Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi didn’t see it coming – that the race for the AU chairperson seat will be transformed into a question who likes or dislikes the ICC, a dramatic elevation of a matter that raises strong emotions of Africanism. Now as countries bolt out of membership of a court they see as anti-Africa every withdrawing country takes with it a potential vote for Venson-Moitoi. The ‘rebels’ are bolting out; in the process causing disarray to what could have been a smooth sail campaign by Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi for the African Union (AU) chairperson seat. The rebels in this case refer to those who are opposed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and in voting against it with their feet these countries have turned the campaign for AU chairperson seat into one between those for and those against the ICC. Things have just gotten harder for Venson-Moitoi as East, West, North and Central Africa leaders jump into bandwagon of chastising the crime’s court which they now see as a western imposition – almost an imperial relic – that diminishes their independence. Effectively Venson-Moitoi had things much easier during the July AU summit though she failed to secure the desired votes to clinch the seat. In re-running she – like most who encouraged her to – did not foresee this sudden turn in the race. And now instead of projecting her qualities she is seemingly coming out as an apologist for a court the greater undemocratic African leaders see as impediment to their excesses. Her narrative has changed – while her country out-rightly celebrates everything the ICC stands for and through which she is judged as foreign minister – she pleads almost desperately that she would get the Tanzanian-based African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights to work with the ICC.
Kenya, South Africa pact
To Zuma the ICC means ‘humiliation; having faced a court dress down for allowing Sudan President Omar al-Bashir to land in South Africa against ICC rules and then sneaking him out of the country when a warrant of arrest had been issued for him. While Zuma has faced this humiliation – breaking his own country’s laws the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto were more devastated by having to stand in the dock of the ICC over links to post-election bloodshed in 2008 in which at least 1,200 people were killed. They have stood in the defence dock of the court though their cases collapsed for lack of evidence. This for Zuma and Kenyatta is personal. This explains the chronology of how things unfolded from the beginning of this month. On October 3, 2016 a few days before Zuma state visit – the first ever by a seating South African president since independence – Kenya announced the candidature of its foreign affairs minister Amina Mohamed for the AU seat. At the end of the visit – October 12, 2016 a communiqué at the end said very little about a pact for the AU seat but that is the essence of diplomacy – keep all guessing as much as possible to secure friendships. But it was what followed that sends out a clear message of the alignment of forces. South Africa within days announced that she was taking steps to leave the ICC. Despite internal protests and court action threats, the country has already submitted its written intention to the Secretary General of the United Nations on October 21, 2016. Rwanda immediately pronounced its support for Kenya’s candidate. Rwanda’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo told The EastAfrican: “She is the best woman for the job, and she is very much Rwanda’s candidate. She is highly qualified, has incredible diplomatic and managerial experience, and the right heart and mind when it comes to the strategic interests of our continent, as well as Africa’s active presence on the global scene”.
Burundi became the first country to begin the process of withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), a move to block the ICC’s decision earlier this year to open a preliminary investigation into human rights abuses, according to irinnews.org. President Pierre Nkurunziza signed legislation on October 18, 2016 with the government accusing it of backing a regime change agenda, masterminded by Western powers. Burundi’s leader has ignored internal protests and international condemnation to secure a third term.
Gambia joins the traffic
Shocking about Gambia’s announcement that it will also be signing out of the ICC is the fact that the Prosecutor of the ICC Fatou Bensouda comes from that country. VOA News quoted Rights group Amnesty International denouncing Gambia's withdrawal from the ICC, calling it "a blow to millions of victims around the world." Amnesty Research and Advocacy Director for Africa Netsanet Belay said: "For many Africans the ICC presents the only avenue for justice for the crimes they have suffered." But Gambia's information minister, Sheriff Bojang, fumed "the ICC, despite being called the International Criminal Court, is in fact an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans."
SADC votes split
With Botswana having antogonised some in the region through the recent pronouncement by President Ian Khama in which he pleaded with President Robert Mugabe to step down for the sake of his suffering people, it anticipated that some will as a result not vote for Venson-Moitoi. Zimbabwe in particular and her allies will choose to punish Botswana for her daring pronouncements. Some leaders have read this to be interference in the sovereign affairs of Zimbabwe. Alongside Zimbabwe, South Africa’s body language also points to a shifted support. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where the leader Joseph Kabila is fighting to extend his rule will most likely not go with Venson-Moitoi. The same applies to Angola. And hence with a reduced voting block Venson-Moitoi faces a huge challenge of winning the seat. And the fact that in the midst of Venson-Moitoi’s campaign Botswana has not kept quiet about its principled support for the ICC has not helped the situation – almost like showing the rest the continet a middle finger. The country is to most African leaders coming out as pro-European and has consistently failed to wash away this tag.
Immunity to sitting presidents
The fury and ire of Africa’s strongmen at their belittling at the hands of this court is growing. They would prefer they continue to do as they wish – extend their terms and abuse their people in as far as they retain the levers of power. They hide behind sovereignty and incumbency where some enjoy immunity from any court action while in power. This is the case in Botswana – country president cannot be taken to court for any decision he/she makes while still holding office. Perhaps when Venson-Moitoi makes a case for members to seek to reform the ICC from within that cowardly jumping out she refers to among others this provision. But there in could be the ICC’s challenge – it most probably finds it hard to buy into immunity of sitting presidents who continue to kill and maim their citizens because they enjoy national and international protection.
What ICC means to individuals citizens
To most citizens of ICC member countries, the court guarantees justice against national leaders who could turn out to abuse power and their trust. Hence any move by leaders to remove their countries from the ICC should of necessity require a national referendum to secure a full mandate to do so. Otherwise, citizens are seemingly being robbed by selfish leaders who are only after protecting themselves against facing justice.
According to iccforum.com, “To date, 122 countries have signed and ratified the ICC’s Rome Statute. The United States, China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Turkey have not ratified it and thus are not under the jurisdiction of the court. Of the 122 countries that have signed the Rome Statute, close to one third comprise African states, and because of the current violence in some of Africa’s key high-resource areas, the ICC is more likely to scrutinize Africa. By asking questions that push us to make sense of why African countries have submitted to the jurisdiction of the court, we can make sense of why Africans and African-based cases are the only ones being tried.” Over 28 people that have been indicted by the ICC have been Africans.