Coloniality, Cold War Politics and the agitation for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir.


NOTE: I wrote the first version of the article below on Sunday June 14 following the South Gauteng High Court’s interim order to the Department of Home Affairs preventing Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, from leaving South Africa pending consideration by the courts of an application for his arrest brought by a nongovernmental organisation. I have updated the article in view of developments since June the 14th. The thrust of the argument presented earlier remains the same though it is elaborated in some areas.


Coloniality, Cold War Politics and the agitation for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir.

Mukoni Ratshitanga

Not since the International Criminal Court issued an indictment for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in March 2009 has the world witnessed such intense and concentrated global media reporting and commentary on the issue as in the hours after 14h00 South African time on Sunday June 14.

This followed a South African high court judgment ordering the government to prevent President Bashir from leaving the country pending its consideration of an application for his arrest brought by a nongovernmental organisation.

As usual, the commentary has been divided between those demanding for President Bashir’s arrest and the more circumspect who call for a broader appraisal of the full range of issues that attach to the matter.

For the latter group, there are many factors that would have made the arrest of President Bashir on South African soil ill-advised and catastrophic. These include, and are not at all limited to, the following:

  • We would have imperilled our bilateral relations with Sudan, and with many of her neighbours as well as the wider Muslim world;
  • It is worth recalling that South Africa currently has 850 military and 42 police personnel serving under the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur, Sudan, making their contribution towards the search for security in that country’s region. What might have befallen these gallant South Africans had we arrested President Bashir? It means considering something which regrettably does not come naturally and easily among sections of South African society, i.e. the national interest;
  • We would have divided and weakened the continent and the African Union in particular. For President Bashir was in South Africa at the invitation of the AU, and arresting him would have trans-mutated our continental organisation into an instrument in the service of interests other than African, a matter most Africans would resent deeply.

The process to normalise Sudan is supposed to lead to a National Dialogue, their CODESA-type initiative, which is being designed to discuss: (a) ending the armed conflicts in the country; (b) democratising Sudan; (c) revitalising the economy; (d) the question of national identity; and, (e) Sudan’s relations with the rest of the world; and finally,

  • South Africa would thus have manufactured a foreign policy crisis of unprecedented proportions with far reaching domestic and continental implications. We and the rest of the continent would have been left to pick up the pieces from the fall-out while the agitators, as often happens, moved on to yet another issue elsewhere in the world.

As Africans, we are the ones having to contend with the aftermath of NATO’s 2011 regime-change scheme in Libya. Among other consequences, the proliferation of small arms has introduced new security threats in the Maghreb and the Sahel and exacerbated old ones; the Libyan state has totally collapsed, with socio-economic consequences not only for Libyans but for other African states. Today, the graphic representation of NATO’s arrogant folly in Libya is the sight of Africans crammed on rickety boats, if they are lucky, or, worse, drowning in the Mediterranean, in vain search of a better life in a resentful Europe. Those that bequeathed us this bumper harvest of thorns appear to have been struck by muteness; without even a squeak of remorse.

The questions surrounding arresting President Bashir are thus essentially political and not legal as the advocates of ‘international’ justice have made out. Because the issues are political, the AU has, on more than one occasion, requested the UN Security Council to defer the warrant of arrest against President Bashir to enable the Union to engage with Sudan’s political players to find a lasting political solution which would necessarily have to address the issues of accountability and justice as well as the fundamental and unavoidable issue of national reconciliation. To date, the Security Council has not deigned to respond to the AU.

And so it continues to be that external factors and priorities stand in the way of the resolution of Sudan’s political challenges as they do elsewhere on the continent and beyond.

The school of thought which superordinates legal processes over all other factors, overlooks the local and global political contexts in which the law is applied. Consider the fact that the US, Russia and China are not even signatories to the Rome Statute (of the ICC.) Yet, as members of the UN Security Council, which is not representative of the vast majority of the world’s population, they have the power to refer matters to the ICC.

This is not a call for impunity: Very few on the African continent would deny the vital need for accountability and justice in the context of Sudan’s conflicts. But the insistence that all there is to the issue is ICC justice, an ICC to which Sudan is not a signatory, is a form of fundamentalism that has so far served to delay any real progress. The fallacy that the justice question is the sole issue, rather than one of many issues in need of resolution is frankly dangerous.

This fundamentalism is a failure to concede the political and complex nature of Africa’s conflicts, a refusal to recognise the many as-yet-to-be-resolved socio-historical factors that operate on the Continent, including and especially the enduring colonial social relations that continue to produce conflict in Africa. Only such a fundamentalist outlook would fail, among informed circles deliberately ignore, that the successful resolution of these conflicts is fraught with political difficulties at the local and international levels.

