Speculation is rife on the eve of the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) expected to be released on the 4th of March 2009, about the issuance of an arrest warrant for Sudan’s President, Omar Al Bashir. Last year, chief ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo asked the court’s judges to indict Bashir for orchestrating what he described as a campaign of genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Over 35,000 people have been killed and at least 100,000 more perished through starvation and disease.
Sudan’s government has ruled out handing over Bashir and two other Sudanese citizens previously indicted by the court for suspected war crimes in Darfur. Ever since international prosecutors began seeking an arrest warrant last year, opponents have pressed the United Nations Security Council to use its power to suspend the proceedings. However, a majority of the Council members have argued that the case should go forward, saying Sudan’s President has not done enough to stop the bloodshed to merit an official pardon.
Many African and Arab nations counter that issuing a warrant for the President’s arrest could backfire, diminishing Sudan’s willingness to compromise for the sake of peace. Others, including some United Nations officials, worry that a warrant could inspire retaliation attacks against civilians, aid groups and the thousands of international peacekeepers deployed there. Further, the Government of Sudan could respond to the decision by escalating the level of attacks in Darfur such as that started in Muhajiriyaa, and maximizing its support for Chadian rebels.
Likely Implications on Sudanese Political Dynamics
The ICC arrest warrant against President Bashir has many implications, particularly for the internal political dynamics of Sudan. This action has the potential of destabilizing the Sudanese political scene to the extent that it can create a disabling political crisis well before the referendum. Recognizing this, the southern Sudanese who are the strongest advocates of separation are among the most ardent critics of the ICC.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2005 has ended one of Africa’s longest armed conflicts. The agreement represented a tangible hope for the majority in the country. The CPA projected that within a six-year transitional period the two parties to the agreement would form the Government of National Unity, hold elections and form a new government as well as hold the referendum in 2011, among other things. The country is still far away from reaching agreements on any of the above, including a possible peaceful future, be it unity or separation. Unity does not look attractive anymore as many Southerners are looking forward to separation and many Northerners are prepared to accept and support separation from the South. The environment for these final years of CPA is likely to be extremely complex. Bashir and his loyalist within the National Congress Party (NCP) could simply withdraw from the CPA. Mr. Salva Kiir, the President of the Government of Southern Sudan expressed his concerns that Bashir’s indictment might signal the end of the CPA. A breakdown in the agreement would have devastating effects for all of Sudan. Conflicts and instability in Sudan are likely to escalate dramatically.
The response of the main political actors in Sudan to the expected ICC’s move against Bashir has started to show, particularly within the ruling NCP. In anticipation of the arrest warrant, the NCP is facing mounting pressure – both within the party and outside and there are growing internal tension and mistrust between two rival camps within the NCP. The first camp consists of Bashir and his loyalists and the other include Sudan’s Second Vice President Ali Osman Taha, and its intelligence chief Salah Abdullah Gosh (both are powerful actors in Sudan’s politics). Bashir could try to firm his control over the NCP by eliminating rival groups. The likelihood is that the Taha group will anticipate such a scenario and act accordingly. The clash between the two main factions (backed with the army) could lead to the sort of breakdown seen in Darfur.
Doha Agreement between hope and reality
The prospects for a political settlement in Darfur are remote, given major political uncertainties in the wake of the ICC indictment. The recent efforts in Doha, Qatar have resulted in an agreement between the Sudanese government and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – Darfur’s most active rebel group. The agreement is a statement of goodwill, with confidence-building measures between Khartoum and JEM intended to pave the way for more significant peace talks over the next few months. Some experts have serious doubts about whether the accord can be turned into a momentous peace settlement for Darfur. “The proof will be in what happens next,” says Sudan expert Alex De Waal. For many months, JEM – which controls areas of north and west Darfur – has insisted that it only wants one-to-one talks with the government. JEM claims it is the only serious rebel movement in Darfur. The agreement essentially shows the government’s approval of that position. This situation could potentially lead to other rebel factions uniting against JEM. Furthermore, the accord was brokered by Qatar, a very insignificant player in the Sudanese affairs, but more than that, it has completely neglected the neighboring countries (Egypt, Chad and Libya). It has widely been perceived that these talks are the government’s way to avoid the ICC indicting the country’s president. This indictment – if it goes ahead – would be another major obstacle to the talks moving forwards and making any significant progress. Most experts agree that in reality the Qatar agreement is not likely to have much impact on the ICC, but it may have an impact on what happens next in Darfur, and in Sudan more widely.
In conclusion, the ICC has become the only card on the table to trade for peace when the international community failed to put real pressure on Khartoum. However, will the removal of President Bashir definitely alter the situation in Sudan? While this could still happen his departure can also pose major challenges to the fragile peace and security environment in Sudan. The upcoming days will be decisive in determining the pace and direction that the Sudan will follow.