To create a United States of Africa, tyrants must be ousted. They can run, but they can’t hide
This was not how Moammar Gadaffi wanted to start his tenure as chair of the African Union. The priority of the Libyan leader was to hit the ground running with his dream to create a United States of Africa.
Now the urgency of Gadaffi's grand ambition has to wait as the continent's leaders struggle to come to terms with last week's warrant of arrest for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court. For decades Africa has been plagued by notorious leaders.
From Mobutu Sese Seko to Idi Amin and from Sani Abacha to Robert Mugabe the continent has had to grapple with leaders who would rather destroy their countries than give up political power. Once in a while a Julius Nyerere, Joachim Chissano or Nelson Mandela comes along to renew hope.
But the continent's landscape is too often blighted by tyrants who leave their countries in deeper misery than before. That's the story of al-Bashir; a story that the continent's political leaders have condoned for six years because to confront it is to confront the very demon that haunts many of them. So what will the AU do about al-Bashir's indictment?
It has called for a suspension of the sentence. There are muffled concerns about the safety of the civilian population, especially around the Darfur area, and also the fate of the 7 000-strong AU troops that had received UN reinforcement only in January.
In a foretaste of the grimmer days ahead, Khartoum kicked out 10 major humanitarian agencies struggling to provide food and water to about 1.5-million people, prompting suggestions of a possible AU emergency meeting to discuss Sudan.
Talk is cheap. Rwanda was a hot topic at the height of the genocide there. Yet, in spite of speeches at many continental gatherings, African leaders did too little too late to save the country from a genocide that claimed nearly one million lives in 1994. Somalia has been a hot topic, too.
But how can anyone explain the fact that the military misadventures of Ethiopia, which hosts the AU's headquarters, have been central to the dispute that has left Somalia marooned? What about Zimbabwe, the continent's showcase of empty talk? There are those who would argue that the current semblance of peace in Harare is proof that "quiet diplomacy" was the most effective way to rescue the country.
I'm not so sure about that. I have tried in vain to convince myself that the delicate alliance between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai is the beginning of the end of that country's woes.
The real cost of the devastation and decay brought on by months, if not years, of pussyfooting by the continent's leaders will not be known until Mugabe is finally out of the way. It is a measure of the tragedythat has befallen the continent that, where-as African countries once played a leading role in the resolution of some major crises in the past, the leaders now fiddle while the continent burns.
The continent's giants -- South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt -- are too engrossed in their internal political and economic problems to pay attention. Not much should be expected of the AU under Gadaffi either.
His record, until six years ago when he renounced terrorism, could have made him a candidate for the ICC. What's the point in suspending the sentence against al-Bashir? There are those who argue, in good faith, that an arrest warrant against Sudan's leader can only inflame him against weak and vulnerable groups and prolong the conflict. The argument sounds good but misses the point.
If al-Bashir were serious about peace he would not have repeatedly prevented the Human Rights Council from visiting Darfur or turned his soldiers on the UN peacekeeping force. He believed, like most tyrants, that though the world may have its say, he will have his way. And so it has been since the conflict started in 2003 that he has skilfully exploited the impotence of the AU and the cauldron of cultural and religious differences that plague the continent.
What began as a conflict between northern nomads and southerners in the Darfur region over grazing rights after decades of famine, overcrowding and desertification has escalated into a full-blown war claiming about 300 000 lives and displacing nearly three million people.
The cause of the conflict is almost forgotten but the daily reality for most ordinary people outside the capital, Khartoum, is that death and misery are constant companions.
Al-Bashir signed a peace deal with one of the main rebel groups in 2006 but that was after a UN report accused his government of mass murders, rapes and torture against his citizens. Where the brutality of the regular Sudanese soldiers cannot reach, al-Bashir's government uses the Janjaweed militia to pursue and murder fleeing civilians as far as neighbouring Chad. Who will speak for Sudan?
As I watched al-Bashir on television last week, riding on the wave of an excited pro-government crowd in spite of the ICC warrant, it wasn't hard to tell that his performance was yet another hollow ritual. His show of defiance and the pay-as-you-go crowd do not represent the authentic voice of the millions of children, women and elderly whose lives have been ruined by the conflict.
Sure, there may be a few in the crowd fired by patriotic fervour or others elsewhere who would argue that the heightened interest in Sudan is linked to a nasty contest between the West and China for the country's vast mineral resources. These sentiments do not diminish the fact that for millions of Sudanese -- and indeed oppressed people all over the world -- the ICC warrant will serve notice to tyrants everywhere that they will be held to account -- not just ultimately but, even more importantly, while they're still in office.
Tyrants can run, but there are fewer and fewer hiding places. Gadaffi will have to find a place for this home truth in his journey towards a United States of Africa.