Chad’s Hissene Habre will go into the record books as the first former African leader whose flight from justice for many years has been cut short by the very country that has harboured him for 21 years.
Senegal’s octogenarian President, Abdoulaye Wade, has finally decided to hold the bull by its horns and no more by the tail. His government has decided to send back home the former Chadian President Hissene Habre to face accusations that he committed atrocities during his eight-year rule between 1982 and 1990. Senegal said Habre would be flown to Chad on 11 July, according to a BBC news report (July 7, 2011).
This decision should stun anyone who has been following the ding-dong verbal battle between Idris Deby’s Chadian government and its Senegalese counterpart. Blaming Habre for killing and torturing tens of thousands of opponents, the Chadian government has made several efforts to get him out of his sanctuary in Senegal, all to no avail until now. This move by Senegal is unexpected because for many years, Senegal has refused to answer Chad’s request.
So, what has prompted this sudden change of mind to act against Habre? Wade’s government is tight-lipped. I don’t want to guess that this sudden action against Habre is diversionary—an attempt by Wade to use it as a way of turning attention away from the political problems facing his administration in the wake of the recent riots in many parts of the country against him.
But whatever it may be, this action has a far-reaching import. Its implications should thoroughly alarm African leaders of Habre’s type or influence the conduct of other leaders whose approach to governance is troubling. I commend Senegal for this bold decision to return this fugitive home to face the wrath of his own people. It should serve as a serious warning to those who rule with impunity as they prepare safe havens for themselves in other countries.
The events leading to Habre’s current fate have a checkered background. Habre will be returning to a country that has no love for him. The dark clouds that occasioned his rule haven’t yet dispersed and his compatriots still remember him as “Africa’s Pinochet.” His denial of the charges of atrocity is meaningless—or, at least, largely inadmissible—and he still remains despicable to his own people.
In 2008, Habre was sentenced to death by a court in Chad for planning to overthrow the government. He was sentenced in absentia along with several rebel leaders, who launched an assault on the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, earlier that year.
His woes go beyond his country’s borders. Belgium has also been asking the International Court of Justice to have him extradited to Belgium, where survivors have filed a case against him. Senegal arrested him in 2005, after he was charged by Belgium with crimes against humanity and torture, but later released him to continue residing unconditionally in the country.
What exactly must have influenced Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade to make this U-turn to send Habre back to the lion’s den in Chad, where he will certainly end up in total humiliation and death? He has already been sentenced to death, which means that his fate had long been sealed and all that Chad has to do now is to thank Senegal for returning him home for that verdict to be carried out. A swift and stern justice awaits him.
This action by Senegal has other implications beyond the confines of Habre’s fate. It stands out as the first such action by an African country that must influence others. We have examples of former leaders running away from justice. For many years now, Ethiopia, for instance, has been pressurizing Zimbabwe’s Mugabe to arrest and deport the country’s former military strongman, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, to face justice for the atrocities of his military government after the 1974 overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. In his characteristically stubborn manner, Mugabe has persistently refused to do so. Now that Senegal has set the pace, will he be influenced to listen to Ethiopia?
The underlying justification for meeting such a demand is the need for those former leaders to face justice and answer for crimes that occurred under their rule either because of their own direct involvement or because they authorized it or refused to act to prevent such crimes from being committed. In either way, they stand culpable and must answer for their part in such sordid happenings.
Senegal’s action may sound repulsive to those who think that releasing such former leaders to their “enemies” is a violation of their fundamental human rights since their return will definitely mean their being punished (or victimized by their opponents?). It will be difficult for such people to support the Senegalese government’s decision; but it should suffice to serve as a serious warning to African leaders who rule with iron fists, forgetting that they will not be in power for ever.
When the tide turns against them and they manage to flee their countries, they should know that no country will forever remain a safe haven for them. No such sanctuary will be provided by countries that cherish human rights and responsible attitude toward governance.
That is the loud message behind the Senegalese government’s move.
