All posts by Kamissa Camara

Kamissa Camara is an Africa political analyst and program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). She previously worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) where she oversaw electoral assistance projects in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy. Follow her on Twitter @kamissacamara.

ICC Prosecutions in Africa Underscore Need for Effective Regional Institutions


In September 2013, the National Assembly of Kenya unexpectedly moved to withdraw the country from the International Criminal Court (ICC). At the time, both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto were facing ICC charges for their involvement in the ethnic violence following Kenya’s 2007 disputed presidential elections, though only Deputy President Ruto’s trial had begun. When a terrorist group assaulted the Westgate Mall at the beginning of October, causing shock and havoc in Nairobi, the trials were put on hold so the two could remain in Nairobi.

The Court has previously been at the cynosure of criticism for its alleged racial bias, flawed investigation processes and prosecutorial strategies, as well as suffering from unacceptable delays. Full ICC investigations have only been conducted in eight countries—all in Africa. However, the decision to prosecute President Kenyatta marked only the second time a sitting president has been prosecuted by the tribunal, after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2009, sparking a vigorous debate during a recent emergency summit of the African Union (AU) Assembly. African heads of state claimed the Court’s actions were motivated by racism and imperialism, while President Kenyatta, who was accused of using his family fortune to finance death squads, claimed the court “stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers.” Several leaders at the AU summit questioned whether they should join Kenya in withdrawing from the Rome Statute, the treaty that gave birth to the ICC, but for the time being all members of the Court have decided to remain. Nonetheless, they did agree to appeal to the ICC to limit prosecutions to heads of state that have already left office.

Of the African Union’s fifty-four member countries, thirty-four are ICC members who notably played an active role at the negotiations to establish the court in the 1990’s. Many countries decided to ratify the Rome Statute when the strong winds of democracy first started to blow throughout sub-Saharan Africa, though some were more successful than others in dealing with the new challenges of democracy, including a radical change in standards for the defense of human rights. African countries’ ratification of the treaty sent a strong signal to the world that Africans had set the bar high and rejected impunity for their leaders. But ratification also implied that Africans would independently determine the price to be paid by leaders who committed human rights violations.

The increasing number of ICC investigations and indictments suggests that the Court’s power to dissuade leaders from committing crimes, though highly desirable, has not yet been proven. However, leaders often recur to violence specifically where state institutions have a limited ability to prevent and manage tensions on that scale. And since national courts in African countries have not yet reached standards that would allow them to investigate large-scale crimes against humanity, that mission would have to be assumed by regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), or the African Union. But these institutions are already assuming critical roles in peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, and until homegrown institutions can develop the necessary capacity and expertise, the ICC for all its failings remains the best mechanism to hold individuals accountable for grave humanitarian violations.

In the meantime, as experience shows, a ruling by the Court is still capable of diffusing tensions that stem from conflicts of interest in national court systems. Following Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to step down after losing the 2010 elections in Côte d’Ivoire to Alassane Ouattara, the ensuing conflict claimed thousands of lives. In a country strongly divided along ethnic and political lines, the issue of national reconciliation was one of the most daunting tasks facing the Ouattara government. Trying Gbagbo within Côte d’Ivoire would have considerably impeded reconciliation efforts and would have raised questions about judicial partisanship, so sending him to The Hague was thus a satisfactory decision.

The recent debate at the AU directly called into question the standards of leadership set by Africans themselves. Certainly, granting full immunity to sitting heads of state would prevent governments from ensuring accountability. Nevertheless, a balance has to be struck between holding leaders accountable for past offenses on one hand, and permitting stable governance on the other. In Kenya, while President Kenyatta has been accused of committing crimes against humanity as part of his accession to power, he continues to remain a democratically elected representative of the people. Hence he should be afforded a temporary immunity that would ensure the stability of the Kenyan government by allowing him to govern. Temporary immunity would not absolve him from having to prove his innocence or accounting for any wrongdoing at a later date. Furthermore, the provision could include a solid check and balance system administered by national and regional bodies that, in the most extreme cases, would rescind immunity and require the removal of sitting leaders from office.

