Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Intrastate Conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.
Sudan’s trial this week of former president Omar al-Bashir for corruption is a striking blow against political impunity in Africa. Its impact on Sudan may be less potent, however, than its sharp message for the remainder of the continent. The trial also emphasizes the power of Africa’s new middle class.
Mr. al-Bashir ruled Sudan despotically for three decades, after a military coup against a civilian government. During those desperate thirty years, Mr. al-Bashir’s government bombed, strafed and maimed civilians. Between 200,000 and 400,000 Sudanese were killed by an al-Bashir-orchestrated repression and more than two million people displaced.
Mr. al-Bashir ‘s regime also fought a bitter war against its non-Arab southerners before agreeing to a U.S.- and Norwegian-brokered independence arrangement for South Sudan in 2010.
When he was arrested by soldiers who had once obeyed him, US$113-million in cash was found in his residence. Mr. al-Bashir confessed this week to receiving US$90-million from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Mr. al-Bashir’s confession should make a court conviction on corruption and misappropriation charges easy. Or the Sudanese court could find a way to acquit its former ruler, defended as he now is by 100 lawyers. Either way, Mr. al-Bashir is not yet being charged for crimes perpetrated against his own compatriots from at least 2003 to 2018. Nor are today’s new rulers of Sudan turning Mr. al-Bashir over to the International Criminal Court to be tried for war crimes according to an indictment dating from 2009 (and consistently evaded ever since).
The hundred thousand and more Sudanese professional and middle class protesting groups who brought about Mr. al-Bashir’s unexpected arrest by military subordinates in April and, after rolling protests and some bloodshed through July, led to this month’s three-year power-sharing compromise agreement between the current military junta and civilians, seem content to let Mr. al-Bashir first be tried for corruption and later for ordering the killing of civilians. But this is a continuing process, with no guaranteed positive end. Many of the generals about to share power with civilians are heavily implicated in the earlier atrocities.
What Mr. al-Bashir’s trial means for other African dictators is profound. Even after decades in power and verbal and financial support from the likes of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, China, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, there is no permanent escape from judgement. Impunity, in other words, is ultimately a mirage.
Sooner or later, even the all-powerful in Africa can be caught, tried and punished.
The legion of long-serving, wildly corrupt, hitherto seemingly safe and immune national bosses such as President Paul Biya in Cameroon (37 years in office), President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of oil rich Equatorial Guinea (40 years), President Idriss Déby of Chad (29 years), ailing President Ali Bongo of Gabon (in office only 10 years, but a successor to his father, Omar, who had been in office for 42 years) and President Faure Gnassingbé of tiny Togo (in office 14 years, but who also inherited the position from his father, who ruled for almost 38 years), should now be more concerned than before about the eventual reach of the law. Former president Robert Mugabe, ousted in a military coup in 2017 and now living in Zimbabwe at a frail 94 years of age after 37 years as a despot, should also take note.
All of these present and former heads of state, and their contemporaries elsewhere in Africa, must be aware that whereas whole countries, their masses of civilians and neighbouring African countries once tolerated blatant thefts from the public purse, such impunity internationally and regionally has largely ended. Publics almost everywhere understand the massive extent to which corrupt takings sap the resources of the state, distort priorities and cheat citizens. Particularly – and this is the reason why professional Sudanese protested so vociferously and for so long, and why their lengthy and dangerous efforts were capped with success against Mr. al-Bashir and now against his military successors – the middle class in much of Africa has become a potent force for good. It is larger in numbers and purchasing power than ever before. It knows its rights and has seen how other civilians around the world have won their freedom from despotism.
Today’s Sudanese revolution is not over, but trying Mr. al-Bashir for corruption is a start for Sudan and for Africa, and a victory for Africa’s middle class.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.