THE BLOG
30/10/2013 13:42 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

When Will Africans Get the Justice They Deserve?

Is it neo-colonialist to demand justice for Africa's silent victims?

Recently, the Africa Union called for its leaders to be granted immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses by international courts while they remain in office. A special summit of the regional group discussed leaving the "racist" International Criminal Court (ICC) en masse, accusing it of targeting only African leaders. This follows Gambia's withdrawal from the "neo-colonialist" Commonwealth, after its president's human rights record was criticised by the UK Foreign Office.

As the African Union summit in Addis heaped contempt on the ICC, it is unlikely its members reflected on how rarely they act to protect African civilians from mass atrocities committed by their own rulers. Just to recap, during the bloody reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, and the Rwandan genocide, the continent's rulers were mute. They remain silent now as Sudan ethnically cleanses its minorities and shoots peaceful demonstrators, just as they did when Mugabe was killing thousands of Zimbabweans in Matabeleland.

Evidently Africa's well-padded elite prefers personal immunity coupled with state sovereignty as enshrined in the 1648 Treaty of Westfalia, guaranteeing rulers the impunity to do whatever they please to their own people within their borders. According to Bakary Dabo, the former vice president of Gambia, who now campaigns against his erstwhile boss's repressive regime, at least during colonialism journalists were able to print their criticisms in the paper without being "disappeared."

Defending their fury at the ICC, the continent's leaders claimed there must be "African solutions to African problems." Certainly the African Union and many of its member states have admirable constitutions and bills of rights, so the Africa solutions of which they speak exist on paper. But enforcement of those rights is another matter. In addition, by dispensing with the ICC, the African Union is disregarding the view of thousands of Africans whom they claim to represent (many of them victims of human rights abuses) who wholeheartedly back the ICC and its mandate.

Analysis by impartial and respected groups like Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and Transparency International reveals a dismal picture in many countries, where the judiciary is not independent, the legislature does not hold the government to account, journalists are harassed and imprisoned if they stray from the president's narrative, government expenditure on "internal security" far outweighs spending on schools and clinics, and freedom of speech is restricted.

The ICC is an imperfect means of delivering justice, but there are few genuinely independent alternatives available across the continent. Certainly the ICC leaves itself open to criticism for failing to indict non-African leaders for sundry illegal wars and human rights violations around the globe. Yet, it was two African governments, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who referred cases to the ICC, getting the prosecution ball rolling in The Hague, as it were.

Moreover, many brave Africans have suffered and died defending a fundamental principle: that human rights are universal, not culturally relative. Surely it is the African Union that is being racist suggesting Africans deserve a lower standard of justice and legal protection than people in Europe or Japan or Argentina.

At the heart of this controversy, there is a yawning gap between the interests of Africa's ruling elite, and the concerns of the poor and powerless vast majority whose voices can be heard on talk radio across the continent. Black Africans in Mozambique and Ghana and Tanzania want to know why black Africans in Sudan's Nuba Mountains are being bombed daily by their own government in Khartoum. They are also aware that their own rulers rail against neo-colonialism while ignoring Khartoum's openly racist campaign to rid their land of non-Arabs and non-Muslims. So much for African solidarity.

I know from countless conversations with Darfuris who have fled the racist pogroms instigated by Sudan's ruling regime that the indictment of President Bashir for genocide was a massively important step in recognising that a terrible wrong has been visited on the people of Darfur. This may amount to little more than a symbolic gesture to those who are accustomed to a free press and the promise of justice within our lifetimes. However, for those who have lost family and land in a calculated attempt to wipe out an ethnic group, it matters greatly that someone, somewhere declares that it was wrong. It is not fair for leaders in palaces, whose aim is self-preservation, to dictate who should enjoy immunity against their human rights abuses and who should not.

Most pitiful is the way in which some Western diplomats and officials continue to foolishly believe the African ruling elite with whom they rub shoulders has any interest in their own citizens. They withhold criticism for fear of appearing imperialist and interfering. Yet we owe it to the millions of Africans kept poor, hungry, powerless and afraid by their rulers to offer the promise of justice and accountability.