DAKAR, Senegal — If you’ve heard the name Hissène Habré this week, you may be wondering why a 72-year old former president from Chad is making international headlines. After nearly 20 years of exile, the man who’s been called ‘Africa’s Pinochet’ is standing trial, accused of committing crimes against humanity in Africa’s first universal jurisdiction case, an unprecedented move in the continent‘s history.

Here are the details you’ll need to know about Habré, the Extraordinary African Chambers, universal jurisdiction and what it all means for Chadians and for Africa’s abilities to bring, ‘justice on behalf of Africans’.

Hissène Habré: a brief history

Hissène Habré first came to power as president of Chad in 1982 after leading a coup during Chad’s war with Libya. He was overthrown in 1990 by Idriss Déby Itno, the country’s current President.

During his presidency, Habré’s government reportedly received financial support and training for its military forces from a United States’ government that saw Habré as, a ‘counterweight’ to Libyan expansion in the region under Muammar Gaddafi.

Habré was successful in defeating Gaddafi’s forces but his eight-years as president were marred by accusations of kidnappings, unlawful imprisonment, torture and thousands of murders.

Ethnic tensions within Chad escalated in response to Habré’s alleged atrocities and allowed Déby, a former Habré protege, to stage his own successful coup, leading to Habré’s self-exile in Senegal.

Building the Case Against Habré:

As Chad’s new president, Deby established a, ‘Commission of Inquiry’ to investigate Habré’s alleged crimes. In 1992, the commission recommended charges be brought against Habré, issuing a report detailing the use of kidnapping, torture and murder against Chadians Habré perceived as threats to his rule.

Human Rights Watch also issued a 714-page report that found Habré’s government responsible for widespread political killings, torture, and thousands of unlawful arrests.

The EAC and Universal Jurisdiction in Africa

After years of investigations and attempts by Chad, Belgium and the European Parliament to have Habré extradited to face trial, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) decided a new, special court — the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) — would be created after determining neither Senegal’s existing court system or the ECOWAS Court of Justice could legally try Habré.

The EAC is an ‘ad hoc tribunal‘ with four chambers made up of Senegalese judges, appointed by the AU, with a non-Senegalese judge, Burkina Faso’s Gustave Gabre Kam presiding.

More importantly, the EAC has been granted the controversial powers of ‘universal jurisdiction’ to prosecute Habré for the human rights violations and war crimes he is accused of committing in Chad. This makes Habré’s case the first time in Africa’s history one country’s court system is able to prosecute an individual for crimes committed in another African country.

So What Does it Mean for Chad and for Africa?

For the people of Chad who lived under Habré’s rule and have accused him of committing countless horrific crimes, the EAC offers the possibility of some justice through a lifetime of imprisonment for Habré and the possibility of financial restitution for individuals and families if he is convicted.

For Africa, while this version of the EAC is limited to this one case, it sets a new precedent for a Pan-African version of justice that has the potential to strengthen AU countries under a more unified, ‘rule of law’.

Even with all the years and legislative maneuvering put into creating the EAC and prosecuting an accused African war criminal for crimes against Africans, there are questions of whether or not any of this will even work.

The creation of the EAC was necessary partly because the ECOWAS courts lacked jurisdiction but also because of Habré’s efforts to use any of his remaining power and influence to circumvent the existing legal systems and resist participating in his own trial. Efforts Senegalese law student Ousmane Faye who’s been following the proceedings said Habré is still pursuing,

“Sure it is better that we allow him to stand a fair trial but he is making a mockery of our justice system and continues to exercise the power he had before by paying for delays.”— Ousmane Faye

So what does it mean for other African countries whose current or former rulers may be accused of human rights violations?

Assane Dioma Ndiaye, counsel for the Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habré’s Regime, said this trial will demonstrate Africa’s ability to bring even one of its most feared and once powerful citizens to justice and put its current rulers and the world on notice,

“the point is for Africa to show the whole world that it is capable of prosecuting its nationals in accordance with the international principles and standards attaching to the conduct of the proceedings, justice, fairness and due process.
If the Extraordinary African Chambers enables Africa to organize the trial in accordance with the above standards, that will go a long way towards ensuring legacy.”— Assane Dioma Ndiaye

What’s Next?

The trial had been postponed after an earlier attempt in July ended with Habré turning the proceedings into a shouting match, calling the proceedings a ‘farce’ and yelling out, ‘down with imperialists’. Then his lawyers failed to show in court, a tactic lawyers representing citizens from Chad and Senegal said they were unsurprised by, ‘we have waited 25 years to prosecute him, 45 days will not change that.’

Even with the trial resuming this week, it is expected proceedings will last for several months. More than 4,000 of Habré’s alleged victims from Chad have registered with civil parties and hundreds are expected to participate in the trial. Ordinary citizens across the Continent and those in positions of power around the world should watch as the trial unfolds.