The latest crisis in Sudan began on March 14, when the international criminal court (ICC) in the Hague indicted President Omar al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and issued a warrant for his arrest. Bashir is being held responsible for crimes allegedly committed by his command in the Western region of Darfur, since 2003, by security forces and allied groups said to be “Arab”, financed by the regime to suppress “non-Arab ethnic insurgents”. Although it is true that Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, and Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb ruler, are currently on trial at the Hague, Bashir is the only sitting president to be charged. Not surprisingly, he has adopted a defiant rejection of the indictment, and Arab and African rulers – said to be anxious to avoid a similar fate – have chosen to back his defiance instead of putting pressure on him to submit to the court.
But the most serious threat posed by the ICC’s indictment is to peace – not only in Sudan but also in the countries of the entire region, including Ethiopia and Djibouti, as even Meles Zenawi, the president of Ethiopia, who is no friend of Bashir’s, has warned. In Darfur, rebel groups engaged in peace talks with Khartoum, arranged by the African Union and the Arab League, are exploiting the crisis to pull out, as the main group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has confirmed in a recent statement. In Southern Sudan, the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the main rebel group, which now governs the semi-autonomous region under the CPA (the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south) of 2005, has also warned that unless the ICC arrest warrant is implemented the south will go for full independence.
How serious are the warnings issued in connection with the arrest warrant is shown by even a glance at some of them. Taking Meles Zenawi’s warning first, the Ethiopian prime minister was quoted by the Financial Times on March 20 as saying that the ICC’s decision risked creating an “arc of instability” around Ethiopia, from Somalia to its south and east, hostile Eritrea to the north and Sudan to the West. “The negative impact is not likely to come about as a result of fallout between ourselves and the Sudanese ... Our relations are okay at the moment,” he told the Financial Times. “If there is going to be a negative impact, it will come about as a result of the possible collapse of the state and a more generalised conflict. That is the nightmare scenario.”
Another significant warning was issued by Hassan Zaki, a spokesman for Egypt’s foreign ministry, at the same time. He said it was no surprise that Bashir’s government had chosen to “fight back at what it perceives as an internationally backed movement to destabilise or overthrow it.” He also said that “We are trying to help calm the situation, but our efforts are almost futile in the face of such determination by some and indifference by others to the plea that we are making about the need to preserve stability.”
Zaki’s expressed misgivings were almost immediately confirmed when JEM announced that it had decided to end talks with the Sudanese government until Khartoum allows aid groups back into Darfur. In March Sudan expelled 13 foreign and three local aid-groups that had been operating in Western Sudan. Just a month earlier JEM and the government had signed an agreement in Doha, the capital of Qatar, during the peace talks arranged there by the Arab League and the AU. The agreement was not a final peace accord, but at least it included plans for “good faith” measures by both sides, as Reuters reported on March 20. Darfur’s largest rebel movement was exploiting the strong reaction of the ‘international community’ to the expulsion of the aid-groups, which the UN said would result in the deaths of 1.2 million recipients of food-aid almost immediately.
An equally loud and serious warning came from Pagan Amun, the secretary general of the SPLM, who said on March 21 that Sudan would split up if the north-south peace agreement was not implemented. “The survival of Sudan depends on implementing the CPA. If not Sudan will shatter like glass falling on a rock,” he said.
The warnings are significant partly because the war in southern Sudan lasted much longer and was bloodier than the one that has raged in Darfur since 2003. The conflict there with successive governments in Khartoum stretched over 50 years and resulted in two million deaths. It ended four years ago with the CPA – a deal that gave the south partial autonomy and promised national elections this year, followed by a referendum on full independence in 2011. Most analysts agree that if the ICC warrant of arrest is implemented, there will be such chaos in the country that there will be no time to hold elections or the referendum. Any postponement of these two events will put pressure on the largely Christian south to revert to its war of secession, and Khartoum would be forced to fight back.
The situations of southern Sudan and Darfur are quite different from one another. While the southern Sudanese are largely Christian and Muslims in the region are outnumbered, Darfur’s population is Muslim on the whole and there is no religious conflict between Khartoum and the rebels in Darfur. This partly explains why Bashir signed the CPA, allowing the southerners the right to hold a referendum on full independence. In fact, the Sudanese president should be praised for ending the war in a region that is more likely to vote for independence than not. Instead, the so-called international community continues to accuse him of waging “ethnic war” on non-Arab members of Darfur’s population, mainly because they cannot accuse him of backing Muslims against Christians, as the entire population is Muslim.
Although Bashir believed in 2005 that the West and the UN, whom he now accuses of attempting to split Darfur from Sudan, were also actively backing the Christian separatists in southernSudan, he did not defy them to the extent he is now doing in connection with the Darfur conflict. Since the warrant for his arrest was issued by the ICC on March 4 he has visited Darfurtwice. During his last visit, he addressed thousands of supporters at a rally held in Nyala on March 18. He denounced the West for trying to “create chaos in Sudan” and split Darfur from the rest of the country. “No ICC or Security Coun-cil or any other party will change our path or touch an eyelash in our eye,” he told the rally. “The president of Sudan is not elected byBritain or America. Sudan is an independent country.”
The reference to “any other party” also includes France, whose new president is Jewish and backs Israel’s policies in the Middle East. Israel strongly backs the ‘African insurgents’ in Darfur, extending them both military and financial support. The French government at first announced that it would arrest Bashir if he travelled to Doha for the AU-Arab League mediation meeting at the end of March. But it later modified its declaration saying that it would have him arrested if he visited or flew over France. However, despite his defiance of the ICC, the UN and the West, Bashir must feel a certain degree of anxiety when Northern politicians or journalists back the ICC’s arrest warrant, as this might encourage senior military officers to consider getting rid of him by means of a military coup. In fact, some un-named senior government officials have been quoted in media reports as saying that a military coup by “over-ambitious officers” is a distant possibility.
One of the well-known and senior politicians to have come out in support of the ICC’s arrest warrant is Dr Hassan al-Turabi, who has publicly argued that Bashir has ruined Sudan’s reputation by his policies and conduct in Darfur. Turabi set out his case in a long interview with al-Quds al-Arabi daily, which strongly opposes the arrest warrant, on March 18. But when asked whether he was afraid of the reaction to his attitude of angry Islamists, he simply said that those angered by his support for the ICC are idiots. Turabi and others like him should think twice before they side with those who are out to shatter Sudan’s unity.