Sudan divided over ICC charges against Bashir

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Outwardly, all seems normal at the Khartoum University campus. The sun streams through the hundred-year-old passageways. Noisy students mill around the campus with reckless abandon.

But a closer look reveals something strange. No one discusses politics openly. A rally opposing the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is quashed within minutes. Government “inspectors” are said to roam the halls, listening for anyone “inciting dissent.”

Only after careful negotiations will five students agree to meet in a small room of the law department to discuss the current politics, including the arrest warrant that has been issued by the International Criminal Court against Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.

On the condition that their real names are not used, they talk about whether the ICC's first arrest warrant against a sitting head-of-state is a ground-breaking moment for international justice or whether it will frustrate the endeavors for peace and prolong the war.

“There can be no peace without justice,” is a black and white mantra. But realities on the ground in Sudan are gray.

Omar is a second year law student who is against the indictment. “This interference will hold back peace in the region,” he declares. An Arab from Nyala city in South Darfur, 23-year-old Omar has unshaken faith in Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party.

Another student, Ibrahim, who was arrested for organizing a pro-ICC rally, sees Bashir's NCP in a more negative light. His home village was attacked and scorched in the conflict in Darfur. “Even if Bashir develops Darfur that does not release him from his crimes,” he said.

Since childhood, Ibrahim, who is half-Fur, has felt suffocated by the Arabization of the Sudan. “I would have learned English rather than Arabic,” complained the 25-year-old student.

His classmate Fatima, 20, an Arab from North Sudan, seems annoyed with questions about growing up in an Islamic state. “No religion treats women better than Islam,” she declares, pushing a stray strand of hair behind her pink headscarf. “The ICC is a political tool controlled by Western powers. Bashir does not deserve to go to jail, Bush does.”

Like many Sudanese, Fatima does not believe that international intervention will help the Darfurians. “They need peace and development, not justice,” she said.

It is not safe to talk for very long. As curious students pop their heads into the small room, the group is eager to disperse. “They could be informers,” someone explained. Minutes after they scatter, an inspector arrives and begins to ask questions.

Since the ICC's arrest warrant was issued against Bashir in March, the state propaganda machine has churned out scores of Bashir posters and bumper stickers that are seen all over Khartoum. The president appears both commanding and vulnerable. The state message is clear — Sudan stands behind its leader and rejects the ICC as a biased neo-colonial tool of powerful nations.

The country’s Arab population from a wide range of classes — academics, businessmen, merchants and students — supports Bashir and believes that their leader has been unjustly framed.

“There were gross crimes committed but targeting Bashir is not the solution,” said, Jafaar Mirghani, a well-known historian in the capital city.

Among Sudan's small non-Arab intelligentsia, many have an opposing view that Bashir should be tried for crimes, but they do not have power.

“I am firmly convinced that you cannot have sustainable peace without justice,” said Nasreedeen Abdulbari, a Harvard-educated lawyer who teaches international law at Khartoum University.

These non-Arab intellectuals along with a handful of Darfurian leaders who support the ICC are labeled by the state media as pawns of Western countries and international NGOs. “Bashir has manipulated all public opinion,” said Alfred Taban, a Christian and the editor of "The Khartoum Monitor" newspaper, which is subject to regular visits by the censor inspectors.

The Christian majority of South Sudan, however, has little interest in Darfuri problems, and is occupied with the 2011 referendum that will allow them to decide on whether to secede from the Muslim northerners against whom they have fought two bloody civil wars lasting 40 years.

Internationally, the calls for an immediate arrest of Bashir appear to be weakening. The Group of 77 nations (G77), which includes 132 of the United Nation's 192 members, is under the chairmanship of Bashir for 2009.

As international political pressure dims, even the pro-ICC groups may be prepared to look past the arrest warrant if the Bashir government truly delivers on peace. This means allowing free and fair national elections in 2010, and working out a peace deal which gives the people of Darfur a real stake in the political pie.

The former rebel leader, Minnie Minnawi, observed that the time is ripe for the Bashir government to make meaningful compromises. “Most important there must be a voluntary release of power to the Darfurians,” said the fierce Zaghawa fighter who signed a failed peace agreement in 2006.

In Darfur, the government clamps down on millions of voices inside the displacement camps but humanitarian workers suggest that the first priority of the war victims is for the fighting to stop. They also fear that someone worse may take Bashir’s place.

A Darfurian aid worker in the displacement camps of South Darfur, who would only identify himself as Mohammad, described the ICC indictment of Bashir as “strange.” “It is dividing the Sudanese community and disrupting the work of the humanitarian operations and the peacekeeping force,” he said.

A merchant in New York City, Rahama Daffallah, recently returned from visiting his family in the Abu Shouk camp in North Darfur. Although, he really despises Bashir, Daffallah isn’t sure about the arrest warrant. “I ask myself that even if the ICC takes him away and cuts his head, then what will we get?”