanding then too and Kenya was also a signatory to the Rome Statute and hence under the jurisdiction of the ICC.  I was there when Bashir came calling on Kibaki and saw the same drama and inaction then. [2]
  • have pissed off the Chinese who are very big consumers of  Sudanese oil. Bashir has been in China on a State visit, talking trade. The Chinese have big investments in Sudan. They would definitely not like anything to happen to those investments in the turmoil that would be inevitable once Bashir was arrested. Does South Africa have what it takes to  piss off the Chinese?  Nope.
  • have been labelled a lackey of western governments. For many years, Africa has been upset that all ICC action since 2002 has targeted only African countries. All this while the criminals in the Balkans, Middle East and other parts of the world have remained at large. While there is some justification for this anger, it must be remembered that the ICC cannot take any action unless the country is a signatory to the Rome Statute [1]. They cannot take action when the criminal is protected by a powerful country with the ability to veto any action.  Now do you think the South African government, given the history of apartheid in the country, would want to be seen to be kowtowing to WHITE western governments?
  • not have won any brownie points or extra trade with western Governments. Remember that an average person anywhere outside the African continent (and most even within) does not know who Bashir is or that he is wanted by the ICC. Darfur was many years ago and an event that did not affect their lives, not now anyway. Ergo, there would be no pressure on any of the Western Governments by their own people which meant that they would not be pleased with what South Africa had done.

I ask again, what were they realistically expected to do?

I answer: What they did – turn a blind eye and let him go.


[1] Only the Sudan and Libyan cases came up because of a UN Security Council referral. The rest in Africa were investigated because their governments asked for it. Now they may have changed their mind but they did invite ICC to investigate.
[2] Kenya, African Union defend Bashir visit

A cartoon in the Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation sums up what happened perfectly.

Bashir ICC