Twenty years after the brutal reign ended, Chad’s ex-dictator, Hissene Habre, is now being prosecuted by the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal. Habre’s exit to Senegal in 1990 came just after his brutal reign drew to an end – a period that was characterised heavily by torture and killings that numbered by the thousands. A domestic Chadian inquiry was instituted, and while in exile, Habre remained at large.
He managed to escape many attempts that were made to initiate trials against him, both in Chad and outside. Efforts began as early as 2000 in Senegal – but the move was immediately resisted by erstwhile President Abdoulaye Wade. Five years later, complaints were filed in Belgium under the ambit of the universal jurisdiction principle – but again, President Wade resisted requests in 2006 for Habre’s extradition. It didn’t help that the African Union kept projecting a campaign against international justice under the allegation that the institution of international criminal justice always appeared to target African leaders. Belgium’s request was lost in this melee.
The ECOWAS piped up with a solution of creating a hybrid tribunal – comprising national and international judges and staff, somewhat like the lines of the Special Court for Sierra Leone to be created in Senegal. While negotiations drew pledges of financial support from several European countries, Senegal withdrew – perhaps cost being a significant factor in it all. President Wade, though, continued his political campaign of resisting any trial of Habre.
Belgium then went onto filing a case in 2009 before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. This came closely at the heels of Senegal’s continued rejection of every attempt at prosecuting Habre – and the petition sought to ask the ICJ to determine whether Senegal's failure to try Habre or extradite him violated Senegal's obligations under the Convention against Torture. In July last year, the ICJ determined that Senegal was indeed in violation of the convention, and consequently, effectively noted that it had to extradite him to Belgium to try him.
Senegal’s elections changed Wade’s presence as the President, and Macky Sall came into his place. Sall’s resistance was non-existent, as accountability played a significant role in his thought process. In a month’s time, Senegal agreed with the AU to create a special Tribunal to try the case. In December, legislation authorised the Extraordinary African Chambers to comprise Senegalese magistrates, working with a president from elsewhere in Africa.
Just as Guatemala has been in the news for being a first in prosecuting its former national leader in a national court, Chad doesn’t seem to be far away. That the move to try Hissene Habre in its own court, and, the fact that it represents a viable option to the otherwise static debate over justice in Africa, make the trial significant. The trial of Habre is the birth of an African “Pinochet” – the birth of an unhindered future for Africa, where Africa is the solution for Africa’s own problems; the birth of a world where the International Criminal Court and International Law are no longer the neo-colonial elements that intervene to render justice for the region.