By Brian Obara
After a 25-year battle, Hissène Habré, the former Chadian dictator, finally got his just deserts on May 30, 2016. He was convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture, including sexual violence and rape by the Extraordinary African Chambers. Habré, who once wielded the power of life-or-death over a terrified population, was sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life behind bars.
The story of how all this came to pass is the subject of a new book by the British journalist Celeste Hicks. The Trial of Hissène Habré: How the People of Chad Brought a Tyrant to Justice traces the long and winding road to justice paved with the dogged activism and persistence of victims. Hicks was the BBC correspondent in Chad for many years, and, even more importantly, covered the Habré trial gavel-to-gavel.
Journalists for Justice (JFJ) recently spoke to Hicks about her new book, the memories she carries with her about the Habré trial, whether victims should expect to receive any compensation and much else. The interview has been condensed for clarity.
Q1. Why should readers pick up your book?
The main advantage is that it is a great story about how a grassroots victims campaign succeeded in bringing a dictator to justice. For many people, the idea of bringing Hissène Habré to justice was just ridiculous. People were very pessimistic that it could ever happen. But the victims were completely determined. For 25 years, they never stopped fighting for justice. For me, that’s the most amazing thing about this story. It is a hopeful and positive story.
Q2. Could you tell us a little bit about Habré and the regime he presided over?
Hissène Habré was a really brutal dictator in the 1980s in Chad. No one is quite clear on exactly how many people died but it is thought to be in the thousands. They died in secret prisons as a result of torture, mistreatment and not being able to receive medical care. Habré knew at the time that all these people were in his secret jail but he didn’t do anything to help them. In fact, he encouraged the secret service to arrest more people and to use brutal methods to stop any disagreement with his regime. He really was one of the worst kind of brutal African dictators.
Q3. Your book focuses on the campaign that made the Habré trial a reality. What new information were you able to glean about how Habré was brought to justice?
It is a remarkable story of determination. There were three different attempts to bring Habré to justice over the 25 years. There were attempts to bring him to trial in Senegal, Chad and even in Belgium using universal jurisdiction. Ultimately, all those three efforts failed for various reasons, mostly because Senegal’s then president, Abdoulaye Wade, was protecting Habré after he fled there in 1990.
In the end, it was a change of power in Senegal, when Abdoulaye Wade was replaced by Macky Sall, that marked a turning point. President Sall decided not to protect Habré anymore and that’s what opened the door to allowing the trial in Senegal to be set up by the African Union (AU). It was a long campaign with many failures but in the end, they succeeded after 25 years of fighting.
Q4. Why did the change of guard in Senegal make such a difference?
Back in the1980s and 1990s, lots of African presidents when they fled power went into exile in other African countries. For example, Siad Barre of Somalia went into exile in Nigeria and Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia went to Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. It was something that would happen when African leaders were toppled. They would go into hiding in other African countries under the assumption that they would never be prosecuted. That’s what Hissène Habré expected from Abdoulaye Wade.
Wade was very loyal to Habré. He never really wanted to expose him because be believed in the idea that African presidents should look after each other. But after many years, it became untenable and embarrassing for Senegal. They had this problem of this former African leader that everyone knew should be tried and were not doing anything about it. When Macky Sall replaced Wade he really had no reason to protect Habré anymore. The times had changed and the idea that African presidents should look after each other had been passed by time. Also, Macky Sall wanted to improve the image of Senegal by showing that it takes human rights abuses seriously.
Q5. Why was it important that the Habré trial happened on African soil?
A lot of it is linked to the ICC. The court in The Hague has been accused of only trying Africans. In most of the cases, Africans have been arrested and taken for trial in European courtrooms. People on the African continent are really unhappy about that. But in this case it was an African trial on African soil so no one could accuse this court of being institutionally racist or imperialist because it was an African court. This showed that the African Union was capable of organizing and carrying out a trial. Plus, it reached a [decision], it was very short and cost only 8 million euros. In all those aspects, it was very successful and showed that Africans can get together and organize these trials if they want to.
Q6. You mentioned 8 million euros. Where did the money came from?
I think about half of it came from the European Union. Most of the rest came from Chad.
Q7. Any mention in the book why the European Union put up the money for the trial?
It was relatively a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things compared to the cost of other trials. For example, trials at the ICTY in Yugoslavia and the ICC sometimes get into hundreds of millions of dollars. So this was really quite cheap. What the European Union saw was it was a relatively small amount of money to help this trial get off the ground. Chad also provided around 3 million euros, so their contribution was quite significant as well.
Q8. You covered the events of the trial quite closely, what moments are etched in your memory?
For me the most seminal moment in the whole trial was when a lady called Khadija was testifying in the court about how she was taken into a military camp and forced to cook and clean for the soldiers. While there she said she had been raped. Before she appeared in court no one knew who she was going to accuse of raping her. And while she was giving her testimony she finally revealed it was Hissene Habre that had raped her, and this caused an absolute shock in the courtroom because Hissene Habre was sitting just a few metres away from her when she said this.
