Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

© 2011 Reuters

The president of Sudan and fugitive of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Omar al-Bashir made a brief but memorable visit to Nigeria last week.

He was supposed to participate in a two-day African Union meeting on health issues, but according to media reports, in the middle of an official lunch on the first day, al-Bashir suddenly disappeared – and never returned to the conference. He missed his scheduled speech and left the country less than 24 hours after arrival.

Was he feeling the heat of the ICC arrest warrants against him?

Al-Bashir is sought by the ICC in connection with atrocities committed in Darfur, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. As a member of the ICC, Nigeria is obligated to cooperate with the court in the surrender of fugitives, which it failed to do by welcoming al-Bashir without arrest.

A number of African countries – including South Africa, Malawi, Kenya, Zambia, Botswana, and Central African Republic – have made clear al-Bashir would be arrested if he entered their territory or avoided his visits by relocating conferences or insisting that other Sudanese officials attend instead.

Local activists in Nigeria were alarmed at the visit and stood with the victims of the Darfur conflict, voicing their outrage in the media. Prominent among them was the Nigerian Coalition for the ICC, which not only called for al-Bashir’s immediate arrest and surrender to the ICC, but even filed a suit at the Federal High Court in Abuja to make it happen.

Soon after that court filing and as outcry over the visit emerged as a major news story, the Sudanese leader was safely on his jet. Perhaps he suddenly remembered the fate of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president whom Nigeria handed over to a special court in Sierra Leone in 2006 – and who was convicted of war crimes in 2012.

Al-Bashir is a fugitive from justice who belongs in custody. Nigeria should be embarrassed that it welcomed him and should make clear he’ll be arrested if he tries to return.