Global Policy Forum

Hissene Habre: Senegal’s Albatross,

November 28, 2005

When he fled his home country Chad in 1990 to Senegal on self-imposed exile after he was toppled, ex-President Hissene Habre probably never imagined that he would one day become the subject of an international extradition saga now playing out between his host nation and a far away European country, Belgium. His largely semi-desert country, rich in gold and uranium, but which joined the league of oil-producing states in 2003, is Africa`s fifth-largest nation, notorious for internal conflict. Poverty is so pronounced in the former French colony of less than 10 million people, which has overtaken its more richer and populous neighbours Nigeria and Cameroon, on the latest corruption chart of the Berlin-based Transparency International.

Chad`s post-independence history is one of instability and violence, accentuated by tension between the mainly Arab-Muslim north and the predominantly Christian and animist south. Northern disaffection combined with severe drought to undermine the regime of the first President Ngarta Tombalbaye, a southern Christian, who was eventually slain in a coup led by fellow southerner, Felix Malloum, in 1975. Malloum was himself replaced by a Libyan-backed northerner, Goukouni Oueddei, in 1979. But the continued instability threw up Habre, then a Defence Minister and a northerner, who became leader of the main rebel group. With French support, Habre, now 63, seized power in 1982, forcing Oueddei to flee to the north of the country where he formed a rival government.

But Habre was himself toppled by the Libyan-backed Idriss Deby in 1990, and thus began the long exile in Senegal for the former soldier, whose one-party regime has been accused of widespread atrocities, with the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) nicknaming him "Africa`s Pinochet," after the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who is still struggling with his own demons of misrule from the 1970s. Habre stands accused of launching campaigns against ethnic groups in the south (1984), and against the Hadjerai (1987) and the Zaghawa (1989), killing and arresting leaders and extended families and even destroying whole communities when he perceived that the groups were hostile to his regime.

The exact number of his victims is unknown but in 1992 the Chadian Truth Commission said Habre`s government was responsible for some 40,000 political murders and systematic torture, charges he has denied. Political historians recall that the US and France supported Habre as a bulwark against the West`s former enemy, Mouammar Kadhafi of Libya, Chad`s northern neighbour. Under President Ronald Reagan, for instance, Habre was said to have enjoyed massive military aid and wide ranging support, which he used to brutalise the opposition.

But since Habre`s fall, Chadians have been seeking to bring him to justice with the Chadian Association of Victims of Political Repression and Crime (AVCRP), compiling a dossier on his victims. The Truth Commission`s call for his "immediate prosecution" gave fillip to ceaseless campaigns by local and international human rights groups. But with many high ranking officials of the current Deby government involved in Habre`s alleged crimes, the N`djamena regime had failed to indict Habre or pursue his extradition from Senegal. It was Belgian judge Daniel Fransen of the Brussels district, who after an historic mission to Chad to investigate the atrocity charges, that issued an international warrant for Habre`s arrest.

In response to the request for the extradition of Habre to Belgium for trial, Senegalese authorities arrested him 15 November and arraigned him before a Dakar Court, which ruled 25 November that it lacked the competence to handle the case. But in less than 24 hours after that ruling, the Senegalese government, in what observers saw as "a panic political measure" borne out of apparent intense pressure from western countries, re-arrested the former Chadian leader. He was given 48 hours to pack his belongings and was "placed at the disposal of the African Union (AU) chairman, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo," who is himself under pressure to handover former Liberian President Charles Taylor for trial at the UN Special Court in Sierra Leone on war crime charges. It was not surprising that Senegalese Foreign Minister Cheikh Tidiane Gadio had to overrule the "pack-and-go" controversial decision on Habre by the Interior Ministry. But even Gadio`s statement at a Sunday press conference did little to clarify the case, with one commentator saying the former Chadian "is being tossed up and down like a yoyo."

Gadio said Habre would be allowed to remain in Senegal until the African Union (AU) summit slated for 23-24 January in Khartoum, Sudan, decides his fate. But the big question by many international relations experts is whether by this decision, President Abdoulaye Wade`s government is not unwittingly surrendering Senegal`s sovereignty to the continental organisation on a matter it could conveniently handle by relying on domestic judicial interpretation? With the mountain of human rights violations against him, Habre has very few sympathisers, but he is not the first African former leader to be granted political asylum or to be accused of atrocities. Jean-Bedel Bokasa, the self-proclaimed emperor of the Central Africa Republic, had received death sentences handed by the local judiciary in absentia before his death in exile in France in 1996. Obasanjo, the AU chair, whom Senegal had wanted to refer the Habre case, has consistently resisted international pressure to hand over Taylor, citing the international accord reached for Nigeria to grant him asylum, and maintaining that Abuja could only surrender Taylor based on a request from an elected government in Liberia.

There are also precedents to the Belgian court`s request. In 1998, a Spanish court had issued a warrant on Pinochet for his trial in Spain, while the former US-backed Chilean dictator was on medical trip in Britain. After keeping him under house arrest for more than one year, the British authorities allowed Pinochet to return home, albeit on technical grounds that he was too ill to stand trial in Britain. Still, legal proceedings were initiated against 90-year-old Pinochet back home in Chile, with the latest charges related to tax evasion from his multimillion dollar bank accounts in the US.

Also, it is recalled that a request by a Belgian court for the extradition and trial of US citizens in 2003, could not be enforced after Washington protested vehemently with threats of counter arrests of Belgian cabinet members. Indeed, observers equally find it ironic that Brussels, whose Universal Jurisdiction laws permit the trial of foreign nationals in Belgium no matter where the crimes are committed, arm-twisted Rwanda, to ensure that Belgian Catholic priest Guy Theunis implicated in the 1994 genocide was not tried in the African country but in Belgium.

To be sure, Habre`s case will serve as a big lesson to African leaders whether serving or out of office that they must be made to account for their actions, but this must be under the relevant laws following the due process. Africa should not bow to foreign pressure in bringing its leaders to account. For now, the AU Constitutive Act has no provisions for dealing with a complicated case as Habre`s, so African leaders should realise they would be making history in the way they decide the former Chadian leader`s fate.

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