Against this background of complexity, the selective oversimplifications of the overzealous justice fundamentalists renders their activism suspect and might betray other underlying motives.

Consider the so-called South African miracle (for miracle there wasn’t – there was a prolonged process of struggle), which is repeatedly cited as an achievement because the victims accepted peaceful cohabitation with the captains of apartheid and their social base. As if they need the condescending counsels, the victims are regularly lectured from home and abroad, by the same people baying for President Bashir’s arrest, on the virtues not only of forgiving but forgetting their painful past altogether.

In that context, forgetting has a double meaning. It entails the expunging of experience from memory and thus serves to exorcise the guilt of the oppressor, while by the same token demanding that the victims to do nothing about righting the wrongs of the colonial and apartheid era!

Given the value attached to the South African miracle, why then is it now impermissible to allow a similar approach to serve the resolution of conflicts beyond South Africa?

The answer is hardly jaw breaking! It lies in “coloniality“, which, alas, lives happily long after decolonisation. The casual assumption holds that the views of the Sudanese and the efforts of the AU, are by definition, inferior and not worthy of consideration. In this worldview, the notion that out of Africa ideas and workable solutions could come is inconceivable. They cannot imagine that African proposals do contribute towards legal jurisprudence and knowledge and thereby advance human civilisation.

But take a few steps back into history: In a number of African countries such as Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, colonial oppression was ultimately resolved at the negotiation table. Curiously, negotiated settlements are now under question for the resolution of postcolonial African conflicts.

At the same time, Europe, which, like all humanity is not immune from conflict, is permitted to chart a political path to resolving its conflicts. The latest example of this is the French, German and Russian agreement to seek and find a political solution to the conflict in Ukraine. It is neither explicitly stated nor remotely suggested that the law supersedes all other considerations.

It is to this mindset of coloniality that we must also turn to understand why it is that national and global discourse on human rights abuses focuses almost entirely on Africa.

Thus, the new priests and priestesses of international justice usurp and appropriate human rights discourse and the law to achieve subtle and often not so subtle political ends. And this June here in South Africa, their voices were at their shrillest!

Recognising this effrontery, many in the developing South are beginning to think that perhaps the only thing that changed after the major events of 1989 was the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the Wretched of the Earth, the world has become rougher in the Hobbesian sense of life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”


40 thoughts on “Coloniality, Cold War Politics and the agitation for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir.

  1. Now this is profound. I wish African youth can educate themselves about what is truly happening in and to Africa so that they can start involving themselves in programmes that will improve their future.

  2. I write to commend you for your wonderful article. It’s my hope that critics would use it to broaden the scope of understanding. With your permission I would like to print it for future reference. Eric

  3. My dear brother, as usual well done. I want us to consider a possibility of us having this piece published in our quartely Caucus journal called Moithaipi. We have about a week to finalise the content of our next edition which will be published at the end of July. Pls let me know if you agree.


  4. AU has proved that it is not a toothless organisation and hopefully our African Leaders and Africans will start thinking hard about African solutions to African problems. I’m sure we will one day have United States of Africa without artificial boarders that are dividing Africa and Africans!

  5. Pls explain mr Ratshitanga why did Sudan hold our soldiers hostage if we as Africans should solve our own problems? Doesn’t that provoke the declaration of war? Lastly we are signatories of ICC, how then can we say we cant abide about the rules we signed for, bearing in mind what you said about this a political situation not a legal one?

  6. It is with such writings that our fellow African brothers and sisters can understand that what we are fed daily through the various media platforms is nothing more than a well structured systematic approach by the oppressor to make us forget our Africanism and lose all hope in building our continent by ourselves to suit us best as Africans. I hope the young and old African child can find wisdom to defy all efforts to UnAfricanise him in his Africa.

  7. Thought – provoking, informative and engaging. It’s the kind of work that first year journalism students should get exposed to and not just the hogwash that’s become of the field.

  8. Amazing. The call for Omar al-Bashir’s arrest is all about coloniality and cold war politics. It had nothing to do with his involvement in killing over 300 000 black African women, children and men civilians. Its more important to negotiate a settlement with a murderer than abide by the rule of law.

  9. Very enlighteng, after hearing & reading so many accusations in mass media of how we have flounted our own constitution by not arresting the said party

  10. African matters need to be solved by africans. The sooner this come into implementation the better. Foreign continents must only act only as passive spectators, their views must just be views not authority. African matters cannot all be solved through the lenses of western or eastern nor even northern to that matter but through our own way, that’s african way. We need to break lose from pleasing these guys, we need to do what is genuinely perfect for us. We need to think about Us first. We need not to westernise Africa but Africanise with careful considaration of modern relevence. We need to be proud about our noble savage image.

