NEW YORK — Twenty years ago, Hissene Habre, the dictator of Chad, was overthrown and fled to Senegal.
The doors of his prisons flung open and I left my cell and returned, a walking skeleton, to my family. I had watched hundreds of my cellmates die and I took an oath before God that I would bring Habre to justice in their name.
For two decades I have been faithful to that quest, and our goal seemed near in November when international donors agreed to finance Habre’s trial in Senegal.
My hopes, and those of my fellow survivors, were shattered in December, however, when Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade announced that he had “had enough” of the Habre case and was planning to expel Habre from Senegal.
If Wade has “had enough,” how does he think we feel? Instead of justice, we have been treated to what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu referred to as “an interminable political and legal soap opera.”
It began in January 2000, when we went with other survivors — some now dead — to Senegal to seek justice. We were delighted when a Senegalese judge indicted Habre on charges of crimes against humanity.
After Wade was elected president of Senegal, however, the indicting judge was thrown off the Habre case and the charges were dismissed on a technicality, provoking protests from the United Nations.
We did not give up, though, and pressed charges against Habre in Belgium, whose famous anti-atrocity law allowed its courts to hear cases from around the world. A Belgian judge and police team went to Chad, where I took them to my former prisons and they visited mass graves. Witnesses lined up to tell their stories.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch unearthed the abandoned archives of Habre's personal Gestapo, the feared "DDS." Tens of thousands of documents detailed how Habre had placed the DDS under his direct control, attacked rival ethnic groups and organized the repression of political opponents. The documents listed 1,208 dead prisoners, and 12,321 abuse victims, including me.
In 2005, the Belgian judge issued an international arrest warrant against Habre. But rather than order Habre's extradition, Wade referred the case to the African Union, which, in July 2006, called on Senegal to prosecute Habre "on behalf of Africa." Four years later, however, Senegal had not even begun to prepare the trial. Habre has reportedly used some of the millions he stole from Chad's treasury to build himself a wall of protection in Senegal. Wade said that no action against Habre would be taken until Senegal received $40 million up front from the international community for anticipated trial costs. Fortunately, the African Union and the European Union, with the support of the Obama administration, negotiated a more reasonable budget of $11.7 million dollars.
On November 24, donors met in Dakar and fully funded the budget. The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice had meanwhile called for Senegal to try Habre before a special jurisdiction, and the African Union said that it would help Senegal make the necessary adjustments. Senegal’s Minister of Justice said that the donors’ meeting was the “completion of the long process of preparation leading up to the actual start of trial.”
So we were shocked when, two weeks later, Wade announced that “the African Union must take its case back ... otherwise I will send Hissene Habre elsewhere. … I’ve had enough of it at this point. … I am going to get rid of him, full stop.”
The U.N. Committee against Torture responded to Wade’s about-face by reminding Senegal of its obligation to prosecute or extradite the former dictator. An African Union delegation went to Dakar on January 12 to propose to Wade the creation of a special court within the Senegalese justice system to include two judges by the AU. If Wade accepts this suggestion at the AU Summit on January 30, the case can get back on track.
Last year, after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for alleged crimes committed in Darfur, some African leaders claimed that the ICC was picking on Africa. The real problem, however, seems to be that justice in Africa has proven powerless in the face of the crimes committed by African rulers. Senegal's President Wade has the chance to change that.
Souleymane Guengueng is founder of the Association of Victims of Repression and Political Crimes in Chad. He lives in exile in New York.