The Fate of Hissène Habré Stalks and Now Awaits Newcomers

The late deposed, exiled P of Chad, Hissène Habré

For the eight years of his rule, he may have harbored a belief of invincibility. He was known as the strongman of Chad after ousting from power a former rebel comrade, Gokouni Oueddei. His success in expelling Libyan troops from Chadian territory must have emboldened him as he tightened his grip on power through the use of torture, imprisonment and extrajudicial killings.

He was reported to have maintain a torture center in the capital, Njamena, where political opponents and other enemies, imagined or real, were subjected to various forms of torture, including electric shocks. But his brutal reign elicited armed resistance from the Chadian people. In 1990 he was overthrown by rebels. Following his ouster, he fled to the Republic of Senegal where he sought asylum.

For many years, he is said to have lived in quiet luxury in that West African nation. But a Commission of Inquiry set up after his ouster in 1990 charged his government for committing 40,000 politically motivated murders and 200,000 cases of torture. He was also accused of rape, sexual slavery, and extrajudicial killings. Habre, however, denied all the charges against him, claiming innocence.

He was however tried in absentia; he was found guilty and was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity committed under his watch as President of Chad. Despite best efforts to have him extradited to Chad to face justice, Habre remained a free man in Senegal and continued to enjoy the protection of the Senegalese government. 

Time however caught up with Habre. He was eventually arraigned before a Court in Senegal in 2016, where he stood trial for crimes against humanity. He was found guilty and was sentenced to Life Imprisonment. His trial, according to reports, was a landmark trial in Senegal for it was the first time ever an African Union backed court had put on trial a former African Head of State.   

At the time he was forced from office, the principle of Universal Jurisdiction for crimes against humanity was probably not as accentuated as it is today. Also, the International Criminal Court had not yet been established.

This can probably explain why former Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin Dada, after he was deposed, was able to spend the rest of his life in quiet luxury in Saudi Arabia without being held to account on charges of crimes against humanity.

But times have since changed indeed. At the time of the outbreak of the civil war in December 1989 and through the years of conflict that followed, the idea that non-state actors could be held to account for crimes against humanity was probably least on the minds of organizers, financiers and leaders of Liberian rebel factions.  

Had it been the case otherwise, probably some aspirants vying for political power through the use of armed violence would have been more circumspect in their speech and actions as well and would have certainly been keen on instilling discipline within the ranks of their fighting forces. 

But almost a generation (18 years) since the guns of war fell silent, Liberians have known a precarious peace. Physical signs and scars of the 14-year civil war are still visibly evident. What is however not readily evident is the trauma, pain and psychological burdens of the war that thousands of victims of the brutal civil war still bear and carry.

Since the end of the 14 civil war in 2003, there have been concerted attempts by some individuals to create new but false narratives of the senseless civil war that was driven by greed and lust for power. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an accountability mechanism, was created within the framework of the 2003 Accra Comprehensive Peace Accords to probe into the source and origin of the conflict and make recommendations for Reconciliation, Prosecution, Reparations and Institutional Reform. 

The TRC completed its work in keeping with its mandate and submitted a report to the government of Liberia in 2010. Although the recommendations of the TRC are binding, according to its legal mandate, eleven (11) years later, the political will to implement those recommendations still remains lacking. Probably this is because some powerful politicians and warlords were recommended for either lustration or prosecution.

Two of such former warlords are currently sitting members of the National Legislature while a number of other accused perpetrators of war and economic crimes hold high positions in government including membership of the National Legislature. 

Although, while serving as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador prior to his election as leader of Liberia, President Weah had made open pledges of commitment to ensure that those accused of committing war and economic crimes would be brought to justice, he has made no move to establish a war and economic crimes court for Liberia despite an avalanche of calls for accountability. 

As things stand, a number of key perpetrators have already passed away, while some have advanced in age without having to be called to account for their actions. Yet public calls for accountability continue to mount. Meanwhile, victims of the conflict continue to suffer in silence and rejection while those who committed atrocities against them continue to go with impunity.

However, the trial and conviction of former Chadian leader Hissene Habre, who recently passed away in a Senegalese prison, ought to serve as a stark reminder to all those who continue to benefit from impunity that there is sure to be a day of reckoning. Just how soon and how long from now remains unclear.

What is, however, becoming clearer by the day is the fact that most Liberians, especially victims, have lost faith in this government to deliver justice as once promised by the then UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador George Weah. Now, instead, Liberians appear to be looking to a future government, whether in 2023 or in 2029, to establish a war and economic crimes court for Liberia.

The fate of Hissene Habre stalks and now awaits newcomers.