It took all of a quarter of a century to get through the arrest, trial and conviction last week of the former dictator of the Republic of Chad, Mr. Hissene Habre, by a special tribunal of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which sat in Dakar, Senegal under the name, Special African Chamber.
The judge, Gberdao Gustave Kam, found the 73-year-old former leader guilty of crimes against humanity, rape, sexual slavery and the ordering of numerous killings between 1982 when he seized power in a putsch and 1990 when he was overthrown. Habre was sentenced to life imprisonment. He has 15 days to appeal.
As he was being led out after the verdict he shouted “Down with France-Afrique!” It was his way of protesting French influence in getting him to trial to account for his misrule. Ironically, it was the trial that actually saved his life, as a court in Chad had in 2013 sentenced him to death in absentia and the Senegalese government had resolved to extradite him but the United Nations (UN) intervened, fearing he would be tortured.
Habre’s regime is alleged to have carried out mindless tortures and some 40,000 murders. Yet, he would have gotten away with all these atrocities, like so many other African leaders, if someone had not stumbled on a trove of files of his secret police in an abandoned building in Ndjamena.
In the documents were the names of 1,208 people who died in detention, and about 13,000 people who were victims of torture and extra-judicial executions. The documents fully captured the repression of the Chadian people under the Habre junta and they provided more than sufficient grounds to bring him to trial. All over Africa, the feeling evoked by Habre’s conviction is that justice has been served and that, in a way, Africa has finally broken the jinx. It is the first time that an African Union-backed court tried a former head of state for human rights abuses. We commend the judge, the prosecutors, the Government of Senegal and, of course, the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU) and the UN, which all contributed to the success of the trial.
The conviction of Hissene Habre is a tiny speck of light in our troubled continent. The world has set a standard of conduct on how citizens should be treated, and Habre clearly stepped beyond these bounds. He behaved as if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not exist. African countries are among the worst violators of human rights in the world. Africa is the continent where torture and arbitrary detentions are widespread and many African countries, including Nigeria, have been accused of extra-judicial killings, torture and wrongful imprisonment by human rights activists. Almost throughout the continent, there are reports of leaders who do not care for the lives and dignity of their citizens.
We have leaders who subvert their country’s constitution to elongate their tenure; who cling to power as if the country is their private estate. It is only in Africa that you can tick off a dozen rulers who have been in office for 30 years and more, whereas the world has long realised that after five to eight years, any country needs new thinking and a breath of fresh air that only a new leader can bring. It is unfortunate that many African rulers are under-developing Africa by their primitive approach to governance and their inexcusable misrule.
The African Union must institutionalize the African Chamber of the ICJ and properly fund it. Senegal almost backed out of the trial for lack of funds. The AU must hold an annual session on human rights situation in Africa, to remind the continent’s leaders of the world’s best practices.
It is disgraceful that we need Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other such Western non-governmental organisations to remind African leaders to respect the dignity of their citizens. We welcome Habre’s conviction and hold out its valuable lessons for the current and future generations of leaders in Africa.