The Nordic Africa Institute

Researcher: The ICC question is potentially divisive in Sudan

Sudan's ousted president Omar al-Bashir.

A Sudanese court in Khartoum on 14 December 2019 found former president al-Bashir guilty of money laundering and sentenced him to two years in rehabilitation facility. The verdict is the first in several cases against al-Bashir who was ousted in April 2019 after some 30 years in power. Photo: Morwan Ali

Date • 6 Mar 2020

Heavy international pressure and the threat of economic collapse were the likely reasons behind Sudan’s surprise move to allow a trial against former president Omar al-Bashir at the International Criminal Court (ICC), according to NAI researcher Redie Bereketeab.

For a decade, Bashir thumbed his nose at the ICC, after a warrant for his arrest was issued on 4 March 2009. He was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in the western region of Darfur. Bashir ignored the indictment and continued to travel and visit other heads of state in Africa and elsewhere. The warrant – and the court itself – were criticised not only by those in Sudan, but by many African leaders for their perceived bias against Africa.

The military overthrew Bashir in April 2019 amid massive public protests against his rule. He has been in prison in the capital Khartoum since then. Military leaders initially ruled out sending him to The Hague, saying he would be tried at home.

Given Sudan’s past scepticism about the ICC, the ruling Sovereign Council’s announcement on 11 February that Bashir would appear before the international court was unexpected. The move seems even more surprising considering that the joint military-civilian council’s de facto leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as ‘Hemeti’), was the leader of the Janjaweed, a paramilitary force accused of systematic killings and rapes during the conflict in Darfur.

The council’s declaration came during talks between the government and rebel groups, meeting long-standing rebel demands that Bashir should stand trial. However, according to Bereketeab international pressure and the need to save Sudan’s economy are likely to have had a greater impact than the rebels’ demands.

NAI researcher Redie Berekteab.

NAI researcher Redie Berekteab. Photo: Mattias Sköld

He says that both civilian and military members of the council had initially been very reluctant to let the ICC deal with Bashir.

“There has been a general consensus, in Sudan and elsewhere on the African continent, that Bashir should be dealt with at home. Now, a different decision has been made by a transitional coalition on an issue that concerns the whole nation and touches the deepest emotions and psychology of Sudanese people. It might be very divisive in Sudanese society”.

However, to repair the country’s economy, which is in a poor state after years of US sanctions and internal mismanagement, the Sudanese government is doing everything it can to please the Americans, according to Bereketeab. It desperately needs US support to address debt issues and attract investment.

“Without external financial support, the government cannot survive. In order to get it, they have to address the issues of Bashir and terrorism”, Bereketeab says.

Sudan was put on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism in 1993 and remained there for hosting Osama bin Laden, supporting the bombing of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, and attacking the USS Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen in 2000.

Refugees fleeing attacks from the Janjaweed in Darfur in 2004.

Sudanese refugees after fleeing attacks from the janjaweed in Darfur in 2004. Photo: UNHCR/H. Caux

The US in August 2019 said it would wait to see the commitment of Sudan’s new government to upholding human rights before it agreed to remove the country from the list. In February 2020 the Sudanese government reached a settlement with families of the victims of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole – however, Sudan remains on the list.

Members of the military who are associated with the country’s transitional government, such as Hemeti, could theoretically also be sent to The Hague for war crimes committed in Darfur. But, in practice, they bought themselves an amnesty by removing Bashir in last year’s coup, according to Bereketeab.

“Getting Bashir to the ICC would mean a huge victory for the US and the EU. They would not be willing to gamble this by going after Hemeti and other generals”, he says.

Western powers are trying not to rock the boat during Sudan’s sensitive 39-month transition period, during which a technocratic government, headed by economist Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister, is supposed to steer the country towards democratic elections in 2022. Before last year’s coup, Sudan had been run by military regimes and unstable parliamentary coalitions since independence in 1956.

Given the sensitive timing, the US and EU will think twice before upsetting Hemeti, the strongman of Sudan’s sovereign council and commander of the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Force.

“That is the price they have to pay for stability”, Bereketeab says.

TEXT: Mattias Sköld

Sudan’s transitional government

In August 2019, four months after President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown, the military and protesters signed a constitutional declaration on the formation of a transitional government. A Sovereign Council and Transitional Cabinet were formed.

The eleven-member Sovereign Council is the collective head of state of Sudan. The Council is composed of five civilians chosen by the Forces of Freedom and Change alliance (FFC), five military representatives chosen by the Transitional Military Council (TMC), and a civilian selected by agreement between the FFC and TMC.

The Transitional Cabinet is headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, a respected economist. The ministers of defence and interior were chosen by the military while other positions were taken by pro-democracy candidates.

The transitional government will lead the country for 39 months, counting from 20 August 2019, before political elections can take place.