Nobody knew she was going to do it. She had never said this before in any of the testimonies she had given. That for me was one of the most defining moments of the whole case. What was so amazing about it was it wasn’t like in the ICC where the defendants are hidden behind glass walls. It’s very clinical and antiseptic in that case. In this case the defendants were sitting opposite Hissene Habre, only a few metres away in fact. And he was just sitting on a chair. He wasn’t defended in any way from people. He wasn’t behind a glass screen or anything, he was sitting on a chair a few metres from us. For me that was a really amazing aspect of the trial.
Q9. Habré, memorably, had some outspoken supporters at the trial. Did you speak to them, and what was their perspective on the trial?
Habre’s supporters were very vocal at the beginning of the trial. On the first day when he came into court, he shouted and screamed and denounced the trial as an imperialist institution. His supporters were cheering and shouting and at one point he had to be carried out of the court because things were getting out of control. Actually his supporters came running round the side of the court trying to grab his hand. They were cheering, shaking his hand and were jumping over the benches in the courts, so they were quite unruly at one point.
There was a lot of chanting and they were there in fact every day. Every day when Habre was taken out for the trial they would stand up, cheer and clap. In the end people just decided to ignore them and completely forgot they were there but in the beginning they were quite destabilizing. To them, Hissene Habre was a hero, a lot of them were from his ethnic group and when he was in power, obviously they benefited because he was benefiting his ethnic group — which was the Gorane, and they still support him but that is because he was basically giving his ethnic group a share of power in the country. It’s important to say the number of people who really still support him is quite small.
Q10. After Habré’s conviction and sentencing, attention has shifted to reparations for victims. What have the victims you have spoken to told you about what they expect as just compensation?
The victims were awarded $153 million in compensation, which was worked out by the judge at the end of the criminal trial. But unfortunately there isn’t actually any money available at the moment for the victims. The judge said they should be compensated but didn’t provide any mechanisms on how that would be done. The trial set up a trust fund for the victims which was to invite voluntary contributions, but at this point there is only $1m. Some of Habre’s assets are being recovered but the amount is very small. He owned just a few properties in Senegal. For the victims being promised this compensation, it really isn’t looking like there is any realistic prospects of them being given the compensation any time soon.
Q11. So in your view there’s no chance the money will ever be paid out to Habre’s victims?
Right now I can’t see how the money will be found. They’re inviting voluntary contributions. We know that relies on goodwill. We really need donors like the European Union or the Americans to make a big donation because $185 million is a lot of money. Certainly Chad doesn’t have any money to compensate the victims because they have been suffering since the oil price crashed. It is difficult to see where that money is going to come from.
Q12. What do you think are the lasting consequences of the Habre trial?
The really important thing is that they reached a [decision]. It was remarkable that it was only 10 months from start to finish. If you compare that to ICC cases which drag on for years, this was very quick. They arrested the top man, got a [decision] and jailed him. I think that’s number one. They actually succeeded to put a dictator in jail. The second most important thing was that it was an African trial. It was run by Africans. The prosecutors and judges were African and the victims in court were represented by African civil society partners. This was really of seminal importance because it showed that justice doesn’t need to be delivered from distant courtrooms in Europe. it can be delivered in Africa.
Q13. There are lots of comparisons being made between Habré and Yahya Jammeh at the moment. Is the Habré trial a template that can be replicated in Africa or was it a one-off?
In theory yes, it could be replicated. You got a similar situation where Yahya Jammeh has gone into exile in Equatorial Guinea where he’s being protected by the president in the same way Habre was protected by the president in Senegal. You can imagine to some degree that is going to provide some protection but you never know what might happen to Equatorial Guinea’s president. There might be a revolution or a democratic vote that then removes the protection Jammeh is enjoying.
Thanks to the Habre trial, it has been proved that the African Union can do it and the template is there. You would think that if circumstances in Equatorial Guinea changed and Yahya Jammeh didn’t enjoy any protection, it would be quite easy to just set up the same thing again. We know you can do it quickly and it won’t cost so much money. The one question is whether you could use the principle of universal jurisdiction which is a legal principle which allows a country to put someone on trial. for crimes which weren’t committed in that country. Senegal was able to get the rights to try Hissene Habre using universal jurisdiction. It’s possible that Senegal could do that again for Yahya Jammeh on behalf of Gambia or Gambia could use universal jurisdiction.
But there are a few question marks over that because the African Union doesn’t like the idea of universal jurisdiction. It might not be politically as easy for the African Union to turn on Jammeh. The real question, at the level of African Union, is whether Yahya Jammeh seen as somebody who can be sacrificed or abandoned to the dogs, because that’s a little bit of what happened to Habre. In the end he became so embarrassing to Senegal and the African Union.
In a few years, you might find that people’s opinions change on Yahya Jammeh and he might become more exposed, in which case you may well see something similar happening again.
Q14. Your book is a testament to what can happen when the victims of a brutal regime band together. What do you hope it inspires?
I hope it inspires optimism among victims, particularly Jammeh’s victims that it is possible to bring powerful people to account and it’s not an impossible task. I hope it really gets to inspire readers who might not have specialist knowledge in Africa to see how hard these victims worked and how determined they were and how much respect they deserve. I hope it just makes people feel positive that although we hear a lot of horrible stories on human rights abuses in Africa, actually people can move on with their lives and put all these things behind and they can have lives that go on for a long time after the things that have happened. I’d like people to see that they can get together, get organised and make the seemingly impossible possible.