African Union says no to Malawi’s Banda on Bashir

Malawi Army Commander welcomes al-Bashir when he visited Malawi for a trade summit last year
Eight members of the African Union (AU) Ad hoc Committee of Heads of State and Government meeting in Benin have rejected President Joyce Banda’s request that the 54-member grouping should block Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir from attending the AU summit in Malawi this July.

The Ad-Hoc Committee met on May 14, 2012 in Cotonou, Benin to, among other things, discuss the election of the AU Commission chairperson, deputy chairperson and members of the AU Commission in preparation for the summit in Lilongwe in July.

During the meeting, the eight leaders also discussed President Banda’s letter requesting to block the Sudanese leader who is wanted by the International Criminal Court over allegations that he is responsible for the deaths of up to 300 000 people in Darfur since 2003. He has denied the charges.

“The eight leaders from South Africa, Nigeria, Gabon, Angola, Ethiopia, Chad, Ivory Coast and Benin resolved that Malawi could not stop Al Bashir from attending the summit,” said a senior diplomat in Lilongwe.

According to the diplomat, official communication is yet to be made to Malawi.

The diplomat also disclosed that all leaders were present, including South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma whose government is on record as having said it would arrest al-Bashir if he ever stepped on South African soil.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Principal Secretary Patrick Kabambe said he had heard about the decision, but was still waiting for official communication from AU.

“I have just heard about it, but we are yet to be communicated to officially. I have asked our embassy in Ethiopia for them to get the official text for us to comment,” he said in an interview last week.

Minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu said on Tuesday last week said he could not comment on the issue until government receives official communication from the AU.

Banda, who became the first female president in southern Africa on April 7 2012 after taking over in line with constitutional order following the death of president Bingu wa Mutharika, said a fortnight ago that she had asked the AU not to invite al-Bashir to the African heads of State summit to be hosted by Malawi in July.

“I have written them because of the economic implications this may have on Malawi. Let the AU decide on his position. He [al-Bashir] should forgive us this time as we are struggling to fix the economy,” Banda told a news conference in Lilongwe two weeks ago.

The decision by the AU is the first major diplomatic failure by President Banda who has so far scored on international relations by, among other things, mending relationships with neighbouring countries such as Zambia and Mozambique as well as South Africa and Britain—her former colonial ruler.

“While the West are pleased with her brave stance against al-Bashir, this is likely going to hurt Malawi’s diplomatic relations with other African leaders on the continent who support the Sudanese leader,” observed a Western diplomat in Lilongwe.

Al-Bashir visited Malawi last year when Mutharika was in power, a thing that sparked international criticism that Malawi was not living up to its ICC membership obligations to honour an arrest warrant.

Mutharika’s government allowed Bashir to attend the Comesa Heads of State and Government Summit last year, citing “brotherly coexistence.”

The move strained ties with donors, including the United States and European nations, who had already frozen budget support in Malawi due to Mutharika’s suspected human rights violations and growing autocracy.

Last week, the United States House of Representatives voted to cut off economic aid to any country that hosts al-Bashir.

But, according to Reuters News Agency, the US committee vote is not yet law, but could change as foreign aid legislation moves through Congress this year.

ICC, the world’s first permanent war crimes court, has no police force of its own and is reliant upon State cooperation to have suspects arrested.

The Banda administration is now expected to announce what course of action it will take following the AU rejection.