Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, is under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has a warrant out for his arrest. He briefly attended a July 13-14 African Union (AU) health summit in Nigeria, but left when Nigerian human rights groups called for his arrest. The ICC justices in The Hague also issued a statement reminding Nigeria of its obligation to “honor its warrants” and hand over Bashir.
A Sudanese government spokesman was quoted by the New York Times saying that Bashir’s departure had nothing to do with fear of arrest but that “he had matters to attend to in Khartoum.” Reuben Abati, Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan’s press spokesman, said that Nigeria had not invited Bashir to come. Rather he was present for an AU event and that “Nigeria is not in a position to determine who attends an AU event and who does not attend.”
This Day, a Nigerian newspaper, reported that the Abuja government was not even aware that Bashir would be attending until a few days before the conference. While President Jonathan had personally invited some of the other African leaders, Bashir was not one of them. Moreover, if Nigeria had stopped Bashir from attending, it may have risked losing the honor of hosting the summit altogether.
According to Bashir’s spokesman, while in Abuja Bashir met with the presidents of Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, is also under ICC indictment. However, the court has not issued a warrant for Kenyatta’s arrest because he is cooperating with the court–unlike Bashir.
The ICC is awkward for the AU. Two of its chiefs of state are now under indictment. But, the court is unpopular among many Africans who think that it unfairly targets Africa for its prosecutions. The U.S. position on the ICC is not straightforward; U.S. policy is to support the court, and the United States signed the founding Treaty of Rome. But no administration has ever sought Senate ratification of it.
There has been some speculation that Nigeria’s welcoming of Bashir was somehow intended to distance itself from the United States. I think that is highly unlikely. Bashir’s visit seems to have posed quandaries for the Jonathan government, which must be mindful of its relationship with the AU. Nigeria has provided the largest number of peacekeepers in Sudan’s Darfur. Like Charles Taylor, the former Liberian warlord, Bashir is also deeply unpopular among many in Nigeria, not least because of his alleged human rights violations in Darfur and South Sudan.
Under these circumstances, I find Abati’s explanation credible: Nigeria admitted Bashir because he had been invited by the AU to its summit that Nigeria was merely hosting. I also find it credible that Bashir bailed out essentially without notice because he feared being arrested.