I'm here: Sudan’s Bashir jets into South Africa for summit, ends guessing game

Pretoria, despite having threatened to arrest him twice before, has few options this time round.

SUDANESE president Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, is no longer keeping the continent guessing over whether he will be attending the African Union summit in South Africa.

Bashir reportedly landed in South Africa on Saturday evening, and is set to attend the summit’s heads of state sessions on Sunday.

South Africa, as a member of the ICC, is obligated to apprehend the president, but its officials had been at great pains to avoid talking about the issue.

Bashir’s information minister Ahmed Bilal Osman on Friday set the ball rolling as he said his boss would attend the summit, a position which was reinforced by official radio.

The president was also absent at the airport where he had been expected to see off Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerkim, who had been visiting.

Bashir had been listed on the official programme of the African Peer Review Mechanism, but his message was instead read by a representative, further obfuscating whether he would attend.

That matter was laid to rest when South African media reported that he had touched down at Waterkloof Airforce base.

While South Africa has in the past twice threatened to arrest Bashir, it finds itself in a particularly difficult place this time round. 

The country has been on a charm offensive to placate African countries following a regional backlash that followed xenophobic attacks which left seven people killed, the majority African nationals.

South African authorities came in for strong criticism by other African nations over their handling of the attacks. Pretoria would thus be unwilling to to want to stir up another diplomatic storm with the continent. 

The AU in 2009 voted not to cooperate with the world court, arguing that indictments were only targeting African leaders. 

While Bashir’s presence on South African soil will be scrutinised closely, there may be wriggling space.

One way out would be for local officials to point out that the meeting has been called by the African Union, and not the host, and that it had originally been meant to take place in Chad.

This can have varied outcomes. In September 2013 Bashir cancelled a visit to the UN General Assembly as US authorities prevaricated on granting him a visa.

Bashar had in the weeks before been vocal in demanding a visa to travel to the UN headquarters, noting that Sudan is a full member of the General Assembly.

He had even booked a hotel room in New York, knowing his argument held weight: ordinarily, United Nations territory is considered extra-national, in that it is exempt from the jurisdiction of domestic law. 

This means that the US law enforcement authorities do not have the right to enter its territory at will to arrest Bashir, even if on American soil. (This is why President Robert Mugabe can go to Vatican City, despite travel sanctions barring him from EU territory.) 

Under the UN Headquarters Agreement, the US was obliged to facilitate Bashir’s trip, a fact reluctantly acknowledged by the numerous pressure groups that had lined up to oppose his travel.

In the end Bashir threw in the towel, but not before having lit a very uncomfortable fire under Washington’s feet. Interestingly, it was never disclosed if he had been granted  a visa.

The challenge for the AU however is that the meeting is not taking place at its headquarters, but it could insist invitations to member states are not based on geography.

The other option would be to bog the process of apprehending him in legal red tape, so that by the time there is a legal process to arrest him the president would have left the country.

This has been also tried successfully in the past: In July the same year Bashir popped in and out of Nigeria where an AU summit on HIV/Aids was underway.

Bashir was in Abuja for less than a day despite being a two-day summit, with both his office and Nigerian hosts denying he had left early fearing arrest, as civil rights bodies rushed off to court.

“President Bashir returned normally to Khartoum after participating in the summit in Abuja to resume his work in Khartoum,” news agency Reuters quoted his press secretary Emad Said as saying.

Nigeria said its decision to allow him in was in keeping with the 2009 AU vote not to cooperate with the ICC, and that he had come in under the invitation of the AU.

Either way Bashir’s very presence suggests he will be a comfortable guest in South Africa.

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