By Alemayehu G. Mariam*
SAN BERNARDINO, USA (IDN) – For much of the six decades of independence, much of Africa has been under the thumbs and boots of ruthless military and civilian thugs palming themselves off as leaders while sucking the continent dry as their private estate. There have been over 80 military coups in Africa and hundreds of attempted, plotted and alleged coups.
A 2002 African Union study estimated that corruption cost the continent US$150 billion a year. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) commissioned report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) on “illicit financial flows” (money stolen by government officials and their cronies and stashed away in foreign banks) from the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) revealed the theft of US$ 8.4 billion from Ethiopia, the second poorest country on the planet.
Could the election of Alassane Ouattara signal the beginning of Africa’s second independence? Is there hope for the end of thugtatorship in Africa and the beginning of a new era of democratic governance, openness and political accountability?
Ouattara’s letter to Moreno-Ocampo (in which he emphatically urged the prosecutor to bring the “people who bear the greatest responsibility for the most serious crimes before the International Criminal Court”) is in itself an extraordinary act of leadership, courage, audacity and supreme self-confidence. It is a monumental event in Africa’s modern political history.
No African leader has ever asked or invited the ICC to investigate human rights abuses and prosecute the violators. In fact, in August 2010, the African Union (AU) thumbed its nose at the ICC stating: “The AU Member States shall not cooperate pursuant to the provisions of Article 98 of the Rome Statute of the ICC relating to immunities, for the arrest and surrender of President Omar El Bashir of the Sudan.” In other words, Africa’s leaders will shelter the Butcher of Darfur from facing justice.
Against the backdrop of the AU denunciation, Ouattra’s invitation for an ICC investigation is refreshing and reassuring. Manifestly, Ouattra is aware of the fact that an ICC investigation is a double-edged sword that could cut him and his supporters just as easily as Gbagbo and his crew. To be sure, there are serious allegations of human rights abuses by Ouattara’s current prime minister, Guillaume Soro. An ICC investigation could potentially implicate Ouattara himself, possibly casting a long dark shadow over the remainder of his presidency. Regardless, Ouattara says full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. Let the chips fall where they may!
Why is Ouattra doing this? Does he have something up his sleeve? I am still reeling from the fact that an African leader is actually upholding human rights instead of trashing them, calling for an independent investigation instead of putting out a whitewash. Could it be that Ouattara is a truly new breed of African leader? Is it possible that he genuinely believes in the rule of law, human rights and full legal accountability? Maybe he wants to end the culture of impunity in his country and set a shining example of a new culture of respect for human rights for the continent. Just maybe Ouattra’s leadership role model is Nelson Mandela.
On May 21, the day of Ouattara’s formal inauguration, the ICC Prosecutor lodged an application with the ICC to investigate “crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court that have been committed in the Ivory Coast since November 28, 2010.”
NATURE OF RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
The human rights violations alleged in Cote d’Ivoire are of the most egregious types. According to a January 2011 Human Rights Watch Report, security forces and militia under the control of Laurent Gbagbo have allegedly committed extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, and rape. Gbagbo’s supporters are accused of undertaking an “organized campaign of violence targeting members of opposition political parties, ethnic groups from northern Côte d’Ivoire, Muslims, and immigrants from neighbouring West African countries.” Seven women supporters of Ouattara engaged in peaceful demonstration were gunned down before the cameras by Gbagbo’s forces in February 2011.
According to an April 2011 Human Rights Watch Report, “forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara killed hundreds of civilians, raped more than 20 alleged supporters of his rival, Laurent Gbagbo, and burned at least 10 villages in Côte d’Ivoire’s far western region.” The report alleged “in one particularly horrific incident, hundreds of ethnic Guéré civilians perceived as supporting Gbagbo were massacred in the western town of Duékoué by a mixture of pro-Ouattara groups.” Credible reports by charity groups who visited the location put the number at over one thousand.
The Ivorian human rights violators will likely face war crimes and crimes against humanity charges similar to those lodged against the former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. For purposes of war crimes (Convention III, Article 3 Geneva Convention (1949) and of Additional Protocol II), charges will likely include unlawful killings, terrorizing the civilian population, physical violence, sexual violence, abductions and pillage, among others.
Other particularized charges may include ill-treatment or deportation of civilian residents, the killing of prisoners and wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages. Charges of crimes against humanity (Article 7, Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) will likely include murder, rape, abductions, political or religious persecution and other inhumane acts and practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. There is substantial evidence to show the occurrence of widespread and systematic practices of atrocity by both sides of the Ivorian conflict in the post-election period to justify vigorous prosecutions.
NO TRUTH, NO RECONCILIATION.
What Ouattra has done in Cote d’Ivoire could be the most significant act in the cause of the freedom, democracy and human rights in Africa’s modern history. By the stroke of his pen, Ouattra has the raised the bar for legal accountability and may have begun a new era and tradition of the rule of law in the continent. By letting justice take its course, Ouattara has taken the first decisive step to heal the wounds and divisions of Ivorian society.
There are many lessons to be learned from Ouattara’s heroic act. First, without revealing the truth about human rights abuses, there can be no reconciliation in Cote d’Ivoire or any other society victimized by massive human rights violations. The South Africans managed to make an effective transition to democracy and heal a society torn apart by the vile and inhuman ideology of apartheid in their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Second, if Africa’s dictators believe they will face justice for their criminal actions regardless of how long it takes, they will think a hundred times before ordering massacres of peaceful unarmed demonstrators in the streets, jailing of thousands of innocent people and indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Third, legal accountability under international human rights standards means Africa’s dictators will have no place to run to or hide and enjoy their billions in stolen loot. The world will be their prison.
When the rule of law is deep-rooted in Africa, the tables will finally turn. The people will no longer fear their leaders and governments. Rather, the leaders and government institutions will fear the people. That will mark Africa’s long overdue transition from thugtatorship (“the highest stage of African dictatorship”) to democracy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Justice has yet to arrive for 193 unarmed Ethiopian protesters massacred in the streets in 2005 and 763 shot and wounded. These victims are not some nameless individuals buried in shallow graves. Their identities are well known to all and shall never be forgotten. The identities of the 237 policemen who committed the massacre are also well known. There is overwhelming evidence of gross human rights abuses in Gambella in western Ethiopia and in the Ogaden region in the east as well as many other parts of the country. There are thousands of political prisoners languishing in secret prisons in Ethiopia today.
The monstrous crimes committed against these victims will not remain forever shrouded in the fog of history because the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice. That is why I believe justice delayed in Ethiopia is NOT justice denied. Paraphrasing the great African American poet Langston Hughes, justice delayed in Ethiopia is a “sore that festers and runs, and sags” like a heavy load ready to explode.
*The author is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, CA, USA. He is a lawyer specializing in American constitutional law, and the Senior Editor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, a leading scholarly journal on Ethiopia. This is an abridged version of the author’s commentary on May 29 under the headline ‘Hope Springs Eternal in Africa’. (IDN-InDepthNews/30.05.2011)