  11. The west musnt be allowed to divide Africa again. I dont support dictactorship, authotarianism and gross human rights violation and genocide but for the ICC to use S.A as a catalyst in bringing the so called justice while hosting A.U summit was unfair. HAD S.A arrested Omir Al Bashir it would have mearnt that S.A is a puppet of the west. The let Omir go was the best for the entire African continent.

  12. Your article is great and I hope the South African political parties and the media will read this article before they express their views on this matter. Thank you Mukoni.

  13. This is a scholarly analysis. It is the sort of piece that intervenes in the myriad of voices which seem to be driven by emotion and superficiality.

  14. Such a pity too few will read this article ……………….. well written and informative ….Thank you.

  15. A well written article to which I respectfully respond with a different view.
    I really don’t like generalisations like the one that says the same people who are baying for his blood are the ones who lecture victims of apartheid. It’s an easy way to demonise people who disagree with one’s view and it spoils an otherwise reasonably put opinion. Why can’t people hold a different view about this man and how he should be dealt with, and this whole episode- without being labelled?

    I agree that generally a productive way forward might not involve his arrest.
    I agree that arresting him now would have made relationships at the AU difficult
    I hear that the ICC is possibly biased and I agree that there are many scoundrels (although not many on the same scale and who continue to act in this way) who have not been brought to book- including some ‘captains of apartheid’

    None of this changes the following:
    -we are signatories which obliges us to arrest him. Why did we remain signatories if we disagree with the whole thing? If nothing else we show now that we cannot be trusted to stick to agreements when it does not suit us.
    -our court ruled on this and when the govt starts ignoring the courts, our hard won democracy and the struggle (in which I was slightly involved) is spat upon.
    – this man is doing evil things to Africans. the perception being created is we look past that to some expedient political solution….and that African solutions = zero accountability for despicable behaviour. It is hugely ironic that this seems to be turning into a condemnation of white people (and it is totally inaccurate to say it is only whites and colonialists) for standing up in defense of masses of black Africans who are being slaughtered and violated.
    -what negotiated settlement is happening – the man is still using clusterbombs against ordinary citizens

    So perhaps if RSA had first removed itself as a signatory to the ICC obligations and if we could see evidence of real negotiations, but including unequivocal condemnation of the current situation – and if the govt did not behave sneakily against it’s own laws and the courts – then the voices would not be so shrill. I certainly would then mostly agree with your article.

  16. Thank you very much for a sober minded approach, I prefer to tell imperialists, colonists, neocolonists and their agents to butt out of Africa and allow Africans to express themselves as they deem fitting!

    1. Nothing wrong with that, I agree. But then why sign up to the ICC and actually make it South African law? We should be honest and up front about what we stand for. We can’t have it both ways – do things for expediency and then when it doesn’t suit us we just break agreements. Where’s the integrity in that?

      Of course people should be allowed to “express themselves as they deem fitting”…but none of us is an island and if we claim that right for ourselves we should not expect others to not respond accordingly. If you break an agreement others will too, if your government disrespects its own laws then others will too if you insult people you know nothing about just because they hold a different view from you, then honest and productive growth of ideas will cease, if you say you don’t care what other South Africans or other nations think, then expect them to not care what you think.

      I prefer to examine the ideas and learn from others

  17. This is a well written argument. One of the ways to strengthen it is to ensure that our actions to resolve issues must be seen to bear fruit. Sudan and its problems in particular in Darfur are depressing to say the least.

    Having said that, I would have thought that when attending an AU summit there was immunity from arrest. Somebody please provide a legal opinion. Otherwise why have the enemies of the US (Cuba, Venezuela and Iran) attended the General Assembly without any action?

    As a person my gut revolts against dictatorship.

    Such opinion pieces must be regular to strengthen debate and information sharing.

    Someone commented about generalisation about whites. I certainly did not find Mukoni’s assertion to be without substance. When it suits us we hold on negotiated settlement as a beacon and next want to hide it when it comes to other coutries’ problems. Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity yet we found our way through it and even honoured its debts.

    Let’s encourage other African countries to surpass our experience and lead to a better Africa.

  18. Mukoni has articulated his argument well against the ICC. I would like to know what is it we must do against the dictators to ensure that the population is protected. The people who died in Darfur and other countries did not commit suicide.

    As Africans we must be firm against human rights abuse by our own leaders. Let’s shine the spotlight on our own and thus reduce the hold of colonialists.

