When Chad’s former president Hissene Habré finally appeared before the judges at the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) in Dakar in July 2015, twenty-five years after fleeing into exile in Senegal, the relief for his victims was overwhelming: “To see someone who hurt me that much in front of a court, it has changed everything,” Clement Abaifouta, one of the leading campaigners for justice, told me. “It is like I am in the sun and he is in the shade.”
When I saw the palpable joy on the faces of these campaigners who had never faltered in their quest for justice, I felt compelled to tell the long story of the fight to bring Habré to justice.
Here was the man who had ruled Chad in the 1980s ‘like a little God’ and had once shaken the hand of Ronald Reagan in the White House, reduced to an impotent presence at the fringes of a courtroom drama that unfolded in front of him. What had once seemed a hopeless faith from the victims that justice would be done now appeared an entirely logical ending for Habré’s extended exile in Senegal under Abdoulaye Wade.
The EAC which judged the former Chadian president was a unique institution. It was a court set up within the existing Senegalese justice system by the African Union, the first time a former African head of state had been tried before a court in another African country, and the first time a universal jurisdiction case had proceeded to trial in Africa. It also represented a re-birth of the concept of a ‘hybrid court’ in which elements of international and domestic personnel and law are blended. It was widely praised for its status as an ‘African’ hybrid court, which meant the judges, defence and prosecution teams were all African, and significantly the Chadian victims were allowed to be represented in the proceedings by Chadian lawyers acting as ‘civil parties’. In fact it has been argued that the voices of victims had never before been heard so clearly in an international trial.
The court had some impressive successes – perhaps most significantly was reaching a guilty verdict and passing a life sentence in a relatively short time frame (just under one year from the beginning of the trial phase) and on a remarkably small budget (8m Euros). For the first time the outreach programme was run by an independent consortium and a significant ten percent of the overall budget of the court was dedicated to making sure its work was understood in Chad itself. There were also important developments in recognising the seriousness of sexual violence in conflict.
Although the initial charge sheet neglected to specifically list these crimes (and there were many allegations), after dramatic accusations during the witness phase that Habré himself had raped one of the victims, the presiding trial judge took the unusual step of amending the original charges to include sexual violence. This was a move welcomed by campaigners around the world.
Of course the EAC did not succeed in everything. The failure to secure the extradition of five co-accused secret service agents, who were suspected of being responsible for day-to-day acts of torture, did not go down well in Chad where many have lived for years in fear of former torturers who continued to live at liberty. This was compounded by Habré’s stubborn vow of silence during the trial, and his refusal to co-operate with his court-appointed defence team.
The EAC also neglected to investigate the role of international powers, specifically the US and France, in facilitating Habré’s rise to power through the covert supply of intelligence and weapons via the CIA. It has also made little progress in securing financial contributions to an 80m Euro Trust Fund to compensate victims which was mandated during the Appeals phase.
Almost as soon as the trial concluded, the AU made a number of encouraging noises that it would like to capitalise on the EAC’s achievements. A roundtable event was held at the AU summit in Addis Ababa in July 2017 looking at how the court’s legacy might be carried forward. As the difficulties between a number of African states such as Kenya and Sudan and the International Criminal Court (ICC) continue, some observers have asked whether a model similar to the EAC could replace the need to refer cases to a large permanent body based in a distant European courtroom.
While there is as yet no concrete progress in efforts to establish hybrid trials in two of the continent’s current conflict hotspots – South Sudan and the Central African Republic – the EAC does present us with a workable blueprint.
Perhaps the case being most closely watched today is that of the former president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea in early 2017 after losing a presidential election. Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch, who played a major role in bringing about Habré’s conviction, has already met victims of alleged human rights abuses under Jammeh and has expressed an interest in using a similar approach in bringing a prosecution.
There are certainly parallels to the Habré case, with Equatorial Guinea seeming to offer the former president a similar kind of protection that the Chadian leader enjoyed for more than ten years under Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal. As yet the question of whether universal jurisdiction – a ‘unique pillar’ of the EAC – could be used in future cases is unresolved, as the principle has proved deeply controversial among some African heads of state.
Above all the trial of Hissene Habré was a story of incredible determination sustained over a quarter of a century by Habré’s victims. Even as attempted prosecutions of the former president faltered in Chad, Senegal and Belgium, the victims never gave up. As prosecutions are being built to deal with human rights abuses in other African countries, the EAC story must surely stand as a vital lesson that tyrants can one day be brought to justice.
Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist and a former BBC correspondent who has been writing about Chad and the Sahel for more than ten years. She is the author of The Trial of Hissène Habré (2018) and Africa’s New Oil (2015).