Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir has just been indicted for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.
It's a nice gesture. Better 19 years late than never.
Whether the warrant issued by the ICC will result in Bashir's arrest and trial, however, is a dubious prospect.
It will take more than a piece of paper or the wagging fingers of the world community to get rid of Bashir. It will take bombs, bullets, buckets of blood, and the West—the United States especially—doesn't have much of a stomach for that, at least not when it comes to Africa.
You can get the reasons why Omar al-Bashir is a bad actor from any AP report: up to 300,000 Sudanese killed under his direct orders; perhaps 2.5 million displaced into squalid and lawless camps; the plunder of the Southern Sudanese oil which is then sold to China, Canada and Russia in order to fund its civil war; the institution of Sharia law, the imprisonment of British school teachers who have the gall to name a teddy bear Mohammed.
The list is endless. He's got to go.
But unlike Liberia's Charles Taylor or Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, there's not enough organized internal strife within Sudan to bloodlessly depose or arrest the guy.
There are a handful of rebel groups clamoring for Bashir's head, but they lack the resources to take out the Northern government's tanks, Antonov warplanes and specter-like Janjaweed militiamen who have carried out the most heinous atrocities.
For anyone late to the party, here are the quick and dirty basics:
Historically, Sudan has had a ruling, predominantly Arab Northern population and a mostly Christian/Animist South. Since oil was discovered in the South in the early 1980s, The North has instituted a campaign to wipe out those non-Arab populations, so that it could consolidate its power as well as hold on to some assets the South was beginning to claim as its own.
(The Khartoum government has traditionally ignored the South's pleas for water, food, aid and basic services).
When the South rose up in armed defiance in 1982, a bloody civil war began that would last until 2005. In 1989, Bashir, a Sudanese Army colonel who'd fought with Egypt against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, took over the Sudan in a coup. His main point of dissatisfaction with the then government was that it was about to sign a peace treaty with the South which would have replaced Islamist Sharia law with a secular, Democratic government, as well as implement an oil profit-sharing agreement with the South. Everyone knows fundamental Islam and democracy go together like nuts and gum, so Bashir dissolved the government, eventually naming himself chief of state, chief of the armed forces, chief of defense, prime minister, and eventually, just to make sure all his bases were covered, president.
Darfur, in northwest of the country, and not so far from the oil- producing regions, is the site of the Bashir's greatest infamy.
Here is where the North and South's demography mingled and manifested itself in violence. Truth be told, the vast majority of Sudan's dead and displaced were from the South, Darfur was merely the staging area. Bashir successfully used the war in the South to spur on the Arab populations near Darfur, urging them to "take back the land from the blacks." (In the most ironic example of black-on-black crime imaginable, the "Arab" northerners are every bit as dark as the Fur or Dinka tribes they've targeted for extermination.) He instructed the Janjaweed militias to kill the men; rape and kill the women and sell the children into slavery. Villages were burned and depopulated wholesale. This show of force was meant to quash the drive for independence in the South, and re-establish an Islamist hegemony.
In 2005, at the behest of the West, a treaty was brokered to guarantee the South's right to secession in 2011. With Bashir in power, there's little chance he'll let go of the mineral-rich parts of the country. The South Sudanese have a long memory, and they'd just as soon have the Chinese never see another drop of their oil.
Without China buying Sudan's oil (and allegedly supplying arms and munitions to the North), Bashir can't possibly hope to remain in power. And given that China needs Sudan's oil, and has the U.N. Security Council veto power over any U.N. mandate to arrest Bashir, the math doesn't look good for our boy making it to the gallows or even an international circuit court.
So what does this indictment by the ICC really mean? Bashir's not taking it seriously. The ICC isn't allowed in Sudan, and the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, will have a tough time proving genocide.
Bashir has also killed or enslaved dissenters who happen to be Muslim. With him, it's about power first and Islam second. There's also the balancing act of whether Bashir's arrest will further destabilize the country, as its factions jockey for leadership. Sudan's 10 neighboring countries, filled with such stable democracies as Eritrea, Uganda, Chad, Kenya, and Libya, would likely want to have a say in how things turned out as well.
We could wind up with an Iraq-like quagmire of various ethnic groups, with their centuries-old laundry lists of grievances and no center from which to govern. In an act of bravado, Bashir may even keep good on his scheduled trip to the United Nations this September. His vice president Ali Osman Mohamed Taha has gone so far as to suggest that any attempt to arrest Bashir on U.S. soil would be considered "an act of war."
Not that the United States has all that much to fear from a government that relies on men on horseback to do its killing, but the hubris is staggering nonetheless.
The ICC conviction, symbolism aside, is meaningless. What we'll need in order to get rid of Bashir is money. And by money, I mean arms. And by arms, I mean air support we supply to our friends in southern Sudan—and they are our friends, as any oppressed people should be—and supplies. Guns. Radios. Computers. Wells. The basic necessities so that they can fight for themselves. Not a single American or non-African boot need ever step foot in the Sudan. It's not going to be about deposing Bashir—regime change doesn't work when imposed from without—it's going to be about rendering him impotent as a merchant of fear.
China won't bow to international pressure, or boycotts or Don Cheadle, but it's doubtful they'd actively get involved in military support for Bashir's regime if we backed up our frilly warrants with precision-guided missiles. Bashir can barely hold the capital, Khartoum, and once that falls, so does his reign. It could be accomplished in a weekend. It won't be pretty, but with a large U.N. presence in the region and an African Union willing to do what it was designed for, some measure of order could be maintained.
It's worth a shot.
Imagine that: the United States supporting an oppressed population in their fight against Islamic fundamentalism? How novel. It's something we've never actually done before, only lied about via Iraq.
The kicker: the South Sudanese actually want to sell us their oil.
Now's our chance to put our money with our mouths are. Personally, I'm tired of the catchphrase "never again" being applied to everywhere but Africa. Bashir's only the beginning.
Next stop: Mugabe.
David Matthews is the author of the memoir 'Ace of Spades' (Picador Press) and the upcoming biography 'Brother Superior,' to be published by Penguin Press in 2009.