THE TRIAL OF HISSÈNE HABRÉ by Celeste Hicks (Zed Books, London)
The Trial of Hissène Habré is a rare bird of a book — an excellent, well-researched work on perhaps the worst period in Chad’s history and written in English. The collection of quality work on this often ignored country is anything but extensive. Most of what is available has not been translated from its original French.
My interest in the Habré story was sparked in 2016 when Chadian filmmaker Mahamat Saleh Haroun made a film about the trial, Hissène Habré — A Chadian Tragedy. The trial was held in Dakar at what was known as the Extraordinary African Chambers, established after Macky Sall came to power and with the blessing of the African Union.
The trial had not yet come to an end, and Chadian state television was screening excerpts on a daily basis.
I went to a public screening at N’Djamena’s Cinema Normandie, where the Chadians in the audience, most of whom had lost somebody during the years of tyranny, sobbed loudly from the opening to the closing credits.
I’ve been spending a lot of time of late travelling around the Sahel doing research on African and foreign responses to instability in the region.
There are two main poles — the Lake Chad region where Boko Haram operates and a large zone further west that includes large swaths of the Sahara that fall under the military watch of the joint forces of the G5 Sahel — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
A great deal of the current instability reigning from Mauritania to Chad can be traced back to the Nato bombing of Libya and the subsequent killing of Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan leader’s death opened a Pandora’s box, ending years of support for a vast collection of foreign fighters from the region who returned to the vastness of the Sahara.
During the 1980s Gaddafi attempted to extend his borders south into Chad in a series of rapid military operations that, for a short time, gave him control of Chad’s northern and central regions.
Hissène Habré was Chad’s president at the time and, with the support of the United States, was able to drive the stronger and better-equipped Libyan army back across the border. It was a time when Washington would probably have sided with any government that was fighting Gaddafi.
That support included turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Chadians who were murdered, tortured and imprisoned during Habré’s extraordinarily brutal tenure. He was systematically targeting any person from rival ethnic groups who he felt might be a potential threat.
This included the current president Idris Déby, who was Habré’s military adviser. Déby is from the minority Zaghawa ethnic group and benefited from support from Gaddafi when Habré’s attacks on the Zaghawa intensified.
In 1990 Habré was overthrown and fled to Senegal. Déby took his place, a position he continues to hold 29 years later.
With the protection of Senegal’s President Abdou Diouf, Habré segued into the pampered life of a retired head of state living in exile. The story could end here. But it didn’t.
Habré ended up in jail for life. In Senegal. The people of Chad brought a tyrant to justice. In her book, The Trial of Hissène Habré, former BBC Chad correspondent Celeste Hicks tells the story of a people’s victory through the eyes of those who made it happen.
Hick’s book provides the missing elements needed to understand the depths to which a crazed dictator can descend when he believes outside support will protect him from reprisals. Years after being toppled, the arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in the United Kingdom in 1999 would ultimately lead to Habré’s arrest. US lawyer Reed Brody was sent to London by Human Rights Watch to advise on the Pinochet prosecution. Brody was using the principle of universal jurisdiction to ensure that there is no safe haven for those accused of the most serious crimes. According to Hicks, Brody’s motivation was ideological; his search for other Pinochets led him to Chadian human rights lawyer Jacqueline Moudeina, who had been working with Habré’s victims.
Moudeina fled Chad during the fighting in 1979, returning in 1995 to work with victims of Habré and the secret police. She worked on the case for 25 years, one of her biggest efforts being the attempt to get compensation for the victims.
Although generally pleased with the outcome, Moudeina would have liked the Extraordinary African Chambers to go a step further and question those who supported Habré while he was in power.
The Trial of Hissène Habré is a story of justice achieved. It is also a story of a potential alternative to the ever-controversial International Criminal Court (ICC). The Extraordinary African Chambers was a once-off but it worked. The ICC is plagued by accusations of Western bias. Perhaps, as Hicks eloquently describes, the African Union has hit upon a winning formula to help to end the pervasive culture of impunity.
David Smith is the founder of Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and directs a radio project in the Lake Chad Basin targeting areas where Boko Haram operates. Radio Ndarason Internationale has studios in N’Djamena in Chad and Maiduguri in Nigeria