A landlocked country (even the shores of the lake are receding) in the midst of the enormous African continent. This country carries the same name as the lake: Chad. From 1982 – 1990 Hissène Habré ruled this country. He was no stranger to power for during previous reigns he had been Prime Minister and Secretary of Defence. From close quarters he had seen the wheels of power. In 1971 Habré had returned to Chad after he had spent time studying in France, soon he joined the movement FROLINAT (Chad National Liberation Front). A decade later the rebel group led by Habré fought the army of the president and Habré did claim the victory. From 1982 till 1990 he was the president and ruled Chad with an iron fist, causing thousands and thousands and more of victims. During (and even before his reign) the Libyan ruler Qadaffi tried to occupy the northern part of Chad (an old gift to the Libyan king by Il Duce Mussolini from Italy). At the end of 1990 Habré is disposed by Idriss Déby (who still rules Chad) and he fled to Cameroons and ended up in Senegal, where he went into exile and he lived for 23 years in a posh suburb of the capital. He kept a low profile during those years.
After the flight of Habré investigations start into his rule and the new president Déby starts a Truth Commission that comes to the conclusion on the rule of Habré: genocide. There are no repercussions for Habré. He keeps on living in his posh suburb. The civil society (what is left of it) of Chad does not take the events of the dictatorial rule by Habré as something with no future. Several people start collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses and victims, piles of documents are gathered and hidden and smuggled. Some of those people with an inmense stamina are Jacqueline Moudeina and Souleymane Guengueng and Clement Abaifouta. Henchmen of Habré are still around and in positions of power under the rule of Deby, so the people who are involved in collecting evidence have to be careful. Several trials and investigations come to nought.
Then a change in political power in Senegal occurs in March 2012. The new president Macky Sall does no longer protect Habré, as did his predecessor Wade. On 15 July 2012 (not 2015, page 66) president Macky Sall announces at a meeting of the African Union that Habré will be tried. Three years later the court case against Habré starts in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The court is the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), a hybrid court based in Dakar, within the Senegalese legal system with the assistance of outside forces.
In comes Celeste Hicks, an experienced freelance journalist well known with events in this part of Africa, as she has worked as a BBC correspondent in Chad and Mali and working at Bush House. By the same publisher Zed Books she published Africa’s New Oil (2015). She is a close follower of the trial. She attends sessions, she talks with lawyers, she meets people from human rights organisations, she digs into documents. However she is unable to get a meeting with the man in the dock Habré. He does not talk, not even in court. In his traditional white garb he is silent throughout the court case.
In her book Hicks paints a very clear and organized picture of the trial of Habré, the first conviction of an African war criminal on African soil. She documents the rise to power and the years of the reign of Habré, showing the different forces at work during his reign. She shows his collusion with the Libyan ruler Qadaffi, the support he receives from the former colonizer France and the United States of America (enemy of Qadaffi), during the reign of Ronald Reagan, who even welcomed Habré at the White House.
As an experienced guide Hicks takes the reader through all the trials, the legalities, the innovations, the place of the International Criminal Court (ICC, based at The Hague in The Netherlands), the unique position of this court case (all relevant political powers were in favour of a trial; the court case took place many years after the events, Africans sentencing an African). Good to note that both France and the United States of America (sponsors of Habré) are not party to the Rome Statute, underlying the ICC. Even to a legal nitwit like me the guidance by Hicks is very clear.
One of the tasks of the EAC was informing especially the people of Chad about the events at the court. Special sessions were held in Chad where ordinary people got to talk with people from the EAC. Video streaming of court sessions was part of the deal. This was an important part of the work of the court, in this way the people saw justice take place.
Next to the events at the court case (2015/2016) Hicks looks into the example set by this hybrid court, especially in the context of the now functioning ICC. The ICC does not have a good name in some African quarters and is perceived by some as being anti-Africa, also the immunity of heads of state is an important issue in discussions on the role of the ICC. In the recent past several Kenyans had to appear in The Hague to investigate their role in the Post Election Violence (2007-2008). Two of the men who had to travel to The Hague (Uhuru Kenyatta and William S. Ruto) were later elected President and Deputy President (not ‘Deputy Prime Minister’ as Hicks writes, page 159). The Kenyan political powers were out in full force to support the accused and to obstruct the work of the ICC. African countries now protect the president of Sudan, who has to appear before the ICC for his responsibility for atrocities committed in Darfur. Justice is still a dream to many.
In her book Hicks focuses on the trial with its legal and political and historical context. Little do we find out about Habré as a person. Once during the accounts of the trial the wife of Habré is mentioned.
Celeste Hicks has done a splendid job in writing this account of the trial of Hissène Habré. In this very readable and precise and well documented (see Bibliography, Interviews, Notes, Index, but no Map) book she brings the events in Chad and the search for justice close to the reader. I long for justice and many more books with this quality.
Celeste Hicks – The trial of Hissène Habré. How the people of Chad brought a tyrant to justice – Zed Books 2018
A copy of this book was given to me by the publisher for a review.