Breaking barriers: Historic trial of a strongman opens, as Africa for the first time tries its own

The judges in the Habré trial are all African, and the case is paid for mainly by Africa. What does it all mean?

FROM Monday July 20, Chad’s former president, Hissène Habré, in power between 1982-1990, will be tried before Senegal’s Extraordinary African Chambers (EACs) in the first case of international justice on African soil.

The Chambers were established by Senegal (where Habré has been living in exile ever since 1990), upon the request of the African Union, to prosecute those accused of committing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture in Chad under his rule. A judicial cooperation agreement with Chad has enabled investigations to be conducted on Chadian soil. The Chamber judges are all African and the majority of the trial funds also come from Africa. But what might this historic case mean for Africa?

At a time when the International Criminal Court’s exclusive focus on Africa is increasingly met with open resistance (the refusal by the South Africa to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir is the most recent example to date) and accusations of neo-colonialism from Africa, the AU’s determining support to the Chambers and the prosecution of a former head of state can seem contradictory.

The answer partly lies in the fact that Hissène Habré was ousted in 1990 and has long ceased to be a sitting head of state – the controversial amendment to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights adopted last year by the Assembly of the AU grants immunity to sitting and acting heads of state and senior government officials.

The creation of the trial chambers should no doubt also be read as the AU’s determination to prove Africa’s willingness and capacity to conduct a fair trial that meets the standards of international justice. In other words, this is a new “African solution to African problems” coming from a continental organisation keen to mark Africa’s independence.

Judicial experiment
For Senegal and Chad too, this is a historical judicial experiment. Senegal has a long tradition of being an African leader in progressive politics – it was the first state to ratify the ICC’s Rome statute – and is evidently eager to prove its experience, capacities and leadership in this regard. Senegalese President Macky Sall evidently saw in the creation of the Chambers as a way of once more marking his differences with his predecessor, Abdoulaye Wade, who had staunchly opposed the idea of Habré’s prosecution.

Chad’s position has been ambivalent, oscillating between outright cooperation and obvious hesitation, most recently with regards to the broadcast of the trial on Chadian soil. While President Idriss Déby is no doubt keen for his regime to appear in a favourable light in this affair – especially given his own links with Habré’s rule – he would also clearly have liked to control the process more, and the information it will unveil.

 Visitors view an exhibition depicting the years under which Chad was ruled by dictator Hissene Habre, on July 15, 2015 at the Douta Secke Cultural Center in Dakar (AFP Photo/Seyllou)

Beyond these state concerns, this trial is also clearly a victory for civil society. The creation of the Chambers cannot be read as anything else than the result of 15 years of lobbying by a broad coalition of civil society actors comprising international, Chadian and Senegalese non-governmental organisations. 

These organisations have relentlessly fought for Habré’s prosecution, using every means of communication at their disposal to publicise the case and publish evidence, and exploring every possible judicial option over the years (including Belgium’s universal jurisdiction and a recourse to the International Court of Justice).

The concerned NGOs, but also many of their African counterparts, will probably have learnt from this long experience and that these lessons will be applied again in the future to exercise pressure on governments and inter-governmental organisations in favour of human rights and justice.

Last but not least, this trial is also a victory for the victims of Habré’s violent rule – and many other African victims of authoritarian regimes. The length of time that has elapsed since the events (25 years for the latest) means that, sadly, many key witnesses have since died and will not be able to take part in the trial or follow it.

More visible
But the long fight for justice in an NGO-led campaign also means that some of these victims are now known to us and have become much more visible than has ever been the case in similar international trials. We thus know Souleymane Guengueng, who has written about his experience of Habré’s jail in his autobiography, Prisonnier de Hissène Habré (L’Harmattan, 2012). 

We know Clement Abaifouta, head of the Chadian victims’ association, the Association des Victimes des Crimes du Régime de Hissein Habré, and Rose Lokissim, who is the focus of a recent documentary by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet (Parler de Rose, 2014).

While one may have some misgivings as to this individualised visibility of Habré’s victims, there is no doubt that it has given a very human face to the affair and empowered other victims, in Chad and elsewhere.

In many ways, the trial that is about to start should thus be read as a very clear step by Africa, its states and peoples, towards justice, human rights and memory. In spite of the long struggle that brought it about, however, this is only just the beginning of the affair.

Much is at stake for all actors involved – the trial must be exemplary, both in the way justice is conducted and in how it is brought and communicated to Chad’s population; the African state community will have to respect and implement the judges’ decisions to the letter; the victims and civil society organisations will need to maintain the admirable consensus they have demonstrated so far and ensure that they represent all victims’ voices throughout the trial and in their communication; and every effort must be made for the trial to contribute to Chad’s political memory and history.

For all of these tasks the actors mentioned so far will depend very heavily on an essential actor: Africa’s media. One can only hope that they – including this platform – follow the trial closely and bring it to Africa’s peoples as much as they possibly can.

—Marie Gibert is Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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