Bashir's star rises higher as shakes hands on stronger ties with S. Africa’s Zuma in China; plans US visit

It's proving a bumper year for the formerly ostracised leader—reelection, friends in high places, lots of travel…will it end with a seat at the UN?

SUDAN president Omar al-Bashir, whose indictment by the International Criminal Court has for years seen him internationally shunned, would be forgiven for pinching himself over how unpredictably the year has turned out so far.

A day after South Africa’s main party failed in a bid to impeach president Jacob Zuma over his government’s handling of Bashir’s controversial visit to the country, the two countries have agreed a raft of deals in an effort to strengthen bilateral ties—with the setting seeming particularly fitting.

The Democratic Alliance Tuesday failed in its attempt to impeach Zuma after it failed to garner the requisite support, and on Thursday South Africa’s presidency released a statement confirming that the two leaders had met in Beijing in an effort to strengthen ties between the two countries.

“President Jacob Zuma has today met with President Omer Al-Bashir of the Republic of the Sudan to discuss strengthening relations between South Africa and Sudan, on the margins of the 70th Anniversary of the Victory of the Chinese Peoples’ War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War, taking place in Beijing, in The Peoples’ Republic China. 

“South Africa and Sudan enjoy warm bilateral relations. Sixteen bilateral agreements have been concluded between the two countries to date,” said the statement.

Official engagements between the two countries began in February, but have now been elevated to a ministerial level.

“South Africa seeks to further strengthen cooperation with Sudan in the fields of agriculture, agro-processing, science and technology, energy, infrastructure development, mining and retail.”

Bashir’s visit to South Africa for an African Union summit in June left the country tied in legal and political knots, before he strolled out, mid-hearing as a court deliberated on his presence in the country. It eventually issued an order for his arrest.

Pretoria said Bashir was there on the invite of the AU. 

READ: ‘We told Bashir to just relax’: new details of S. Africa’s effort to shield wanted Sudanese leader

But South Africa has this year further allied itself to the position of the AU, which has asked members not to honour the ICC’s indictment of Bashir, as political and business interests on the wider continent have weighed in heavily.

Pro-African leanings
Earlier this week political analyst Somadoda Fikeni told our sister publication Mail & Guardian that, “Once you raise the Omar al-Bashir issue, the African and Pan African issue stands up.”

But even during the impeachment debate the pro-African leaning was evident. United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said the DA was welcome go ahead with its motion without his party’s support. “We are not supporting the DA. The UN and others are out of order,” he said.

Holomisa said the motion to impeach Zuma was just a “hullabaloo” and unnecessary “noise”.

“We are clear from the word go that the United Nations Security Council recommended that Bashir be arrested and prosecuted in the ICC … We said why don’t you arrest Bashir in Darfur where the UN security forces are in Sudan protecting Bashir and his government?”

Chinese president Xi Jinping welcomes Omar al-Bashir to Beijing this week.

Early in August, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema applauded Zuma for protecting Bashir: “Mr President, on Bashir I am happy you did not arrest him. We were not going to agree on the arrest of an African leader in South Africa, to polarise Africa and make South Africa the enemy of the whole of Africa,” he said.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane said of Bashir: “He joins the ranks of genocidal dictators from across the globe – Hilter of Germany, Pol Pot of Cambodia, Stalin of the Soviet Union and Chairman Mao of the People’s Republic of China. These are the big men of our times. And, like all bullies, they are broken men. Broken men presiding over broken societies.”

Bashir is wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the ICC, which links him to the Darfur conflict, in which the United Nations says some 300,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million forced to flee their homes.

Take stock
Now having brought regional giant South Africa onside—its Cabinet has subsequently announced that it would review the country’s participation in the ICC—Bashir can now look to take stock of a good past few months for him.

He was in April re-elected with 94.5% of the vote, a ballot boycotted by the main opposition but which enabled him to extend his quarter-century rule over the North African nation.

The US, UK and Norway last week criticised the vote, saying Sudan’s government had failed to “create a free, fair and conducive elections environment.” 

But the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a bloc of East African and Horn of Africa nations, said that polling was “conducted in uniformity with international benchmarks for free, fair and credible elections.” 

Far from the warrant hindering his movements, Bashir in July travelled to Mauritania, which has not signed the Rome Statute of the ICC, to attend an environmental meeting.

He was also set to travel to Uganda in August for talks on the South Sudan conflict but did not turn up. His would-be host, Yoweri Museveni, with whom he has had a few spars over the years, had said he had no intention of arresting him. 

Bashir a few days later travelled to Juba where he agreed with president Salva Kiir to resolve outstanding issues between the former civil-war foes—a meeting welcomed by the AU and UN.

In China, President Xi Jinping this week warmly welcomed him as an “old friend of the Chinese people”, stressing that China has long been the African country’s biggest trade partner and largest investor.

China’s foreign ministry defended itself against accusations that inviting an indicted war criminal to a parade billed as a celebration of peace was contradictory.

‘Not a signatory’
“China is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing even as the US expressed concern over Bashir’s presence, with State Department spokesman Mark Toner saying: “We oppose invitations, facilitation or support for travel by persons subject to outstanding ICC warrants.”

The US however looks set to prove the next theatre as Bashir renews hostilities ahead of the annual United Nations General Assembly, which starts in just over a week. 

UN territory is considered extra-national, in that it is exempt from the jurisdiction of municipal 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. Indeed, under the UN Headquarters Agreement, the US is obliged to facilitate Bashir’s trip.

But in 2013, his well-publicised bid to travel to New York failed after Washington cleverly failed to respond to his visa application on time. 

This time the stakes are higher—the successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are set to be approved by the heads of states. He has already applied for a visa, but the US is already batting back: “Such a trip would be deplorable, cynical and hugely inappropriate,” US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said.

While Bashir would definitely love to be there, it would still be the greatest coup if he managed to find himself in the assembly hall in New York. He could then feasibly congratulate himself on a really good year.

But one suspects there will be late twists.

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