President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir arrived Nigeria on July 14, 2013 to attend the HIV, Malaria and Tuberculosis Summit organised by the African Union (AU). However, this visit generated much uproar – pitching the federal government of Nigeria against the government of United Kingdom and local civil rights organisations.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) urged Nigeria to arrest and surrender al-Bashir on his visit to the capital city of Abuja “over crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Darfur”.
The ICC issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir in 2009, the first warrant issued by the ICC against a sitting head of state, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. It is estimated that 300,000 people died in Darfur's six-year conflict.
The UK resented the visit of al-Bashir and urged the Nigerian government to live up to global obligations by arresting the Sudanese president. A statement by Mark Simmonds, UK foreign office minister for Africa, stated:
The UK has a strong and abiding bilateral relationship with Nigeria. I am therefore disappointed that Nigeria has chosen to host President Al-Bashir of Sudan at an African Union event, despite International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants against him for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. This undermines the work of the ICC and sends the victims a dismaying message that the accountability they are waiting for will be delayed further. The British Government takes seriously its obligations as a State Party to the Rome Statute and consistently urges other State Parties in all parts of the world to do the same.
Olugbenga Ashiru, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated that Nigeria cannot arrest al-Bashir because he was not in the country for a bilateral visit but to attend an AU event. Besides, Nigeria will abide by an AU resolution which decided not to arrest al-Bashir within the continent.
The Sudanese president is in Nigeria at the invitation of AU for the HIV/Malaria Summit. Remember AU in 2009 passed a resolution not to cooperate with the ICC indictment of President Al-Bashir. He is not in Nigeria at our instance, Nigeria’s commitment to the AU remains firm…
Human rights groups did not buy the government’s justification but insisted that al-Bashir should be arrested. The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) made their position known through its Executive Director Adetokunbo Mumuni in online newspaper Premium Times:
The government risks sanctions by the UN Security Council if it fails to arrest President al-Bashir and surrender him to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. President Goodluck Jonathan now has a rare opportunity to assist the ICC and support the demand by the international community for justice for the victims of genocide and war crimes in Darfur. Ignoring the ICC arrest warrants will have huge legal ramifications for the country, and it is therefore in Nigeria’s national interest to act in this case, by arresting President Omar Al-Bashir and surrendering him to the ICC to face fair trial for the allegations against him…
Another group, the Nigerian Coalition for the International Criminal Court (NCICC), filed a lawsuit at the Federal High Court in Abuja asking it to compel the Nigerian president to arrest his Sudanese counterpart the minute he steps foot in the country and surrender him to the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands. NCICC in its writ of summons, as reported in NBF [Nigerian Best Forum] News, asked the court:
Whether Nigeria has a legal obligation under Article 89 of the Rome Statute and Article 26 of the Vienna Convention to arrest any person indicted by ICC and surrender such person to the court? If the answer to the above is yes, whether Nigeria is under obligation to arrest and surrender Al-Bashir to the ICC? And whether the court can issue an arrest warrant against Al Bashir on the basis of the indictment by ICC?
Despite the agitation by civil society, al-Bashir was not arrested on Sunday when he flew into Nigeria. However, a twist developed the next day, when the Sudanese president was billed to address the summit. According to a report by the Guardian (Nigeria):
A mild drama unfolded at the ongoing Abuja +12 Special Follow-Up Summit on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and other related diseases as Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir who has two international arrest warrants against him failed to turn up to make his presentation… Al-Bashir, who arrived in Abuja on Sunday to a red-carpet welcome and a full guard of honour, has not appeared in any of the sessions of the summit. He was expected to participate at the summit like many other Heads of State. When he was called to make a presentation, there was heavy silence. Alas, he was nowhere to be found.
The mystery of al-Bashir’s disappearance was resolved by a report filed by AP. The news story stated that wary of arrest, Sudan’s president shunned the AIDS summit midway:
A Sudanese diplomat says President Omar al-Bashir has left Nigeria after human rights lawyers and civil rights activists demanded his arrest… The diplomat who would not give his name told The Associated Press that al-Bashir left at 3 p.m. Monday, less than 24 hours after he arrived and in the middle of a two-day summit ending Tuesday.
Nonetheless the drama of the visit and its subsequent abortion; the resistance by civil society groups and the UK government; and the governments’ insistence on standing with the AU polarized the Nigerian blogosphere.
Yvonne Ndege (@YvonneNdege), reporter for Al-Jazeera, tweeted:
@YvonneNdege: #UK says its ‘disappointed’ with #Nigeria over #Bashir visit. Don't be #UK. Understand Nigeria…
Yvonne’s tweet elicited some replies from other users. These are two contrary reactions:
@deezer234: @YvonneNdege that murderous bastard came here?
@Ali2musa: @YvonneNdege Still wondering when war criminals Like Bush, Tony Blair and Obama will be charge to ICC?
Others within the Nigerian Internet weighed in on the discussion. Her Royal Hipness (@PUREHAIRE) and Uzo Ukaejiofo (@Rexdon05) were repulsed by the stance of the international community:
@PUREHAIRE: Wait, they want Al-Bashir & somehow it's Nigeria's job to give him up? They should take a piss in Sudan pls. Nonsense. 3 yrs since warrant
@Rexdon05: …After Nigeria gave up Charles Taylor, what has been the impact? Other than damning reports emanating from sister agencies.
Nwachinaemelu (@cchukudebelu) noted the glaring double standards:
@cchukudebelu: If George Bush (who launched an illegal war on falsified evidence) can move around freely, I don't get the noise from HRW over Al Bashir.
Some demanded that Nigeria’s sovereignty be respected and expressed their support for the government:
@horpenator: why do we have to live in the shadow of #US. Al-Bashir didn't commit any crime against Nigeria
@Raymond_Eyo: “@TheScoopNg: #Nigeria defies the #ICC; hosts #Sudan‘s President, Omar Al-Bashir http://buff.ly/12CfkWa” I'm with GEJ [Goodluck Ebele Jonathan] on this one 100%!!!
Some were merely humorous:
@thalksbossx: #LetterToICC By all means arrest Al-Bashir, but do not drag #Nigeria (tucked in between AU leaders’ pact and UN treaty) into it.
@funsodavid: I don't suppose Omar al-Bashir fled Nigeria for fear of an arrest. The video clip from Rivers State Assembly is enough to scare him off.