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Africa and the curse of the ICC

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How the International Criminal Court is seeking to usurp our sovereignty and why progressive Africa should reject it

Last week, the African Union summit in Addis Ababa resolved to ask the UN Security Council to defer the case against President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya at the ICC. It is unprecedented to put a serving president of a sovereign nation on trial. If Uhuru and his deputy William Ruto are convicted, ICC will have overturned the freely expressed will of the Kenyan people.


I harbor a heavy dose of skepticism about all forms of foreign “aid” to Africa – whether it is money to end poverty, soldiers to keep the peace, courts to ensure justice, humanitarians to feed the hungry, doctors to treat the sick, journalists to report on our problems, activists to fight for our human rights, experts to advise on policies and institutions, economists to “free” our markets and diplomats to democratise our politics. This is because these foreign “saviors” have their own interests, which often conflict with our own.

Secondly, even if these “saviors” were genuine, they lack the necessary knowledge to appreciate the complexities, idiosyncrasies and nuances of our situation to offer a meaningful and durable solution.

In their altruism, Western “saviors” come to Africa armed with abstract notions of justice or democracy that work well in their societies (because of specific historical circumstances) but which, when transplanted unto our reality, turn out to be utterly disastrous.

The main problem is not that African countries signed the Rome Statute which created the ICC. That is the small part. The bigger part is that the UN Security Council can cause the indictment of leaders of nations that are not signatories. Sudan is not a signatory to the Rome Statute but its president Omar El Bashir has been indicted by the ICC and an arrest warrant issued against him.

Although the UN Security Council has power to indict anyone, the ICC (like the UN) is not organised along democratic principles. Of the five permanent members of the Security Council who have power to veto any decision or decide whether someone should be indicted or not and power to defer their trial every year ad infinitum, only two (Britain and France) are signatories. The USA, Russia and China are not. In other words we have nations enforcing an international agreement they are not signatories to.

I am even inclined to agree with many critics of our leaders in Africa. All too often, they have let us down. They steal public resources to enrich themselves, they kill innocent civilians whose only crime may be to express honest opinions, they obstruct the will of the people through vote-rigging and they undermine the independence of the courts. Of course the reality is much more nuanced. But even if this was true, it is our responsibility to organise politically to liberate ourselves.

In all this discourse we are presented as helpless victims of bad leadership to be saved by a kind international community (the West). We are not active participants in the struggles to emancipate ourselves. Instead, we are presented as passive spectators in the efforts to shape our destiny. We just sit by idly waiting for international charity.

Sadly, in supporting ICC and other such Western movements to liberate us, many African elites accept this presentation. Confident and proud Africans need to reject this presentation. Our problems may seem big but with our determination, we can overcome them. We don’t need anyone to save us. That is our own task.

At its core, the ICC seeks to undermine our sovereignty in the name of an abstract standard of justice enforced by the West. A nation can have sovereignty without democracy but it cannot have democracy without sovereignty. ICC’s founding philosophy rests on the assumption that there are civilized nations (the West) that enjoy a superior moral standing and are therefore entitled to enforce standards of decent behavior on the uncivilized nations.

This claim is not new. Colonialism was presented in exactly similar ways i.e. as aimed at our own good – to bring Christianity and civilization, to end the tyranny of our customs and the despotism of our chiefs, to stop slavery and slave trade i.e. to liberate us from ourselves.

The colonialists did not invent these ills. They were real. However, they exploited them to divide us and to promote their own interests. Seventy years of colonial rule did not introduce civilized government in Africa or economic prosperity or broad based education.

Instead, by 1950 there were only two universities in Africa South of the Sahara and North of the Limpopo – Makerere and Ibadan – with a total enrolment of less than 100 students studying for a degree in a sub-continent of 46 nations. Contrary to popular assumptions, it is post independence Africa, with all its failures, that has opened education opportunities for our people. Today, Africa is building the most important resource any society can command – human capital.

The ICC is largely a Western court. Its real role is to be an instrument of Western powers to punish those leaders of poor countries who do not serve Western interests. Any African president pursuing Western interests will remain immune to the ICC regardless of crimes they commit against their people.

It is possible most of these nations signed the Rome Statute out of naivety – just like our chiefs and kings of old signed “protection” agreements with the British and the French only to discover they had surrendered their independence and sovereignty. The road to domination is often paved with good intentions and its realisation comes by the creep, rather than the gallop.

This lesson was best told by Lubengula, King of the Ndebele in modern day Zimbabwe after he had been defeated by the British whom he had initially collaborated with and signed an agreement of mutual assistance: “Have you ever seen a chameleon catch a fly,” he said on his death-bed, “It moves slowly and motionlessly and when it is in easy reach, it darts and the fly disappears.

I am the fly and the British are the chameleon.” Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda, Jaja of Opobo – literally every Africa king and chief who entered an agreement with Europeans in the late 19th century discovered this treachery. That is why Africa should be suspicious when the same people claim to love us more than we love ourselves.

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