I hope that the leaders of Saudi Arabia are following this development. To date, Saudi Arabia seems to be the only country in the world to provide a safety net for leaders (especially those claiming to belong to the Muslim faith) driven out from office by their people. The list of beneficiaries of the Saudi “magnanimity” in this sense has such names as the late Idi Amin of Uganda and Zine Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia. In the case of the latter, he has been convicted twice already on different charges. Will Saudi Arabia continue to protect him against the will of the Tunisian people and the tenets of that country’s justice delivery system?
If countries begin doing what Senegal has just decided to do, they will send strong signals to leaders that they will have no sanctuary anywhere and must rule their countries responsibly if they want to live their post-office lives in peace. It is important for the rulers to know what fate awaits them at the end of the road so that they can manage affairs properly.
If they fail to do so and flee from the wrath of their embittered citizens, no country should harbour them. They must be arrested and sent back home to face the justice that they have denied the victims of their misrule. This is the only way to instill fear in the current or future rulers for them not to abuse their office to trample on the human rights of the citizens.
The pursuit of justice shouldn’t be restricted to punishing the physical body of such individuals only. Even though that in itself is the inevitable response to the atrocities committed by such former rulers—and is a natural human instinct to mete out justice to such atrocious rulers—the measures to repair the damage done by them should be extended to cover other aspects of their misrule, especially the one concerning money laundering. It is unavoidable and must be factored into the scope of retribution.
It is an open secret that African politicians have the penchant to loot their national coffers and send the money for safekeeping in banks overseas. The Swiss Bank is a notorious institution that is known for doing business with such thieves.
Over the years, reports have emerged to suggest that much of the money looted by African politicians are deposited at the Swiss Bank whose intricate codes of ethics(?) and operations do not permit the release of any information on the transactions or the release of the stolen funds to the rightful owners. We have often heard that even if the client is deemed to have been made to sign a cheque under duress, the Swiss Bank will not honour it. Thus, such stolen money hardly finds its way back to where it belongs.
Efforts made by the Nigerian government to get the millions of dollars stolen and deposited in the Swiss Bank by the late General Sani Abacha are commendable. Others elsewhere haven’t succeeded in laying hands on theirs. The Swiss Bank seems to know how to protect such thieves. We are aware of how the United States is putting pressure on it to disclose the identities of its citizens who are transacting business with it.
I hear the response from the Swiss Bank to the US’ request is swift and positive. Why can’t it do the same to African countries that have lodged genuine complaints against their leaders who have looted the coffers and deposited such stolen money with it?
The move made by Senegal should be an eye-opener to help African leaders who seek to pursue justice for their citizens and the countries extend their efforts to the economic sector too. If they are able to trace the stolen funds and get them repatriated to the national coffers, they will be adding more weight to their pursuit of justice.
Let’s not just be interested in physically punishing such wrong-doers. We know we can’t bring back to life the victims of their atrocities; but we must trace the funds they looted and get them repatriated to serve our national interests.
I want to conclude by saying that Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade has opened the floodgates and his decisive action must influence others elsewhere on the continent who are harbouring characters of Hissene Habre’s type to act promptly by flushing them out to face justice in their own countries. The bitter lesson that they have refused to learn all along must now be taught them. That’s the only way to cut them to size and set standards for future leaders to go by. None should be allowed to flee from justice and live in comfort after denying their own citizens the opportunity to live in peace.
The Chadian government has a lot to thank the Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade for. The current President, Idriss Deby himself must learn lessons from what has now befallen Habre so that the tide doesn’t turn against him to face a similar music in future. Other African leaders must take caution.
The lesson is not to be learned by only the Chadians. Africa has many of Hissen Habre’s type and it is imperative for them to be identified and dealt with if doing so will ensure a fruitful reconciliation and create an atmosphere of peace and stability. It is only in such a congenial atmosphere that the citizens can be mobilized to work together for their countries’ development. Senegal’s action is a shining example.