On May 30, 2016, an extraordinary thing happened in Africa. A bloodthirsty tyrant was convicted of crimes against humanity and put away for life behind bars. Hissene Habre, that bloody despot, received his just dues for killings, tortures, rape and sexual slavery when he ran the north central African country of Chad from 1982 to 1990.
Hissene Habre is a brilliant man, having earned a Ph.D from a French university in the 1970s. In the course of a decade and a half career in politics, he failed to apply his education towards making his country a better place for its people. After receiving his degree, he returned to his country and joined the civil service. In time, Habre became involved in politics, starting out from his northern Chad hometown among his Toubou ethnic group. The messy nature of Chadian politics—allegiances were based on ethnicity and religion—pitted ethnic groups against one another for control of the central government in Ndjamena, the capital. Habre thus came up the ranks of ethnic based political organizations. His Forces Armees du Nord (FAN) which he built into a powerful military organization captured Ndjamena in 1982. Habre declared himself President and thus began an era of gross human rights violations. He sent his forces after civilians in territories controlled by his political adversaries. Thousands of civilians were killed in these sweeps. Political opponents were arrested, tortured and killed. The Sara, Hadjerai and Zaghawa ethnic groups bore the brunt of these ethnic cleansing campaigns.
In 1990, Habre was ousted from power by Idris Derby, the current President. Habre fled to neighboring Cameroon then later went into exile in Senegal. For several years, he lived in obscurity until his indictment in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Habre’s indictment represented a significant step forward in the attitude of the international community to hold diabolic and despotic African leaders with blood on their hands accountable for their actions. For a very long time African tyrants got away with unspeakable crimes. Idi Amin compiled a grisly sanguinary record in Uganda and was known to feed his political opponents to zoo lions. Francisco Macias Nguema of Equatorial Guinea killed or drove into exile a third of the country’s population. Kamuzu Banda in Malawi jailed scores of people and killed.
Habre’s conviction is the second time an African Chief of State has been convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2012, an international court convicted former Liberian leader Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone and sentenced him to 50 years in prison. Former Ivorian Leader, Laurent Gbagbo, is currently on trial for electoral violence and other crimes against humanity. Al Bashir of Sudan is an indicted fellow sought after by the ICC. Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya was hauled before the ICC for electoral violence as well. He managed to wiggle out of it after the ICC concluded that relevant agencies in his government were uncooperative in gathering evidence against him.
Africans are heaving a collective sigh of relief these days at the actions of the international community through the ICC and the African Union court which convicted Habre. To the extent that the fear of being held accountable by the ICC for human rights abuses is a powerful check on brutal despots, Africans are mightily cheered.