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1 November 2014 04:23 (South Africa)
Opinionista Simon Allison

AU summit move: what choice did they have?

  • Simon Allison
Malawi’s principled refusal to invite Sudan’s president to the African Union summit in Malawi put the continental body in an impossible quandary. Their solution was imperfect, but the right move in complicated circumstances. By SIMON ALLISON

If one ever doubted the influence that just one person can have on the fate of an entire country, then Malawi’s new president Joyce Banda should reassure you that a single change in personnel at the very top can turn a struggling, declining nation into one of Africa’s brightest prospects. Since taking over two months ago upon the timely death of her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, Banda has made a series of bold, difficult decisions that should give Malawi a new lease on life after years of stagnation. She devalued the currency to make exports more attractive; she’s selling the superfluous presidential jet, along with 60 presidential limousines; and she’s promised to repeal the notorious anti-homosexuality laws.

Her boldest decision was to respect Malawi’s international commitments and declare that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir would be arrested should he set foot on Malawian soil. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer charges of committing genocide in Darfur; Malawi, as a signatory to the Rome Statute which created the court, is obligated to enforce the arrest warrant.

This brave, principled decision is not entirely without self-interest. Malawi is expecting some $500 million-plus in aid money as the likes of the International Monetary Fund and the Millenium Challenge Corporation queue up to help the popular new president, after aid was almost entirely suspended during Mutharika’s second term. A picture of Joyce Banda greeting an alleged war criminal on her own red carpet would have seriously jeopardised the resumption of support,as illustrated by a recent US warning – no doubt directed at Malawi – to cut off aid money from any country that allows Bashir in. Looks like it worked.

The financial incentive should not detract from what was still a courageous decision. The ICC has a bad reputation among most African leaders, who have consistently defied calls to arrest Bashir and dismissed his arrest warrant as just another example of the court’s anti-African bias (with the notable exceptions of Botswana, South African and Zambia). By taking the opposite view, Banda – a relatively young, female leader in a group of old, grumpy men – is openly defying the African consensus, something sure to make her unpopular amongst her counterparts.

That this issue came up at all was because the Sudanese president was due to travel to Lilongwe in July to attend the African Union summit. Once it became clear that he would not be welcomed – a sudden change in policy from the Mutharika days – Sudan complained long and loudly to whoever would listen.

This put the AU in a very tight spot. The continental body has previously been vocal in its criticism of the ICC and Bashir’s indictment. Not that this should be a surprise – the problem with creating a democratic institution stuffed with a higher than average proportion of despots is that it will, inevitably, come to represent their reactionary views.

And so the AU wrote to Malawi, telling the government that it had better invite Bashir or the summit would be moved, summarily, to Addis Ababa. Malawi, with one eye on the donors and trapped anyway by the strength of their strongly-stated convictions, wouldn’t relent, and on Friday Addis Ababa was officially confirmed as the summit’s new host.

This decision is hardly going to improve the AU’s already battered reputation, especially as it comes in the midst of organisation’s inability to elect a commission chairperson. Critics will question the AU’s commitment to justice, and use this as another example of the AU choosing to protect the status quo, and the likes of President Bashir, over doing the right thing.

But the reality is that the AU had little choice in the matter. For a start, it needed to abide by its own rules and regulations, which require all heads of member states to be invited to attend each summit. This is no mere diplomatic nicety: the whole point of a summit is to bring all the presidents together to thrash out issues facing the continent. To have it in a place where one president is persona non grata is deliberately exclusionary, and certain to encourage divisions rather than cooperation.

Furthermore, the AU is not a signatory to the Rome Statute – it’s not a country, so it can’t be. And of its member states, only 33 of 54 have ratified the treaty, meaning there are 21 countries who have chosen not to do so. Sudan is one of these (as, to digress slightly, is the USA; it is the height of hypocrisy to require other countries to enforce rules that you don’t subject yourself to). It seems slightly absurd, in this context, to expect the AU to compromise its own proceedings in defence of a court that does not include a sizeable chunk of its membership.

Especially as to do so would completely alienate Sudan. Some would say this is no bad thing: it’s about time Bashir was taught a lesson. Again, the critics would be wrong. This is not about whether Bashir shoud be arrested or not: given Malawi’s very public position, there was no chance of him travelling to the AU summit anyway, so this is a red herring. What it’s really about is whether Sudan would be best served by being alienated from the African community of nations, by being humiliated in a very public fashion.

Alienation and humiliation is almost certainly not the answer to any of Sudan’s problems, especially not now, as the AU helps to mediate in the very delicate negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan. Talks have just resumed in Addis Ababa after months of rising tensions. To snub Sudan would be to jeopardise these talks, and to jeopardise these talks would to risk an all-out war between the two Sudans. And AU summits themselves are often very effective negotiating venues: diplomats at the last summit in January in Addis Ababa have described the informal negotiations on the sidelines as the most constructive since South Sudan’s secession.

By refusing to welcome a wanted war criminal, Malawi will attract plenty of well-deserved praise. But so should the African Union, for taking the difficult decision to move the summit to Ethiopia, a decision which will ultimately serve peace and justice in Africa more than what would have been a largely symbolic gesture of support for an arrest warrant that won’t be implemented any time soon anyway. DM

Read more:

  • Huge business loss as Malawi cancels AU summit on Malawi Today
  • Africa needs more gutsy leaders like Joyce Banda  on Tanzania’s IPP Media
  • Joyce Banda’s first diplomatic test on Maravi Post
  • Simon Allison
  • Africa
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Simon Allison covers Africa for the Daily Maverick, having cut his teeth reporting from Palestine, Somalia and revolutionary Egypt. He loves news and politics, the more convoluted the better. Despite his natural cynicism and occasionally despairing tone, he is an Afro-optimist, and can’t wait to witness and chronicle the continent’s swift development over the next few decades.

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