THE Igbo people of Nigeria’s proverb about an old woman being uneasy whenever dry bones are mentioned aptly describes the shrill noises made by President Robert Mugabe who seeks refuge in Pan-Africanism and solidarity whenever there is talk of hauling errant African leaders before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face prosecution for alleged gross human rights violations.
The Igbo proverb, which famed author Nigerian Chinua Achebe was so fond of using in his novels, has been interpreted to mean that whenever certain topics are mentioned some people are bound to get nervous as they fear possible consequences.
Mugabe, who is also Sadc and AU chairpersons, is one such leader that has every reason to be anxious whenever there is talk of bringing an African president before the ICC for trial. He often engages in fierce combat about the need for Africa to withdraw from such “western-aligned institutions” whose purpose he alleges is to further the neo-colonial agenda by prosecuting African leaders while replacing them with pliable stooges.
Just last week, Mugabe was in his element, denouncing the ICC for its alleged Western bias against African leaders and calling on them to withdraw from the court after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir survived by a whisker the court’s moves to have him arrested in South Africa to face war crimes charges.
The ICC issued a warrant of arrest for al-Bashir in March 2009, accusing him of crimes against humanity and genocide relating to murder, marginalisation and displacement of Darfur’s non-Arab population since February 2003.
“This is not the headquarters of the ICC; we don’t want it in this region at all,” said Mugabe while chairing the 54-member African Union Summit held last week.
Mugabe’s remarks, including his suggestion that African countries should form their own court which is free of such bias, have struck a chord with some African leaders.
Mugabe has been in power for 35 years and faces accusations of gross human rights abuses.
His government unleashed security forces in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces ostensibly to combat dissident elements, but they killing an estimated 20 000 civilians in what has been dubbed Gukurahundi. Mugabe even set up a commission of inquiry to look into the atrocities headed by Justice Simplisius Chihambakwe in 1983, but the findings were never made public.
However, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) exposed the massacres by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade in a report and recommended a national reconciliation process.
Mugabe’s government has also exhibited lack of seriousness over human rights issues by deliberately underfunding the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC). The ZHRC, set up in 2009 under the inclusive government to investigate human rights abuses, faces problems of lack of proper offices, vehicles, staff and financial support from government, receiving a paltry US$1,4 million from the 2015 budget. After pressure from Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF party, the commission would only deal with cases committed post-2009, leaving most perpetrators of violence — mostly Zanu PF supporters — scot free.
Lawyer and academic Alex Magaisa said Mugabe and other African leaders’ arguments for setting up alternative African institutions are valid because “if you look at it, the big countries that have a critical role in world affairs — the United States, China and Russia are not even members of the ICC and yet they can have a role in sending people to the ICC through the facility of their permanent seats in the UN Security Council”.
“This and the fact that the ICC has appeared to disproportionately target African leaders compared to Western leaders has given it the negative image that this is merely the West trying to supervise and control Africa. An African Court would be ideal if it is given independence and executes its mandate without fear or favour,” Magaisa said.
London-based journalist and military historian Gwynne Dyer argues African countries dominate the ICC list for two reasons. One is that more than half the world’s wars are in Africa.
The other is that African countries, so vulnerable to violence, have a strong interest in establishing the rule of law, and most African lawyers and senior civil servants understand that.
And Magaisa, like other analysts, concedes it is hard to accept the sincerity of Mugabe’s arguments about setting up alternative and robust African courts to deal with such issues given his own track record of systematic human rights abuses and disdain for local and African judicial institutions and processes.
It is difficult to believe in Mugabe’s sincerity because of his failure to uphold the rule of law in his own country and protect citizens, says Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director Pedzisayi Ruhanya.
“They (Mugabe and other opponents of the ICC) have a valid point because powerful countries like the United States and Russia are not even members of the ICC and have no right to be demanding that African and other leaders be hauled before the it. But the problem is that Mugabe’s rule is premised on the supremacy of politics and the abuse of human rights. Everything in such countries is looked at through power rather than legal lenses,” said Ruhanya.
Magaisa noted that Mugabe even pushed for the disbanding of the Sadc Tribunal after it had ruled against his government by ordering the payment of compensation to white farmers who had lost their farms during the chaotic land invasions.
More recently, officials at the African Court of Human Rights (ACHR) based in Arusha, Tanzania, have spoken of their failure in trying to get Mugabe to ratify the protocol establishing the court aimed at widening the observance and the monitoring of human rights on the African continent.
While addressing a group of African journalists who attended the Thomson Reuters Foundation-sponsored Court Reporting Course in Arusha from March 23-27, a senior official of the ACHR who requested anonymity bemoaned African leaders and in particular Mugabe’s refusal to ratify the protocol paving the way for the court to have jurisdiction in their countries.
Mugabe might make what appear to be valid arguments against the ICC but beneath the glib talk about African sovereignty and freeing African countries from Western-controlled institutions like the ICC, the real fear gripping Mugabe and his ilk is that their long history of gross human rights violations makes them top candidates for prosecution should the court prevail.