Between Africa and the ICC: It’s About Accountability

Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi is angry with the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is after the Court said it would nose around last year’s election crisis that occurred in the African country. The announcement doesn’t sound like music to Nkurunziza. Certainly not the kind of music he considers fitting for his presidential ears. This particular music sounds more like out of whack drumming mixed with tone-deaf singers, and backed up with voodoo incantations. Unquestionably un-presidential!

It is reported that Burundi’s lower house of parliament, filled with Nkurunziza’s party loyalists, has voted in support of a withdrawal from the ICC. In April, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she was conducting preliminary investigation of the situation in Burundi looking into allegations including murder, torture, rape, and forced disappearance. Some weeks ago, the United Nations had launched an investigation into alleged systematic right abuses in an ongoing crackdown on a protest movement that began last year. This has prompted the vice president of Burundi to say, “It is perfectly clear that this is a plot to do harm to Burundi.” Burundi’s move comes amid rising resentment in Africa (African leaders) against the ICC. Some African leaders have accused the Court of targeting Africa.

To date, the Office of the Prosecutor has initiated investigations that critics have described as being exclusively focused on the African region. The Court has carried out investigations related to situations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, the Central African Republic (CAR), Darfur/Sudan, Kenya, Libya, Ivory Coast, and Mali; and now Burundi. There are mixed perceptions of the Court in Africa ranging from the Court representing a neocolonial institution targeting Africa, to an institution promoting accountability and combatting impunity on the continent.

Some argue that African states feel threatened by the number of Court interventions on the African continent. They also opine that the impression being created is that African states can be more easily violated or that African leaders are not competent enough to manage their own affairs and hence sovereignty. Additionally, the Court has been reluctant to allow African states the right to undertake their own investigations and prosecutions, which in fact should be the case under the principle of complementarity. Officially, the ICC has opened investigations in eight countries in Africa. This has been the main contention of critics, i.e. that the Court as a World Court has targeted Africa only. This prompted the ICC to organize a conference in The Hague in May, 2014 with the title, “Africans and Hague Justice: Realities and Perceptions of the International Criminal Court in Africa.”

Is the ICC targeting Africa inappropriately or are there sound reasons and justification for why all of the situations under investigation or prosecution happen to be in Africa? Answers to that question will depend to a large extent to where you stand as regards the legality and jurisdiction of the Court. But why do African leaders have issues with the Court? The reason, I believe, has to do with accountability and not sovereignty as is being painted. A consideration of some of the situations will be helpful here.

Pierre Nkurunziza became president in 2005 after a civil war. He was the chairman of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), the ruling party, until he was elected as president of Burundi. He was just forty-one. Because of his youth, there was hope that the leadership of the country would move away from the politics of the past. That was not the case, for recent events show that Nkurunziza suffers from the same sickness that ails most African leader. Once they are in power they think they have monopoly on wisdom to lead. They never want to leave. (I can bet you that when Uncle Mugabe took over in Zimbabwe some decades ago, Zimbabwean teenagers then did not think that their grandchildren would meet him as president. But that is exactly what happened.) In 2015, after two terms in office, Nkurunziza was controversially nominated by his party for a third term. His supporters and opponents disagreed as to the legality, and protests followed. More than two months of anti-Nkurunziza’s protests, which were often violently repressed, left at least one hundred dead. Amidst an opposition boycott, Nkurunziza was re-elected for a third term in the July 2015 presidential election.

In Kenya, after incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the presidential election held on December 27, 2007, violence erupted. Supporters of Kibaki’s opponent, Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement, alleged electoral manipulation. International observers confirmed that this was widely perpetrated by both parties in the election. In addition to staging several non-violent protests, opposition supporters went on a violent rampage killing Kikuyus. Target ethnic violence (as opposed to violent protests) escalated and at first was directed mainly against the Kikuyus – which Kibaki is a member of – especially in the Rift Valley Province. This prompted the Kikuyu to start defending themselves. By January 28, 2008, the death toll from the violence was at around 1300. Up to 600,000 people had been displaced. The violence continued sporadically for several months, particularly in the Rift Valley. Later, Human Right Watch accused politicians and local leaders of organizing, instigating and facilitating the violence. The ICC launched an investigation which indicted some prominent Kenyan politicians, including Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto who happen to be the current president and vice president respectively.

The war in Darfur is another major armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. It began in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels groups began fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. Reports estimate that up to several hundred thousand have died. Mass displacements and coercive migrations have forced millions into refugee camps or across the border, creating a humanitarian crisis. This is what led to indictment of the president of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the ICC.