    We should not have signed Rome statutes if we felt the court would not be credible, why did the US and Israel and other countrie opt out?

  19. What was the decision of allowing Al-Bashir, a fugitive from international justice, to enter, stay and depart South Africa meant to achieve? Was it meant to achieve African Unity/Pride, or demonstrate our anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist stand or revolt against the ICC? We certainly had the option of keeping him out. Denying him entry into SA, as we did with the Delai Lama would not have been a lingering problem for us. It would have remained his problem. Once we had allowed him in, his departure became our problem and so we had no option but allow him out and live with the consequences of not only flouting our international obligations but defying our own courts. Sudan and Al-Bashir have all forgotten that he was ever here. We, on the other hand, have to leave with this blemish forever. Where is the gain?

  20. This is a well-articulated view on this complex matter. I too do support the notion that Africa must resolve its own issues, and will support every move to do so. The nub of that notion, though, has to transcend theory and manifest itself into practice. How should Africa resolve such complex and emotionally matters? Should we, for example, seek political resolution to the Boko Haram saga or should a judicial solution be applied? Should each rebel group, regardless of whether their “cause” has political merit or not, be accommodated at the negotiating table (which would need to be formed for every new rebel group)? Should we form an “African ICC” to deal with some of these matters? Would a sitting president who represents his country at the AU, and who was the principal agent to the massacre of his/her people be tried at such a court? Should such a president even be allowed to be part of the AU? Are our elected leaders brave and committed enough to find these solutions, even if it to the detriment of comrades and fellow leaders? These, among many, are some of the practical questions that need to be answered. Simply mouthing Pan-Africanist rhetoric without practical substance will not assist our fellow African brothers who seek justice against those who cause them mortal pain. In my opinion, politics does not trump justice.

  21. This is a well articulated summary of the sort of thorny matters that confront us as Africans as we seek to assert ourselves in a space where our former colonial masters still want to retain tacit control over our political affairs, our resources and how we relate to the rest of the world.

  22. I find the article highly educational. I agree that those who were calling for President Al Bashir’s arrest were short sighted to the real dangers of that decision.

  23. I fully agree with your article and it is a well written one by the way. May I also add that had RSA arrested him, the consequences of such action would have been catastrophic and with my own fears embedded in me, the following could also have been the outcome:

    – our own South Africans in foreign Countries in particular within African states, of positions and ordinary status, would have had their lives risked. We know what nearly happened with Xenophobia attacks recently in our own Country to our citizens in places like Mozambique for instance.
    – our Many South African leaders have been at forefront of conflict resolutions all over the world in particular Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Mali, DRC, Lesotho, Zimbabwe etc, who in Africa would trust RSA if we arrest a man who merely attended a summit towards building a better Africa for Africans here in our country. I am even tempted to say South Africa is possibly one of the Countries at forefront of pursuing permanent seat on United Nations Security Council, should we even contemplate advocating for this when we are expected to behave contrary to the wishes of African Union and Africans in general? It is a Fact that today, our actions in Libya, Liberia, Ivory Coast, remain some of our lowest point in one way or the other. Our Country is critiqued for acting in same pursuence of justices, and we are dammed for doing nothing either.
    – I had always wondered why we have escaped attacks by terrorists organizations, but I suppose it is because of our foreign policy that seeks to negotiate political matters as opposed to gunning down nations. I still hold my uncle’s advise that “Two wrongs do not make one right”. How do we solve a problem by creating another.
    – RSA would have attracted all the problems unto herself. This include inability to trade, safe travel, political influence etc.
    – while I respect the rule of law, the application of law in itself may not be to the detrimental of the same people it intends to protect. South Africa in terms of the ICC statute may be wrong as strongly argued by others, but in its wrongness, it was right to protect the Unity of AU and its innocent citizens and in particular its Credibility as a trusted member state of AU.
    – when people are incomfort, there is a tendency of ignorance of Political Will in favour of Courts even when the potential of resolving matters political, socially etc is within reach. The consequences of the court system is that it will favour one over the other and the loosing parties remain agrieved. In the community which I reside, I have seen small matters of divorces, children custody and maintenance generating into loss of life as loosing parties find it unbearable to face a future after courts have ruled. In the same vain, I don’t see how the same cannot lead to such level of loss of life if a matter as complex as Bashir can be mishandled.

    I am aware you have said the same in a simplistic way as above, I am not as learned as you are my brother but I felt your inspiration from your article, and my little corner here next to the border of Zimbambwe, in Venda, I felt I should associate with you through your article. Kindly write more

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