Africa Watch

Hissène Habré (73) brought to justice
Hissène Habré.jpg

A court in Senegal convicted a former African head of state to life imprisonment for his transgressions. It is a first for Africa.  

Expectations are high that a new era has dawned for justice in Africa, but so are the challenges.

“Africa’s Pinochet”, in reference to Chile’s former brutal dictator, Augusto Pinochet, Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, was last week sentenced to life in prison in a Senegalese court.

It took sixteen years to bring the former dictator to justice and when his trial started in July 2015 the British newspaper, The Guardian, wrote in an editorial: “The trial of Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, is an event of historic importance, not just for one nation or one region, but for a whole continent and beyond.

“It is a major step for international justice in Africa and, as such, it should be applauded. African judges will give their verdict on what an African leader did to his people. For the first time, an African court, not a western-based one, will rule on atrocities committed by an African leader.”


Hissène Habré (73) came to power in a coup in 1982. He was a Cold War ally of the West, and the United States (US) in particular saw in him a counterbalance to Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

At the time Habré came to power Chad and Libya were at war over disputed land.  The US used the conflict as an opportunity to destabilise the Gaddafi regime and furnished Habré with millions of dollars.

The US also helped to train Habré’s feared secret police, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS).

Habré soon turned on his own people and used his newfound power to oppress his political opponents and rival ethnic groups.

In 1990 Habré was in turn overthrown in a coup by the current Chadian President and African Union (AU) chairperson, Idriss Déby.

Habré fled into exile and lived a comfortable life in Senegal until his conviction last week.

Remarkable judgement

In 1992 a Chadian Truth Commission accused Habré and, the DDS, of systematically torturing and killing 40 000 people, but it was the court in Dakar, Senegal, that found him guilty of rape, forced slavery, kidnapping and crimes against humanity, committed during his eight-year dictatorial rule.

The court proceedings in Dakar took place under the auspices of the Extraordinary African Chambers (CAE) – a special tribunal set up by the AU in 2013.

The trial and judgement were remarkable for several reasons.

Invoking the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which gives local courts the authority to prosecute serious crimes that happened outside of their normal jurisdiction, Senegalese prosecutors were allowed to charge Habré, marking the first human rights trial of an ex-leader of an African country by a court in another African nation.

Habré’s sentencing was the culmination of what an attorney for Human Rights Watch, who worked for 17 years on the case, described as a day that “will be carved into history as the day that a band of unrelenting survivors brought their despot to justice”.

He also stated that, “This verdict sends a powerful message that the days when tyrants could brutalise their people, pillage their treasury and escape abroad to a life of luxury, are coming to an end”.

In support, jurists and human rights campaigners, welcomed the judgement as, “A significant step forward in holding high-profile human rights abusers to account in Africa”.

The most telling accolade came from the president of a Habré survivors’ association and a co-participant in the trial. In response to the judgement he said: “Today Africa has won. We say thank you to Senegal and to Africa for judging Africa. We are proud that this trial took place on African soil.”

Habré defiantly refused to recognise the authority of the court and the judgement, while his legal team argued, despite irrefutable evidence, that he may have been unaware of the abuses during his time in office.

Habré was allowed 15 days to respond to the court’s judgement.


Expectations are high that the trial of Habré could not only be a turning point in Africa’s quest to prosecute those in high office guilty of human rights violations, but would also encourage others to bring similar actions against African leaders, past and current, guilty of similar offences.

The judgement in Dakar is no doubt a landmark case with a strong message to other leaders, both in Africa and around the world, that international justice has a very long arm. But only time will tell if other similar offenders will also “have their day in court”.

This is particularly true for sitting heads of state and the prospect remains slim.

It is inconceivable, considering the reluctance to date of the AU and individual African governments, to act against Omar al-Bashir.

The President of Sudan is one of the worst perpetrators of human rights and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of crimes committed against humanity.

Many African states, including South Africa, had the opportunity to do what is right, take Bashir into custody and hand him over to the ICC, but they lacked the political will and Bashir is still escaping justice.

Writing in Daily Maverick Simon Allison alludes to the prevailing optimism when he remarked: “Precious few African dictators are ever held accountable for their crimes. So when Hissène Habré, former president of Chad, had his day in court – and lost – it was an unequivocal triumph for international justice.”

Allison then wisely and correctly states, “His fall from grace, however, might not have the desired effect when it comes to leaders of a similarly authoritarian mould”. He warns: “Habre’s historic conviction has also given other dictators more reason to fear leaving office. In this context, there is a twisted logic to the determination of figures such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza or indeed Chad’s own Idriss Deby (whose own human rights record is very poor), to remain in power at all costs.”


There is a certain irony in the fact that the AU has actively worked to prosecute Habré, all the while bashing the ICC for trying to prosecute other African leaders for similar transgressions, arguing that the ICC deliberately and unjustly highlights Africa.

That it smacks of hypocrisy does not take away the giant step Africa has taken to assume responsibility to prosecute its own and is not only responding to outside pressure.

by Garth Cilliers

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