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Opinion: Africa's democracy myth debunked

Ludger Schadomsky / cmJune 16, 2015

Despite an international arrest warrant, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir managed to escape from the AU summit in South Africa. Pretoria is disgraced and democracy in Africa in doubt, says Ludger Schadomsky.

Image: Reuters

"Omar al-Bashir flees from the AU summit," International headlines screamed on July 16, 2013. That was almost two years ago when al-Bashir was able to escape possible detention by Nigerian prosecutors by leaving the country prematurely.

The outcry in parts of Africa was great - the strongest condemnation coming from the South African government. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the western Sudanese province of Darfur. South Africa promised to arrest the fugitive leader should he ever dare to enter South African soil.

And then Al-Bashir dared. He flew in for the summit of the 25th African Union summit in Johannesburg. But on Monday, in defiance of an arrest warrant given by a South African court, al-Bashir departed to Khartoum – jetting out from a military base near Pretoria with the active support of the very same South African government. Just as it was in Nigeria, local human rights groups in South Africa had filed for his warrant.

Shift from the democratic course

The two incidents should not come as a surprise as the Sudanese president continues to explore the boundaries of African solidarity. With all its lip service exposed, the South African government now finds itself drawn into the al-Bashir debate. On June 5, South Africa's Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, had assured diplomatic immunity to all delegates attending the AU Summit.

In the past two years, South Africa's government has hardly been visible in the international arena. This makes their latest international arena engagement even more significant. It marks a departure from the democratic course towards the BRICS alliance led by Russia and China.

Some African leaders may well have quietly welcomed the publicity surrounding Bashir, as it distracted attention from other pressing issues. Jacob Zuma was facing criticism from fellow leaders over the recent xenophobic attacks in his country. There was also a lack of progress over the European migration crisis at the AU summit. That issue may preoccupy European government leaders but not the African politicians who force hundreds of thousands to leave their respective countries.

Slap in the face

The incident in Johannesburg carries a devastating message. South Africa and Nigeria, both Africa's political and economic heavyweights have openly gone against the International Criminal Court - whose chief prosecutor by the way is an African- which makes it hard to believe she is pursuing a neocolonialist witch-hunt against African leaders, a narrative the African dictators like to peddle.

The three heads of state from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo were also in South Africa. Interestingly, all of them are currently considering running for an unconstitutional third term, thus raising the prospects of a popular uprising. One may call it a slap in the face, that during the summit, Rwanda's ruling party nominated its authoritarian leader Paul Kagame to vie for another third term.

Germany had originally been particularly supportive for the International Criminal Court and the prosecution of human rights crimes committed in Darfur. However, recently Berlin has adopted a less strident approach to the atrocities in Sudan. Germany's foreign, defense and development ministries have yet to explain how this new stance towards Khartoum can profitably coexist with their new found sense of responsibility towards Africa.

End of Africa's fairy tale?

Whoever did not know about the myth of the African lion, leaping forward towards a democratic future spurred on by double-digit economic growth – now knows – it is just that: a fairy tale.

Already in the coming year, the economic forecast has been significantly revised downwards in the face of falling world market prices. The balance sheet is even gloomier considering the ongoing armed conflicts from Somalia to Mali. That a former coup general in Nigeria is now celebrated as a beacon of hope, says a lot about the current internal state of affairs in Africa.

Finally, while addressing his colleagues at the AU summit in Johannesburg, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe said if the people only wanted a leader to rule for two terms, then that leader should resign after two terms in office. The Zimbabwean dictator is on his seventh term in office. It is bad for Africa, even without Sudan's al-Bashir.