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Four Days in June

By Moses Marz

President Omar al-Bashir is looking out of the window of his SUDAN01 aircraft, a 1960-built Ilyushin Il-62. He is wearing a short-sleeved striped shirt and a grey vest against the cold of the air-conditioning. His binoculars are placed within reach on the table in front of him. It is a Saturday in June and the winter sun is about to set on Gauteng as the plane approaches its destination. The president takes another look through his binoculars as they fly over the sand pyramids left by the gold mines, the massive compounds with swimming pools and next to them the clearly delineated areas, filled with shacks and matchbox homes, where millions of people are crammed into a few square kilometres.

The Sudanese delegation to the 25th African Union (AU) summit in South Africa includes 39 ministers, advisors and journalists. Before their journey al-Bashir made it clear to his fellow countrymen what he considered to be the mission of their trip: “We have a big battle to fight. Our project is independence from the West. I have travelled the continent from North to South, East and West. No one can prevent us from visiting these countries. And we are doing all of this because we want to directly confront those who try to strangle Sudan economically through the economic sanctions that makes things difficult for us at home.”

In 2015 it looks like al-Bashir’s stormiest days are over. As a result of South Sudan’s attainment of independence, Sudan’s relationship with the USA is slowly improving – despite al-Bashir’s firm belief that the CIA and Mossad are funding the operations of Islamic State. His political convictions, or what he will do with the 25 per cent of the oil reserves left in his country, seem to be of lesser importance to the US than the 75 per cent that can be extracted from South Sudan. For now al-Bashir’s profile is still big enough to matter. To him his arrest warrant is “dead but not yet buried”. He knows that there is still a likelihood that they will come for him when he is at his weakest, perhaps once his last term in office is over. His standard response to those asking whether he is afraid of the International Criminal Court (ICC): “I only fear God.”

Al-Bashir is clear about the objectives of this visit to South Africa. The politico-economic ties between South Africa and Sudan are strong. They date back to the Mbeki era, involving a PetroSA and railway engineering deal, among others. Since Jacob Zuma entered office, they have become even stronger. Al-Bashir knows that at no point have the chances been better to garner broad-based support within the ANC against the ICC, which imposed travel restrictions on the president following his 2009 indictment for war crimes in Darfur. If Zuma can convince his party to withdraw from the Rome Statute, other states on the continent will follow suit.

It will be the respective leaders’ second meeting of the year: they met previously in Khartoum to move their collaboration to a ministerial level. The two have a lot in common. They share a liking for big infrastructure projects, the military, development and the protection of tradition. They share a dislike of intellectual types who do not take them seriously. During Zuma’s presidency the South African government has steadily retreated from the free-market, good governance and reconciliation discourse the Mandela and Mbeki governments stood for. Entering its own postcolonial moment, the regional hegemon is slowly relinquishing its exceptional status on the continent. Working at eye-level with Sudan is now a possibility.

***

Erika Gibson, senior specialist military reporter for the daily Afrikaans newspaper Beeld, is the first to break the story of al-Bashir’s arrival at Waterkloof Airforce Base near Pretoria. She is stuck in traffic in Johannesburg on her way home from the Media24 offices when Morné Booij-Liewes, a colleague in her countrywide plane-spotting network, sends her a message with the snapshot of SUDAN01 landing at Waterkloof.

The Gupta scandal was Gibson’s last big scoop. This is going to be her next big hit. She tweets: “Al Bashir Sudan01 just landed at Waterkloof Airforce Base.” Within minutes she receives several messages from journalists asking for more details. “Is he on the plane?” Carien du Plessis from City Press asks.

“Not sure but by now he should be making his way to the summit,” she responds.

It is a 30-minute drive from Waterkloof Airforce Base to the Intercontinental Hotel in Sandton, adjacent to the convention centre where the AU Summit is taking place. A convoy of ten cars ferries the Sudanese delegation from the airstrip. The president retires alone to his suite. By the time al-Bashir goes to bed the South African news channels are filled with reports and speculations about whether he is in the country or not. In reruns on TV he is shown, waving his stick at a party rally in Khartoum.

If his main intention was to cause an uproar his visit is off to a good start.

***

Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé are sitting at the table in front of the TV in the communal area of the ICC Detention Centre. Blé Goudé has just finished playing a football match with his fellow inmates and Gbagbo has spent the day working on his new book. The time the former history professor now has to read and write is one of the upsides of being at The Hague. The evening news on Canal+ is reporting live from South Africa. Blé Goudé is translating on the side for Dominic Ongwen, who is the only English-speaker among the 11 ICC detainees. The inmates silently follow the speculations about whether al-Bashir was on the plane or not.

When Blé Goudé joined Gbagbo in The Hague in March 2014, they kept some distance at first. According to rumours in the Front populaire ivoirien party, Camp Gbagbo blamed Blé Goudé, the leader of Young Patriots, the youth militia that brought Gbagbo into power in 2000, for convincing him that he could win the elections against Alassane Dramane Ouattara – as well as the street battle thereafter. Goudé’s sudden exit to Ghana before the rebels took control of Abidjan allegedly left a bad taste in Gbagbo’s mouth.

