Africa’s Leaders Protect Each Other

As a former President faces trail, his incumbent colleagues vilify the court...

ON JANUARY 28th the Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo became the first former head of state to go on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague. Three days later the African Union (AU) resolved, among other rude comments about the court, to support Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in his determination to ignore the warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide in Darfur. It also expressed “deep concern regarding…the wisdom of the continued prosecution” of African leaders including Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, who faces charges of orchestrating violence after an election eight years ago. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, who faced similar charges which the ICC dropped in 2014, is urging African members of the ICC to withdraw from it.

That may not happen soon, if at all, and it is unclear how many African countries may wish to bunk out of the court’s jurisdiction: not, presumably, the Ivory Coast, whose current president delivered Mr Gbagbo to The Hague. But the episode stirs yet more bad blood between the continent’s rulers and governments of the rich world, most of which back the court, and makes it harder to promote the notion that no leader who commits atrocities should enjoy impunity anywhere.

Unlike the elusive Mr Bashir, Mr Gbagbo, now 70, was unable to prevent his enemies from landing him in the ICC’s dock. Having lost a presidential election in 2010 after a decade in office, he refused to step down—and is now accused of egging on his militias and security forces to commit a string of atrocities in a bloodily vain effort to stay in power. In April 2011 he was captured, and seven months later sent to The Hague, where he has been accused of prompting his henchmen to commit murder, rape and other heinous crimes.

The court is vulnerable to the charge of exercising victors’ justice, because militiamen who backed the Ivory Coast’s current president, Alassane Ouattara, against Mr Gbagbo also committed atrocities—but none of them has been indicted. The court’s doughty chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian, says she will investigate all sides. But Mr Ouattara seems loth to co-operate with her over crimes committed by his friends.

In any event, the court must still refute the more damaging charge of bias against Africa. When it began to operate, in 2002, African leaders were among its keenest backers, mindful of recent horrors in such places as Rwanda, Congo and South Africa under apartheid. Most African governments signed the statute that led to the court’s creation. And though it is true that the first nine “situations” (as the court calls its sets of cases) to be put before the court have all been African, six were brought to it by the relevant African governments themselves; two were referred to it by the UN Security Council; and the cases to do with Kenya were taken to it with the co-operation of Kenya’s then government, after Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian former head of the UN, had mediated an end to the dreadful post-election violence and endorsed the ICC’s involvement. The latest situation to be investigated by the ICC prosecutor concerns atrocities committed in Georgia during its war with Russia in 2008.

Moreover, the African leaders who castigate the court for tackling their peers sound less protective of smaller African fry who fall into the ICC’s net. Niger’s government was happy to send a Malian jihadist to The Hague last year. The Democratic Republic of Congo has allowed the ICC to send back a warlord, Germain Katanga, to face further charges at home after serving a sentence handed down at The Hague. And Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, a vehement critic of the ICC, was no doubt content when Dominic Ongwen, a leader of the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army that has blighted northern Uganda, stood before the court in The Hague at the end of last month. But unlike Mr Gbagbo he plainly wasn’t “one of us”.


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