It is the same story all over the continent; African governments turning against their own people. So is it any surprise that the ICC seems to have its focus on Africa? It is obvious that the issue is not about neocolonialism or sovereignty. Rather, it is about accountability. African leaders are used to not being accountable to anybody, not even to their citizens. There is nowhere else in the world that leaders have so much disdain for their people as in Africa. They unleash terror on their own people without even thinking about it.  Are the situations in Africa, where the Court has opened official investigations, not deserving of an intervention? Don’t African lives matter?

Critics of the Court often point to the ICC’s silence on America’s war in Iraq and Israel’s long standing conflict with the Palestinian, or some other conflict outside Africa, as proof of the Court’s bias. They say that the Court only goes after poor and weak nations. Let’s assume they are right. Is that a good enough justification to kill your own people? Do you justify a crime with another crime? In the cases they point to, usually there are two countries at war. While not trying to justify the actions of any nation against another during conflicts, it is not unlikely to find one, or either parties engaging in unethical means against the other. What is particularly disturbing in Africa is that war crimes, genocide and inhuman acts are perpetrated against the people by their own governments, and the same governments feel they cannot be held accountable for their actions.

Critics also say that “in many of the African situations the promotion of peace is vital to the security of justice. This can be associated with the convoluted definition of justice, which may differ for every person. Traditional elements of justice in many African societies focus on restorative principles of justice, rather than retributive type of justice.” The question is: can there be peace without justice? How do you stop someone from retaliating if they are not sure they can get justice? And how do you stop someone from committing a crime if the hand of justice cannot catch up with them? They try to redefine justice, touting traditional elements of justice in Africa. Do they even know what they are talking about? When you talk about traditional African justice system, it means the person dies or receives punishment immediately they commit a crime. I have never heard of an African deity that is merciful. They administer punishment immediately a crime is committed, and it is usually swift. It is why people refuse to swear by Sango, Ogun, or amadioha for instance. We are talking of a system that does not give a criminal a second chance. Their redefinition of terms does not hold water.

They further argue that the ICC does not go after America and other strong nations. Firstly, according to its mandate, the ICC’s jurisdiction is limited to crimes committed after July, 2002. The subject matter is limited to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The ICC’s jurisdiction is further limited to crimes committed by a national of, or on the territory of, a State Party or a State which has declared its acceptance of jurisdiction by the Court, or where a situation has been referred by the Security Council. Secondly, investigations into African situations have been opened at the request or with the support of African states. It may be more important to ask, can the American President willfully kill Americans? Or seem to be complicit in the death of an American? The answer is no! That is because he is accountable to the people. He does not violate the right of Americans, not because he is afraid of the ICC, but because he is afraid of the people. That is how it should be. The fact that African leaders are only afraid of the ICC and not the people is worrisome. It is why they continue to perpetrate crimes against the people. They go to war against their own people.

In December, 2015, the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff in Nigeria was stoned as it was making its way through a neighbourhood occupied by the Shiite Muslim sect in the Northern city of Kaduna. The sect has had a long standing issue with the Nigerian military over the years. The Army sent in back-up and opened fire on members of the sect, killing over a hundred. The Kaduna State government later put the figure at over 300. The leader of the sect was arrested and has been in detention ever since without trial. Some of his children were killed in the violence. Just this week, the same sect again clashed with the Army and Police in Katsina. The same story: at least 10 dead. Nobody is talking about them. The government does not even value their lives enough to issue a statement. Officially, their lives do not matter! Why are African governments so quick to open fire on their own citizens?

The ICC may not be perfect, but it remains a vital institution in Africa, at least until such a time that African leaders learn and understand the importance of accountability. For that time to come, Africans must learn to hold their leaders accountable. Most Africans are ignorant of the fact that the real power lies with them. That is because most of them are illiterates or uneducated. Even the educated ones have been battered by many years of poverty, mismanagement and corruption. They have accepted their fate. They think their lives depend on the favours of their leaders. This has to change. The United Nations and its agencies, the ICC, and Civil Society Organizations should carry out massive campaigns to educate Africans on their right and the power of the ballot. They should be made to understand that they can demand for good governance by using their votes. The educated class also has work to do. We should educate our not-so-educated parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, that a few cups of rice are not enough to mortgage the future of our children. Accountability begins with us. Let’s make our votes count!

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One thought on “Between Africa and the ICC: It’s About Accountability

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  1. “Why are African governments so quick to open fire on their own citizens?”
    Because their people are unimportant to them. We play the neo-colonialism card whenever it suits us, forgetting that if we had good governance systems, there would be no need for the ICC or anyone else to flash lights at us.

    Liked by 1 person

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