Man of peace or tyrant guilty of war crimes?

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir is a man who evokes different feelings among those who know him.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir is a man who evokes different feelings among those who know him.

Many loathe him while many others - especially among the Sudanese Arab Muslims - adore him. To his adorers, he is a leader who loves his country and is prepared to stand up against "Western imperialism and anti-Islam, propagated especially by America and Israel".

To his loathers , Al-Bashir is a dictator who has used his power as Sudan's leader for the past 18 years to entrench Islam fundamentalism and violently suppress the aspirations of those Sudanese that he regards as "infidels".

His failure to deal with the Arab Muslim militias who have perpetrated scorched earth war tactics against African tribesmen and women in Darfur has been cited to validate this position.

The war that his government waged against southern Sudan, until four years ago, has also been cited as an example of Al-Bashir's disregard for the aspirations of the indigenous people of Sudan.

Southern Sudan is largely inhabited by African non-Muslims who are either Christian or animist.

Despite its vast resources of oil, the region remains under-developed because Al-Bashir's government has used the resources to develop the largely Arab Muslims inhabiting areas like the capital Khartoum.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement that Al-Bashir's government signed with the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2005 raised hopes that the people of southern Sudan would eventually enjoy the benefits of their resource-rich land.

However, the snail's pace implementation of the agreement has once again been blamed on Al-Bashir's "politicking".

Despite the chasm between Al-Bashir supporters and detractors , one thing seems to have brought them together behind him - the warrant of arrest issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Sudan's western region of Darfur.

Locally, the warrant is seen as an assault on Sudan and has fired up nationalism.

Even the SPLM has come out against the warrant saying it would undermine all the peace efforts in the strife-torn country.

Last Tuesday - a day before the issuing of the warrant - at the launch of the Marawi Dam on the Nile River in northwestern Sudan, Al-Bashir raised the audience's emotions to fever pitch - leading to the burning of the ICC's chief prosecutor Lusi Moreno de Campo's effigy.

"De Campo is the criminal", the Sudanese crowd chanted as the effigy burnt.

The next day, at a press conference in Khartoum, Al-Bashir's deputy Ali Osama said the warrant undermined Al-Bashir's indemnity as an elected leader of the Sudanese people.

"President Al-Bashir was elected by his people and can only be removed by them," said Osama.

He accused the ICC of being used by countries like the United States and Britain to destabilise Sudan.

Osama also pointed out that the Sudanese government was currently involved in peace negotiations with the Justice and Equality Movement - a key rebel movement in the area - and the warrant would undermine such efforts

The following day Al-Bashir joined protesters in Khartoum dancing and waving his cane saying: "We are telling them to immerse it [the ICC warrant] in water and drink it."

Al-Bashir's message is that the ICC has no business to hunt down a leader who is committed to developing his country.

The issuing of the warrant of arrest has obviously raised a burning question about how to build peace in Africa.

Even Sudanese civil society activist Abaka Bakari, a well-known critic of the Al-Bashir government, balked at the notion of a warrant of arrest, saying it would only undermine peace initiatives in the Darfur.

Bakari pointed out that already one of the Darfur rebel movements had vowed to capture Al-Bashir and hand him over to the ICC.

That could lead to further violence as the Sudanese security forces loyal to Al-Bashir will defend him, said Bakari.

This view is shared by international bodies such as the African Union (AU) and the Arab League of Nations.

The warrant is also expected to create divisions within the UN Security Council where countries like China and Russia - that have developed strong economic links with Sudan - are expected to come out in support of Al-Bashir.

The challenge is how to redress the situation and bring peace and stability to the region.

The ICC's position is obviously that perpetrators of war crimes must be brought to justice.

The reality is that justice and peace prerequisites should not be allowed to contradict each other.

There are those who, like the AU and the Arab League of Nations, feel that the warrant would lead to such a contradiction. Hence their call for its postponement to give peace a chance.

Those who disagree must engage them rather than riding roughshod over their belief.

nIdo Lekota was in Sudan as a guest of the Sudanese government.