In the course of the last year these feelings have visibly died down and the two men have become close again. Nowadays they discuss things as frequently as they did in the past. In its attempts to cast itself as the “world’s most humane” prison, the ICC’s Detention Centre provides its inmates with enough facilities to socialise, learn and keep fit.

Gbagbo and Goudé’s cases are being considered together in the prosecution’s attempt to establish a link between Gbagbo’s alleged “indirect co-perpetration” of crimes against humanity and the Ivorian youth responsible for the post-electoral violence. In the pre-trial the Gbagbo legal team insisted that the trial was a political move by the Ouattara-France alliance. Their arguments did not prevent the case  going forward to trial. Now they are both waiting for their trial to begin in January.

So far the proceedings have exposed weaknesses in both the prosecution and the defence.  The former tried desperately to cast Gbagbo’s election slogan, “On gagne ou on gagne” (We win or we win), as a systematic call for ethnic violence. The defence only had to screen a video of coupé décalé star Antoinette Allany singing “on gagne ou on gagne” to demonstrate that Gbagbo’s insistence on victory was a reference to God and not to Ouattara.

The defence reached its own low point when it quoted at length from the book Le Commandant invisible raconte la bataille d’Abidjan, by Germaine Sehoue, as proof of the violence inflicted by pro-Ouattara forces, and of their allegiance to France. It did not take much for the prosecution to point out to the judge that the book was in fact a work of fiction, written by a Gbagbo loyalist and journalist of Le Temps newspaper in Abidjan. Sehoue claimed to have interrogated the said “commander” in his prison cell via SMS but had no proof of this.

After the end of the news a warden switches off the TV. The inmates bid each other goodnight before retiring to their separate cells. Gbagbo does not mind the solitude that much. He has been imprisoned in harsher conditions before, first in the 1970s under Félix Houphouët-Boigny, and then in 2011 in Khorogo before his transfer to The Hague. To make life in the cell slightly more comfortable he has won over one of the younger inmates to keep the ten square metres tidy at all times.

Gbagbo does not struggle to fall asleep at night. The drugs he takes for his rheumatism make him feel heavy and exhausted at the end of the day. When the stress of the final days in Abidjan does disturb his calm from time to time, he recalls the comforting words of his wife Simone: “God is on our side. God is with us.”

***

On Sunday 14 June the 25th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State began after a delay of four hours. Zuma had been forced to call an urgent meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC after the South African Litigation Centre (SALC) went to the Pretoria High Court to ask for al-Bashir’s arrest earlier the same day. Following the NEC meeting a short press statement was issued: “The NEC of the ANC holds a view that the ICC is no longer useful for the purposes for which it was intended – being a court of last resort for the prosecution of crimes against humanity. The fact that compliance with the prescripts of the International Criminal Court is voluntary and countries can choose whether to be a signatory or not, means that gross human violations committed by non-signatory countries go unpunished.”

Never before has the ANC distanced itself so unequivocally from international law.

When al-Bashir makes his entrance at the convention centre there are nods of respect from some of the delegates. Others seem to pretend that they do not see him. In the few public comments she makes on behalf of the AU, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma states that the AU is not a signatory of the ICC, hoping to end the discussion there. The AU’s non-cooperation with the ICC is nothing new. Its categorical statement of such in the al-Bashir case dates back to 2009.

While Robert Mugabe gives the opening speech on the summit’s theme of “Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara is already making his way out of the country, citing an important business meeting elsewhere as the reason for his sudden departure. Once the summit threatened to take the form of a rebellion against the ICC, Ouattara might have been advised to absent himself, so as not to jeopardise his image in the West by showing solidarity with AU policy against the Rome Statute.

For the group picture a placeholder carrying the Sudanese flag stands in the front row, next to Denis Sassou Nguesso and Abdelkader Taleb Omar. A few seconds before the photo shoot al-Bashir moves into his spot, briefly shakes hands with Taleb Omar and strikes a smile for the cameras… and then gives a triumphant thumbs up.

It will be his last appearance at the summit. He will not make it to the opening of the African Peer Review Mechanism workshop he is scheduled to moderate later that day.

***

Judge Hans Fabricius listens to the young SALC lawyer who is expressing concern about whether all national exit points have been closed to President al-Bashir. The session is broadcast live on eNCA. The broadcast moves back and forth between the Pretoria High Court and the Sandton Convention Centre, where al-Bashir’s assigned seat is empty.

Judge Fabricius turns to the ANC’s lawyer, William Mokhari, who listened to the SALC’s appeal to the court while slouched in his chair, and asks him, “Do you have any information about where he could be at this moment?”

Mokhari shrugs his shoulders and says, “He could be taking a break in his hotel room or doing shopping.”

Clearly annoyed by Mokhari’s arrogance, the judge replies, “Wherever he is at this moment, I hereby interdict the Sudanese president from leaving the country. All exit points should be closed down while this matter is before the court!”

