The Hissène Habré “political and legal soap opera”

In recent weeks media coverage of African criminals and their victims have been dominated by capture (Kony) and conviction (Lubanga), largely overshadowing the latest twist in the most comprehensive and longest-running African legal case, that of Chad’s Hissène Habré. His crimes — the torture and extra-judicial killing of tens of thousands of Chadians during his presidency between 1982 and 1990 — and his ability to evade prosecution for so long, speak loudly of African leaders’ attitudes to punishment and impunity.

The case against Habré and his aides appears straightforward. Crimes were fully documented by Habré’s own security services, whose records are intact. Further extensive oral and documentary evidence was gathered by Chad’s own enquiry, completed in 1992. For twenty years, associations of victims of Habré and Chadian lawyers, have tenaciously lobbied for justice.

Courts in Belgium recently hosted the latest twist in what Desmond Tutu has castigated as Africa’s “interminable political and legal soap opera.” Twenty years after charges were first filed, the International Court of Justice will pronounce in coming weeks on whether Habré may be extradited from Senegal for trial in Belgium. If so it may end years of prevarication, by lawyers and politicians in Dakar and within the African Union, which declared Senegal should try Habré in 2006.

The defeat of Abdoulaye Wade as Senegal’s President may also dent Habré’s de-facto political immunity. Habré has been able to purchase protection while living comfortably in Dakar. When preliminary legal proceedings began a decade ago, he hired Senegal’s top defense lawyers. Two of these were subsequently appointed to the cabinet of President Wade. While the support of both the Minster of Justice and Minister of Foreign Affairs has been useful insurance against extradition, the same level of protection may not be guaranteed under the new President.

Not guaranteed either is the attitude of Habré’s successor, Chad’s current president Idris Déby, who himself knows a thing or two about political violence and impunity, clear. He has said he would like Habré tried, yet worked alongside Habré throughout the 1980s. Impunity easily outweighs accountability in a state held together in part via fear and patronage, key themes in the films and screams of Chad’s leading artist, Mahamat Saleh Haroun.

* David Styan, an occasional contributor to AIAC, is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, London.

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