July 17, 2013 (WASHINGTON) – The Sudanese ambassador in Nigeria Taj al-Sir Mahjoub today rapped the media over what he said was unfair focus on president Omer Hassan al-Bashir’s attendance of a health summit in Abuja this week.
The Nigerian government decided to receive the Sudanese leader for the African Union Special Summit on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, despite an outstanding arrest warrant for him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in connection with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide allegedly committed in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.
Officials in Abuja said despite being theoretically obliged to execute the warrant as members of the Hague- based court, they are nonetheless adhering to an African Union (AU) decision instructing members not to cooperate with the ICC with regards to Bashir.
Human rights groups condemned Nigeria’s decision saying it is an affront to victims of the decade-long conflict in Darfur which the United Nations says has killed 300,000 people and displaced millions others but which Khartoum disputes and puts the toll at around 10,000.
They also stressed that AU resolutions cannot override Nigeria’s obligations under the Rome Statute which it became a signatory to in 2001.
But despite rolling out the red carpet for the Sudanese president and pledging not to apprehend him, Bashir’s stay in Nigeria was abruptly cut short amid reports that he “fled” over a case filed in a local court by the Nigeria Coalition on the International Criminal Court (NCICC) to compel the government to arrest him.
Yesterday, diplomatic sources told Pan-African news agency (PANA) that the move by NCICC in court was the “last straw” for Bashir prompting him to rush back home.
A similar trip by Bashir in 2011 to Kenya, another ICC member, without being arrested prompted a civil society group to file a case in court which ended up with the issuance of a provisional arrest warrant for him by a Kenyan judge hat remains in effect till this day.
Sudanese officials said that Bashir had other unspecified engagements to attend to in Khartoum and that it is not uncommon for presidents to leave conferences before they is concluded.
On Tuesday, the New York Times (NYT) quoted delegates at the conference as saying that Bashir abruptly left the room in the middle of an official lunch on Monday.
Furthermore, during the afternoon session, when Bashir was scheduled to speak, he could not be found confirming the unexpected nature of his absence even by the organizers of the conference and the hosts.
The Sudanese ambassador explained Bashir’s absence by saying that he had a bilateral meeting at the time with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
However, he did not say why his country has not notified the hosts beforehand on this meeting during his turn to speak.
According to ‘This Day’ daily the envoy also said he advised Bashir to go home to attend to pressing issues between Sudan and South Sudan, which demanded attention.
Mahjoub also expressed fury that no similar attention was given by the media to Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta who himself is awaiting trial at the ICC for his alleged role in the post-election violence of 2007.
However, unlike Bashir, the Kenyan president has cooperated with the court throughout the process which likely allowed him to avoid the isolation imposed on his Sudanese peer and as such he was not served with an arrest warrant.
He also lambasted inaccurate accounts in the media over Bashir’s stay in Abuja including Nigerian press houses.
“Some said he fled under heavy security, that was totally false. After he finished his pre-arranged meetings, he went up to his room, had his mid-day prayers and waited for those that would take him to the airport: those of us from the embassy and some on the delegation. So, which heavy security were they talking about?” Mahjoub asked.
“He did not entertain the thought of fleeing Nigeria, he is not a coward and he would not run away. If he has to face a situation, he would do so squarely…..The president wanted to continue at the summit till the next day but we sized up the situation: he attended the first session, he had met with those he wanted to meet with, had listened to the interventions, and the remaining summit would not take more than two hours the next day for the communique,” he added.
He also lauded Nigeria’s stance against the ICC warrant and its refusal to execute it.
“Nigeria, as a responsible part of the AU, would not allow such a thing to happen. If Nigeria had succumbed to what the ICC wanted, how can it present itself as a leading figure in Africa,” he said.
“The ICC has become a political organ, no doubt about it. The UN Security Council, three of who are not part of the ICC refused to intervene in the matter when it was brought before the Council by the AU,” he noted.
On Wednesday, the Nigeria-based The Guardian newspaper interviewed unnamed AU officials who shed more light on Bashir’s awkward stay in Abuja.
The AU officials said Bashir left on Monday evening without attending any of the official sessions of the summit, despite making a brief appearance at the venue.
“He hurriedly left the VIP room amidst heavy security while the main conference was going on at the main hall,” the official told the newspaper.
The newspaper said that Bashir appeared at the International Conference Centre in Abuja where he was welcomed briefly by President Goodluck Jonathan before the beginning of the day’s programmes. He, however, stayed put at the special VIP waiting room provided for participating heads of states, Presidents, Health Ministers and top AU officials.
“He was not available when he was called to make presentation, neither did he participate in the group pictures. He did not also attend the dinner hosted by President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday evening” the AU official said.
“The only public appearance he made was when President Goodluck Jonathan stepped out to welcome him to the conference centre. He relocated to the VIP room and hurriedly left later after a meeting with host President Jonathan; Chairperson of the African Union, Dr. Hailemariam Dessalegn and Chairperson of the African Union Chairperson Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Zuma and a few other officials” he added.
The source said the decision for the Sudanese President to leave the Conference Centre without attending any of the official sessions might have been reached to reduce the ‘overbearing heat’ from the international community over his presence.
The United States, EU and Britain have all issued statements criticizing Nigeria for hosting Bashir this week.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) welcomed what it perceived as the fruits of civil society pressure forcing the Sudanese leader to rush home.
“Business as usual is over for this head of state suspected of the most serious crimes committed in Darfur. Al-Bashir faced intense pressure for his arrest from local activists when he tried to visit Nigeria, including court action. Moreover, the examples of former Liberian president Charles Taylor and Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, who were surrendered for international trial for grave crimes after years of safe haven, show that the highest-level fugitives can and do ultimately face justice. But Nigeria and other governments should better play their part in securing his arrest as soon as possible. The victims deserve to see justice done and he belongs in custody” HRW Associate Director at International Justice Program Elise Keppler said yesterday.