On Monday morning, while most other journalists are still in the Pretoria High Court or waiting outside the convention centre to catch a glimpse of al-Bashir, Erika Gibson is already at the Waterkloof Airforce Base with Morné Booij-Liewes. She has kept in touch with her plane-spotter network on WhatsApp throughout the morning but no one has reported sighting al-Bashir.

Just after 11am Gibson and Booij-Liewes see the presidential plane, SUDAN01, rolling along the airport apron. At the same time, the South African government announces in a live broadcast that it does not know the whereabouts of President al-Bashir.

Gibson tweets: “#Bashir jet cleared for take-off. Lined up for departure. Should leave shortly.”

A convoy of ten vehicles comes speeding down the M28 highway. Gibson makes out that there are two Metro Police cars escorting it. The Sudanese delegation enters the airfield within a matter of minutes. On a normal day a Home Affairs official would come on board to check the passports. Today there is no time for formalities. As soon as the doors close, the plane begins its taxi to the runway.

Three minutes later Gibson tweets: “#Bashir jet has taken off heading north. He has gone.”

Booij-Liewes takes some snapshots of the plane flying off against a light blue sky.

***

The sky over The Hague is grey. A harsh wind is blowing across the dunes of the Dutch coast on this Tuesday morning. Fatou Bensouda is wearing gumboots, a construction jacket and a white construction helmet. Along with Judge Song Sang-Hyun, the president of the ICC, the ICC’s chief prosecutor receives the half-year report on the construction of the ICC’s new premises. It is a 15-minute stroll down the road from the Detention Centre.

A camera team is following them. In line with the ICC’s policy of transparency, the goal of the video is to report back to the “international community”, more specifically the 122 states that fund its existence. By broadcasting courtroom proceedings and providing photos and video footage of life inside the Detention Centre, it plays an active role in bringing the “international community” to life.

The media is busy casting al-Bashir’s escape from South Africa as a defeat for the ICC. The usual arguments are raised about how the ICC has no way of imposing its decisions. The ICC and its alliance of NGOs are working hard to make it look like the opposite is true: that the South African High Court’s ruling was in fact a victory for international justice.

Al-Bashir aside, Bensouda has reasons to worry about her organisation. Even Amnesty International, usually a close ally of the ICC, recently announced that her job would become obsolete if she did not receive more funding, and that it should not only come from European countries. That the new headquarter is largely financed by the Netherlands does not help in that regard; that Bensouda still struggles to get past the “research stage” to move on with the preliminary examinations of Palestine, Ukraine and Iraq does not help either. She has yet to prosecute a single case outside Africa.

Walking across the muddy construction site Denis Olette, the architect of the new headquarters, speaks enthusiastically about its design: “Because it slopes in different ways the glass creates a clear or opaque impression, depending on the weather – but in essence it remains glass. When the sun shines the reflection of the sun on the water basin surrounding the building creates mystical effects.”

Olette goes on, “We wanted to reproduce the impression of openness and welcoming of the ICC. So that the public can feel like it can walk right across the dunes of the Netherlands and stroll straight into the ICC headquarters.”

Olette now stands at the centre of the new courtyard and stretches his arms wide like a wizard presenting a work of magic. “Two hundred people will fit on the [ground] floor, and almost 200 behind the glass on the first floor,” he says, and adds proudly, “The big courtroom is ten times bigger than the biggest in the current [headquarters]. Both smaller courtrooms will be bigger than the biggest in the previous ones.”

There is little doubt here that the ICC community will grow in numbers.

***

At the same time, in Khartoum, President al-Bashir makes his way up the majestic staircase at the centre of the new presidential palace. It was a bargain that came with one of the recent oil deals with China.

A positive side effect of the US sanctions and China’s interest in Sudan’s oil is that the state now receives a greater share of the oil revenue and the Sudanese themselves are involved in the extraction process for the first time. This is in contrast to previous deals with US companies, which, as al-Bashir points out, left the state with “no idea of the size and quality of the oil reserves in our country, nor the price we were paying for extraction”.

For the ANC, China also presents a radical change in political options. In economic terms China has been South Africa’s largest trading partner for the last five years. The Communist Party’s funding of the ANC’s political school and “high-calibre study tours” to China are further indicators that, for South Africa too, geopolitical life outside the West is an actual possibility.

Despite all the media hype around al-Bashir’s visit to South Africa, he arrived back in Khartoum to several thousand supporters cheering him at the airport. Although his travels take place against the background of an increasingly complicated economic situation, he still has a strong following at home. The 94.5 per cent of the votes he received in the elections in April might not be representative, but they are still an indication that the opposition poses little threat to him and to the National Congress Party. He has already announced that this will be his last term. He is 71 years old. In his last years as president he will focus on implementing what he calls the “Eastern Doctrine”, primarily through increased economic cooperation with China, Russia, India and Malaysia, and on fostering relationships with the BRICS states.

And then there is still the battle with the West.

 

chronic cover rsizedThis story features in the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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