The ‘Lion of Africa’ used to be America's friend. Now he's on trial for war crimes

A file photo taken on January 17, 1987 shows then Chadian President Hissen Habre in N'Djamena.

DAKAR, Senegal — Hissene Habre shouted and squirmed as armed guards dragged him into the courtroom.

Once feared as “the lion of Africa,” ruling Chad with American support, Habre had refused to leave his holding cell so that the trial could begin. And so a judge ordered him brought in by force.

It all made for a strange scene: the former Chadian president dressed in voluminous white robes, his face swathed by a turban and eyes shielded by aviator sunglasses, held down in a chair by four burly guards in black balaclavas while his former victims looked on from the gallery.

“Shut up, shut up!” Habre sang out as a clerk began reading the charges against him — 187 pages of horrific allegations, including torture and summary executions during his rule from 1982 to 1990. “Lies!”

These chaotic opening moments of Habre’s war crimes trial, which re-started Monday following a 45-day delay, marked an important landmark in international justice.

For the first time, a former head of state is being tried by another country under the concept of universal jurisdiction. In other words, Senegal can prosecute Habre regardless of his nationality and where the alleged crimes took place.

Also significant is that this court in the heart of Dakar offers an alternative at a time when many African leaders are pushing back against the International Criminal Court. Rather than being tried in Europe, at The Hague, Habre is standing trial here in Africa under a special Senegalese statute, with African Union support.

"This trial represents for the victims the writing of history for our country."

Fatimé Sakine, 53, a former secretary who under Habre endured electrocution, beatings and something called “arbatachar” — in which a person is hogtied and their chest forced forward — watched his antics with disdain.

“Hissene Habre was the absolute king in Chad, throwing people in jail, having them tortured as he pleased,” she said. “Now he's acting like a spoiled child who won't take his medicine. He's just afraid of us and afraid of the truth.”

Clement Abaifouta, 54, another of Habre’s former victims expected to testify during the trial, spent four years imprisoned. During that time he witnessed many deaths from illness, torture and execution.

Arrested after receiving a bursary to study in Germany — he was accused of wanting to join the rebels — this bookish man was instead forced to be a gravedigger, burying 10 or sometimes 20 or more bodies a day.

Once, Abaifouta recounts, he dragged his filthy mattress into the sun of the prison yard to try to kill the lice, and a guard took aim and fired: “I was almost shot like a gazelle.”

“This trial is the crowning moment of a long fight,” he told GlobalPost. “It is time to listen to the facts. This trial represents for the victims the writing of history for our country.”

Photo taken Dec. 14 1984 in Nadili, a Chadian village burned by Chad president Hissene Habre's  FANT troops during a scorched-earth offensive against the guerillas.

Gaddafi’s bloody nose

Habre, whose presidency came during the Cold War era, ruled with significant financial and military backing from the US government.

Ronald Reagan’s administration saw him as a bulwark against Libya and Muammar Gaddafi. Partnering with him was a strategy designed to “bloody Gaddafi’s nose,” in the words of Secretary of State Alexander Haig.

After being deposed in 1991, Habre fled — allegedly with much of his country’s treasury — to exile in Senegal, where he had been living in comfort until his arrest in 2013.

It is Senegal’s willingness to prosecute Habre under the principle of universal jurisdiction that has allowed the case to go ahead. The United States has previously opposed universal jurisdiction, in particular during the George W. Bush years, when Donald Rumsfeld threatened to move NATO out of Brussels unless Belgium rescinded their new law.

But in an about turn, Barack Obama is backing the Habre trial, and in doing so appears to be supporting the concept of universal jurisdiction. The US government has contributed $1 million to the Habre process, announced during Obama’s 2013 visit to Senegal.


Queuing for the Habre trial.

A photo posted by Erin Conway-Smith (@erinconwaysmith) on

Reed Brody, counsel for New York-based Human Rights Watch, has worked with Habre’s victims since 1999. He said the trial — which is being televised in Chad — can potentially be a transformative moment for African justice.

“It shows that survivors and activists, with tenacity and perseverance, can actually organize to bring a dictator to justice, to create the political conditions to bring a dictator to justice even in Africa,” he said. “This is not a case that has been organized from The Hague or from New York, as important as those cases are. This is a case in which the architects are the survivors.”

‘I suffered in my flesh’

Rachel Mouaba, 50, was 19 years old when Habre’s men came to her home and tortured and killed her father. Then, they raped her.

“I suffered in my flesh,” she told GlobalPost ahead of the trial. “I would not wish this to happen to my worst enemy.”

Mouaba hopes the trial will serve as a lesson to leaders of other countries, not just Chad. She adds that, because the trial is being held in Senegal, “no one can cry imperialism.”

“At the start of the trial, Habre screamed, 'Imperialism!' Imagine if it were being held in Europe. It would be even worse,” she said. “It’s a fight to restore the dignity of human beings. It has nothing to do with imperialism.”