Although Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia became Chief ICC prosecutor last year, many Africans remain unconvinced about the institution’s impartiality. Yet African democratic development has long been on a rocky path. The need for stronger state institutions and higher standards for African leaders should be increasingly accompanied by regional bodies to ensure long-term positive impacts and a necessary transfer of investigative skills from the International Court to national tribunals. In the meantime, with the first preliminary examinations for cases outside the continent currently underway, the ICC’s vocation as an international tribunal remains intact.

Mali: Beacon of Democracy Gone Dark

Ironically, the Republic of Mali made its democratic debut through a coup d’état. Since then, the country has been seen as one of the most advanced democracies in francophone West Africa. Yet the recent political upheaval in Mali quickly proved that its democracy was no more than an illusion.

In a 1992 coup d’état, General Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) overthrew the longtime dictator Moussa Traoré. ATT led a twelve-month successful transitional government and smoothly handed power over to democratically elected president Alpha Oumar Konaré. No one imagined that almost 20 years later, ATT, who in 2002 was welcomed as the second democratically elected President of Mali, would himself be overthrown by a poorly armed military on the sunny afternoon of March 22, 2012.

“Coup d’état,” the commonly used French expression that translates to “a hit to the state,” is accurate when dealing with an actual state with functional institutions and systemized checks and balances. However, in the case of Mali, the coup laid bare deep inefficiencies and inadequacies of the state apparatus. Since the beginning of ATT’s tenure in 2002, Mali’s so-called democratic gains have disappeared so quickly that to remain in the international community’s democratic hall of fame, the Malian government had to resort to clever maquillage of its governing mechanisms.

Interestingly, ATT came to power as an apolitical, independent candidate, ruling on what the political press called “le consensus d’ATT.” What this “consensus” actually meant, however, was that political parties, particularly the opposition, were pushed into positions where they were unable to contest the president’s rule. During the 2007 presidential elections, opposition parties decided that not one of their potential candidates would stand a chance against ATT, thus letting him win in the first round of what electoral observers called “a generally free and fair election.” The truth is, democracy under ATT was a democracy without opposition, without political dynamism, and regulated by weak republican institutions.

During his ten years in power, ATT maintained a solid macroeconomic balance, multiplied the construction of roads and monuments, and succeeded in maintaining solid and stable economic growth. However, the fact that poverty did not decline shows the persistence of Mali’s deeper issues. Tellingly, the already wide poverty gap between urban and rural areas grew wider as poverty declined in urban areas but remained virtually unchanged in rural areas. Furthermore, as the country has the world’s third-highest population growth rate, macroeconomic growth has left out most of the rapidly increasing population. Private initiatives substantially increased, but the country continued to suffer from dependence on the weather for its agriculture and international assistance for its national budget and investments. Finally, despite the appointment of Mariama Sidibé Kaidara as the first female prime minister in the history of Mali, gender inequalities remained significant, especially outside Bamako where the government’s development efforts were almost nonexistent.

It is important to note that on the security front the turmoil in Mali’s northern region did not start under ATT’s rule. Over the past fifty years, the Malian central government and the Touaregs signed several accords, demonstrating the willingness of Malian authorities to ease frictions and prevent conflict. Likewise, the Malian government was receptive to a series of efforts put forward by neighboring countries—Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso—to provide Mali’s northern region with more autonomy. Nonetheless, the ATT government failed to proactively monitor the impact and implications of Gaddafi’s fall in Libya. At the beginning of December 2011, ATT welcomed back the heavily armed Malian Touaregs who had fought for Gaddafi with a hefty stipend without disarming them. The January 17 rebellion and the ensuing coup d’état were direct consequences of this mistake.

With a former defense minister now in the position of interim president, what should we expect? It is now clear that Mali will not be able to hold elections until an agreement is reached on the fate of the so-called “Azawad” region in the north. However, with the recent aggression of the interim president and a quiet prime minister, coupled with a passive action plan from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mali’s artificially created identity crisis will only worsen over the coming months. It is now hard not to foresee the secession of northern Mali from the rest of the country, which would surely have spillover effects for Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Chad, and potentially result in similar outcomes in the near future. With the precedence set by the independence of South Sudan, the African map might just be on its way to a complete makeover.