Hissène Habré, president of Chad from 1982 to 1990, the so-called “African Pinochet” for the brutality with which he crushed dissent, has been sentenced to life in prison for war crimes, crimes against humanity and sexual slavery. It is the first judgment of a special court, the Chambres Africaines Extraordinaires (CAE), created in 2013 by an agreement between the African Union and Senegal precisely to bring Habré to justice. He can appeal within 15 days.
This appears to be the first big turning point in an incident that has dragged on since 1990, when Habré fled to Senegal after the coup that brought the current president of Chad, Idriss Deby, to power in N’Djamena, the capital. During a history in which Muammar Gaddafi played a key role as Habré’s enemy No. 1, France and the United States provided Habreé their blessing throughout his eight-year regime. The seat once occupied by Habré in the active support of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar is now filled by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Gaddafi would have gladly unified Libya and Chad under one banner: his own. The war between them saw prevail first the transitional government ousted by Habré and supported by Libya. But in 1987, the French intervention and Washington’s help overturned his fortunes. Haftar became the “rebellious” leader the CIA trusted to eliminate Gaddafi and Habré the southern bastion of the war on the Libyan leader declared by the Western powers.
Monday’s verdict is a monument to the tenacity of the survivors of Habré’s prisons, who in 2000 introduced the first complaint against him in Senegal. Ten years prior, Habré landed in Dakar after emptying the treasury of the Chadian National Bank, and was welcomed by then President Abdou Diouf. His successor, Abdoulaye Wade, was even more proficient at navigating among thousands of pressures, and maintaining the impunity of former tyrant.
Senegalese courts said they didn’t have jurisdiction to decide on crimes committed abroad. The case could have ended there if in the meantime Habré had not been denounced in Brussels by three Belgian nationals of Chadian origin. With a stroke of unexpected luck, in 2012 the Belgian investigators put their hands on the archive of the Documentation and Security Directorate, Habré’s ruthless political police. The files are full of blood. Estimates suggest he ordered 40,000 killed and 200,000 tortured.
Evidence in hand, Dakar had three options: prosecute Habré, send him back to Chad or extradite him to Belgium. The turning point came with the election of President Macky Sall in Senegal. But the African Union’s order to prosecute him sealed the deal. The CAE was established based on the same judicial model used to try Khmer Rouge crimes in Cambodia.
The special court (which sentenced Habré even for rape, considering credible the complaints from some of the women enslaved in the dictator’s court) in Africa is perceived by many as a response to the U.N.’s International Criminal Court, which has been criticized for targeting only Africa’s alleged criminals, as though the rest of the world were good guys.
But creating a special court did not shelter the African Union and Dakar from criticism, in particular from the charge of pursuing individual despots without considering their international backers in Washington and Paris. Habré left the courtroom shouting “Long live the independent Africa and down with the Françafrique.”
Deby, the current president, isn’t exactly innocent, either, accused during the last elections of intimidation, abuse and disappearances. Deby was the man who overthrew Habré in 1990 with the help of Gaddafi, and who then repositioned himself precipitously in the Franco-American orbit ahead of his re-elected. Since then, dozens of soldiers have gone missing apparently for their vote in favor of the opposition candidate (there’s no voting booth privacy in the barracks).
Based on the experience of Habré’s victims, the only hope for justice for the soldiers’ families is to seek Belgian nationality.