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African leaders and their intellectual enablers in the cozy confines of their Chinese-donated palatial headquarters in Addis Ababa think nothing of justice, forget respect when they ask for immunity of prosecution. This is nothing more than moral abdication

African leaders want respect from the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Security Council to take them seriously. The lack of both is why the recent extraordinary summit of the heads of state of the African Union gave for asking that the Hague-based International Criminal Court spare President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya the indignity of being tried for crimes against humanity by it. They went on to accuse the International Criminal Court of being a tool of Western imperialism and of carrying out a witch-hunt against African heads of state, and so on. Their demands are that the Kenyatta trial be stopped and delayed till he is out of office, five years down the road; and no African president should be tried by the court as long as he or she is in office.


Some Africans might see reason with the African leaders but there are many Africans like me who disagree vehemently with their position. What just transpired at their meeting in Addis Ababa is a moral abdication.

The charge that the ICC is the centerpiece of a Western plot is laughable. Did Western countries coerce or trick 34 African countries into ratifying the protocols that established the Court? Where were they when Kenya repeatedly, till as late as this year, asked the ICC to take over the prosecution of those accused of masterminding the post-election mayhem in 2008? Kenya insisted that she did not have the means to prosecute those suspected of sponsoring the carnage. Meanwhile, having been indicted before the elections, both the president and his deputy, William Ruto, promised to cooperate fully with the court, even if they won the election. They did not hint then that they would use their elective to subvert the course of justice.

The last point is important and it is why I consider the latest demands from Africa’s leaders dangerous and embarrassing. The summit did not question the validity or legitimacy of the charges brought against all the leaders indicted by the court. Neither Kenyatta nor Ruto has said that the charges against him were bogus or political in nature. Côte d’Ivoire’s ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, had to be forced out of office by French forces after­ a dithering African Union would not insist that the results of legitimate elections be respected by one of its members.


Given that the legality of the charges is not questioned, it means that what irks Africa’s leaders is that being in the dock does not bode well for their image and their sense of their own importance. In short, they don’t look good in the dock! They think that it is disrespectful to make them answer to grievous charges of doing horrific injury to humanity in their citizens.

The Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, takes the cake with his demand that African leaders enjoy immunity from prosecution as long as they are in office. This should not surprise anyone in the know since the immunity clause in the Nigerian constitution has been used to shield rapacious office holders from being held accountable for their misdeeds. And, of course, should the world concur, it would enable more African crooks to run for office for no other reason than to escape prosecution for criminal acts as used to happen not too long ago in Russia.

The irony is lost on our rulers that they are demanding the world’s respect while they disrespect their citizens. What respect do African leaders have for the more than 1,000 Kenyans who perished in the post-election violence? Or for the tens of thousands that have fallen victim to Omer el-Beshir’s goons and killer squads in Darfur? Or the 3,000 or more Ivoirian citizens that perished when Gbagbo elected to defy the expressed will of the plurality of Ivoirian voters?

African leaders and their intellectual enablers in the cozy confines of their Chinese-donated palatial headquarters in Addis Ababa think nothing of justice, forget respect, for the lowliest Africans killed, maimed, or displaced by the acts charged under the indictments the prosecution of which they are shameless enough to ask the world to delay. A people who worked so hard to force the world to recognize the crime against humanity perpetrated against their forebears should not deign to be seen making light of any similar allegations against its own ranks. When it does, it is an act of moral abdication.

That African leaders were more agitated by a concern with respect the same week that saw 350 or more Africans lose their lives at sea fleeing their homeland, in this instance, Eritrea, with no public thought given to that tragedy, is the best evidence that we have that African leaders deserve no respect. They should get none. Uhuru Kenyatta, a scion of patriots some of whom have recently forced the perpetrators of unspeakable violence against them to own up, must pay it forward. This is the only path to true respect. African leaders should earn it.

*Olúfémi Táíwò is professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY