Former African Head Of State Sentenced To Life Imprisonment

May 30th 2016 will not be soon forgotten in the history of peace and justice in Africa. The news came as great wave of relief to Chadians in particular and Africans in general; Hissene Habre 74, former Chadian president (1982 -1990 ) was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed while he was head of state.  The verdict is considered one of its kind because for the first time an African Union backed court has tried a former ruler for human rights abuse.  It was passed in Senegal by the extraordinary African Chamber, a special court set up by the African Union and Senegal to try the matter.

It has been a seemingly unending walk towards justice with over two decades of pressing on against a man referred to as  the “African Pinochet”.  People hugged in victory at the court of Senegal, amongst them members of the association of victims–some of whom had moved to Senegal to testify  in their favor .

The BBC reports the case of Clement Abaifouta, a former prisoner of Habre jailed after high school, who promised that as soon as he got out of prison he would fight impunity in Habre’s regime. He recounts unhealthy jail experiences and how he was routinely abused and forced to bury some of his inmates.

Reed Brody, legal adviser to Human Rights Watch, has worked on the case for about 17 years and  had this to say:

“Today will be carved into justice as the day that a band of unrelenting  survivors brought their dictator to justice.”

African Union diplomats have also qualified this as a move towards an ‘African approach to justice’ that is  independent of the International Criminal Court, which could not try the case because the crimes committed took place before its creation in 2002.

Hessein Habre was born in 1942 in the Northern part of Chad. He is accused of haven persecuted groups that he distrusted in an underground prison. According to former victims, he tortured his prisoners with electric shocks. It was not until 1974 that he had his moment in the international scene following the capture of some European hostages. He seized power in 1982 but in 1990 was ousted from power, then fled to Senegal. In 2005 a Belgian court issued him an arrest warrant for human rights offenses  and in the same year he was under house arrest in Senegal.

In 2006 the African Union gave Senegal the go ahead to try Habre.   Senegal, after much hesitation, finally modified its constitution in 2008 to allow for  the prosecution of war crimes. Meanwhile the International Court of Justice called on Senegal to immediately put him on trial or extradite him to Belgium.

Then in 2013 the African Union and Senegal  set up a special court to try the case. All the while, Habre has denied accusations that he ordered the killing of 40 000 people during his rule. Following his sentence his lawyers have 15 days to launch an  appeal.

This landmark event has left many Africans optimistic about the future of justice in Africa. To some, this case will hopefully unroll the carpet for a new era where Africans get to settle their own matters themselves. Efforts made towards the creation of an transnational court by and for Africans are, however, still pending. The timid reaction to ratifying in favor of this move at the 2014 summit of Malabo is a clear indication that there is still much to be done.

As an international organization advocating for non-combative approaches towards peace building, The Organization for World Peace sees this as a great step towards putting an end to impunity and injustices, one of the major root causes of several conflicts in Africa and the rest of the world.