Opinion: Hissène Habré’s death and its lessons for democracy in Africa

Former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré died in a Senegalese prison on 24 August. He was serving a life sentence for the widespread human rights abuses and atrocities committed by his regime during its reign of terror in the country from 1982 to 1990. Prof David Monda writes on the lessons of Habré’s conviction, the first by an African court, for democracy in Africa

Hissène Habré was Chad’s president from 1982 to 1990. The French-trained political scientist mastered the art of manipulating world powers during the Cold War to keep himself in power.

However, he was too slow to read the winds of change. Among these were the fall of the Berlin Wall, the plethora of reforms from Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform), and the imminent 3rd wave of democratization over Africa in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.

This wave of democratization on the continent later led to the formation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002. This is the point at which Habré’s fortunes began to dissipate and his luxurious self-imposed exile in Senegal, became a living hell.

The trial of Habré began in 2006 with an innocuous extradition request from Belgium (through the European Union) to Senegal. The extradition request centered on Habré’s role in the deaths of over 40,000 Chadians. After a long tug of war between Senegal, Belgium, the ICC and the African Union, Senegal accepted to establish its own ad hoc Special War Crimes Court to try the former Chadian strongman.

Things went from bad to worse when Habré was eventually convicted for mass rape, torture, and the death of over 40,000 Chadians. He became a convicted war criminal and was sentenced to life in prison in May 2016.

The trial illustrated the unexpected reach of international justice. That a former African Head of State could face justice for the crimes he committed against the Chadian state and its people. When politics and law converge, unexpected things happen.

The case of Hissène Habré also illustrates the importance of Africa trying its former despots and holding them accountable for crimes against humanity. Habré was tried in Africa, by an African Union-recommended court and by African judges appointed by an African state. It was the first time an African Union-backed court had convicted a former African ruler of human rights abuses.

The case also showed the hypocrisy or selective use of International Law by major powers like France and the US, to advance global norms of international justice when it is in line with their interests, but to reject these very norms when it is not in their interest.

The cases of the Pahlavi Shah of Iran in the US and Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) in France are two cases that illustrate this hypocrisy. These were rulers accused in their countries of horrendous crimes, yet never faced justice because of the intransigence of the US and France.

Also, while Habré was convicted in the death, torture, and rape of 40,000 Chadians, little is said about the complicity and lack of accountability of France and the United States. As major powers, they enabled Habré’s military and secret police, called Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), to terrorize his people by providing him military intelligence, diplomatic support and economic aid. That said, in a global system filled with diabolical ironies, the conviction of Habré brings partial respite to his victims.

Lastly, the trial and conviction of Habré shows the need for building and strengthening democratic institutions in Africa for horizontal accountability between the executive, judiciary and legislature. It is also important for vertical accountability to sub-national units like counties/states and ultimately with the people, where all sovereignty is derived. Citizens in Africa, need to reconnect the politics of the government, with the lived experiences of the average African citizen.

However, the unexpected reach of international justice in Chad has its dangers. It could lead to more instability from Habré supporters in Chad who feel their leader was abandoned by allies and his trial is the culmination of a political vendetta against him. What are the implications of Habré’s death to the rule of law? Only time will unravel this compelling conundrum.

Prof Monda teaches political science, international relations, and American government at the City University of New York (York College), New York, USA. dmonda1@york.cuny.edu

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