The central African nation of Chad is one of those that doesn’t get much coverage in the Australian media, including this blog. But I did find the space back in May to note the death in combat of its long-serving president, Idriss Déby Itno. I mentioned at the time that despite his faults he “was far from the worst authoritarian in the region, or even the worst in Chad’s own history.”
A reminder came this week with the death from Covid-19 of Déby’s predecessor, Hissène Habré, at the age of 79. Habré ruled the country from 1982 until Déby, his former ally and army commander, overthrew him with French and Libyan assistance in 1990.
Many ex-dictators in that position go on to live lives of quiet retirement in the south of France or the Arabian peninsula. But times are changing in Africa, and Habré’s record of brutality was so bad that increasing pressure was brought on the government of Senegal, where he had fled, to either extradite him or bring him to trial.
Eventually, after much debate, a special tribunal sponsored by the African Union was constituted in Senegal, and in 2016 Habré was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. He remained defiant, accusing western imperialists – especially the French – of plotting against him, but the record showed him to have been responsible for torture, rape and the deaths of perhaps 40,000 people.
And in his day, of course, Habré had enjoyed western patronage. He started out as a commander of the Libyan-backed forces that came to power in Chad in 1979, but France and America then supported him when he turned against the Libyans and eventually drove them out of the country in the Toyota War of 1987. The French later supported Déby against him in part because they thought Habré was getting too close to the United States.
But all this, like the ghastly human rights abuses, was par for the course in Africa in the 1970s and ’80s. The significance of Habré’s trial and conviction was not in the fact that his rule was uniquely barbaric, but rather as a sign of how much standards have changed. What was formerly routine is now beyond the pale.
I made the point twelve years ago on the occasion of the trial of Liberia’s Charles Taylor:
From the end of colonialism in the 1960s through to the end of the cold war and beyond, Africa presented an almost unrelieved scene of coups, dictatorships, massacres and civil wars. …
In certain circles, it was long considered improper to mention this massive failure of governance in Africa – as if drawing attention to atrocities, rather than failing to punish them, was the real evidence of racism.
On the contrary, the west’s lack of interest in its former colonies, and its indulgent attitude towards the continent’s authoritarians, created an environment in which crimes against humanity were allowed to flourish.
But Taylor was tried in The Hague, a sign that Africa was not yet up to the task of holding its own criminals to account. Habré, however, was convicted in Africa by an African court, sending a powerful message to his counterparts and would-be imitators.
The message has not yet been heard everywhere. Only when it is will Africa be able to live up to its huge potential.