News broke on February 11, 2020 of the willingness of Sudan's transitional government to have every Sudanese indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague appear before that court. The ICC has indicted seven Sudanese; three of them were Darfur rebel group commanders, one of whom supposedly died in battle, one of whom was acquitted, and one of whom is awaiting trial. Four Sudanese regime officials, including deposed President Omar al-Bashir, have been indicted and none have made it yet to The Hague. Surrendering al-Bashir to the court is a core demand of Sudanese rebel groups meeting in Juba with the Sudanese government, and certainly an aspiration of many of the al-Bashir regime's victims whether in Darfur or anywhere else.
I was the Charge d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum in March 2009 when President Al-Bashir was first indicted by the ICC. The atmosphere was electric and extremely volatile, given the relative lack of security in the Embassy chancery building, located at that time in a heavily trafficked street in Sudan's capital. Only days earlier, several key officials of the Sudan's People Liberation Movement (SPLM), at the time sharing the government with Al-Bashir's Islamist party but also bitter rivals of Al-Bashir, had warned us in confidence that they thought indicting Al-Bashir was a mistake. It would only strengthen his hold on power, unite the contending factions within the National Congress Party (NCP), and make it less likely that one of Al-Bashir's deputies could force him from office. The SPLM preferred that the threat of an ICC indictment, rather than an actual indictment, be used to extract concessions from the NCP and perhaps used as a way of leveraging him into a comfortable exile outside of Sudan.
One of the first things that Al-Bashir did to show his defiance of the indictment was to go on the road to Darfur and to hold massive rallies of support in the cities of El Fasher and Geneina. He took the diplomatic corps with him, and I had two small pleasures during that trip: walking out in the middle of an Al-Bashir speech in El Fasher after he began denouncing the U.S. – its treatment of the American Indians, Hiroshima, Guantanamo, Abu Ghureib – and, the next day, arriving in Geneina as the delegation was welcomed by hundreds of gaily caparisoned horsemen waving rifles, swords, and colored flags. These were, of course, Janjaweed militiamen serving as a picturesque yet baleful backdrop to the trip. This was Al-Bashir saying to the world and the ICC: "You may indict me, but here I am in Darfur, where you accused me of these crimes, being welcomed by tens of thousands of Darfurians including, by the way, the very instruments you accuse me of using in war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity."
Omar Al-Bashir certainly deserves to be questioned in The Hague. The ICC is problematic in that it seems to be a place to judge Africans more than anyone else. Of the 12 official ICC investigations, 11 are in Africa. Cognizant of that uncomfortable perception, only two out of 10 newer ongoing investigations are in Africa. In recent years, four former heads of state have been tried in international courts – Serbia's Milosevic, Liberia's Charles Taylor, Chad's Hissene Habre, and Cote d'Ivoire's Laurent Gbagbo. But only Gbagbo was tried in an ICC court. He was acquitted in January 2019 due to insufficient evidence, but prosecutors are appealing the case.
Al-Bashir deserves to be taken to The Hague, and this action, if the former president actually does make it to The Netherlands, will certainly have benefit in peace talks with rebel groups. Sudan's promise to set up a special Darfur tribunal to deal with war criminals not indicted by the ICC is also a welcome step.
However, sometimes, good and even righteous acts may distract from the main event. The offer to extradite Al-Bashir is like the recent meeting between the head of Sudan's ruling Sovereignty Council, Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu – positive, good events laudatory in themselves. But these are also actions that could have a marginal if not a negative impact on the main event, which is the nature of political power in Khartoum and the challenge of delivering on a better life for Sudan's growing population of 43 million (expected to rise to 81 million by 2050). A fragile civilian government struggles to contain and manage a series of dire domestic challenges.
The same day that the news about Al-Bashir and the ICC broke, a fuel shortage brought much of Khartoum to a standstill, as people waited for gasoline in massive lines stretching miles. Bread shortages have also broken out. In late 2018, it was shortages of food that ignited the rolling demonstrations that led to the fall of Al-Bashir and the NCP in April 2019.
Sudan needs justice and the rule of law. It would certainly benefit from better relations with other countries in the region, including Israel. But it could be dangerous indeed if the Sudanese people perceive that seemingly "foreign" demands take priority over improving the daily lives of Sudanese citizens. Many observers presume that the ICC and Netanyahu meeting decisions are connected to larger ongoing discussions that will lead to tangible results, such as finally removing Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. But while such a diplomatic step is essential, it is not, in and of itself, sufficient.
For decades, we have seen tyrannical regimes in the Arab world distract their people from their misery by harping on foreign conspiracies, on the supposed evils of America, Israel, and the West. In Sudan, it won't be the current civilian transitional government that will make such charges, but those sinister forces in Sudan who long for the return of Political Islam à la the NCP to return to power, or even something worse. It is incumbent on the international community to not just encourage Sudan to do the right thing in terms of international relations (and both the ICC and Netanyahu can so easily be portrayed in lurid terms by extremists). The international community must help the transitional government in at least being perceived as delivering on some much needed relief to its own people.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are those of the author and not of MBN or the Government of the United States.