Let’s usher in new era for justice in Africa

NAIROBI: A new era appears to have dawned for the people of Africa. For the first time in African history, an African court is to dispense justice for alleged atrocities committed against his people by an African leader.

The commencement of the trial last week of Hissène Habré, the former President of Chad, is not only a milestone in African jurisprudence, but also a political lesson on leadership and governance. Mr Habre first came to the world's attention in 1974 when a group of his rebels captured three European hostages and demanded a ransom of 10 million francs.

Habré rose to power through a coup in July, 1982, allegedly backed by CIA, deposing Goukouni Oueddei then elected President of Chad. He held power until 1990 when the incumbent President Idris Déby deposed him.

When he was deposed, Chad was in the middle of war with Libya over the disputed Aozou strip, a war backed by the US and France, against then Libyan ruler, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

During his presidency, there was widespread political killings, systematic torture and thousands of arbitrary arrests. Citizens of Chad lived under the terror of political police – Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité (DDS), secret police responsible for thousands of executions, enforced disappearances, torture and arrests – whose directors reported directly to him.

An estimated 40,000 people suffered from abuse and torture, some of whom died. Human rights groups have alleged that he targeted ethnic groups believed to be against him. After losing power Habré fled to exile in Senegal.

In 2005, a Belgium court issued a warrant of arrest against Mr Habré. Four extradition requests have been denied since then. The African Union (AU) urged Senegal to prosecute the matter, which previously the Senegalese courts stated did not have jurisdiction over as the crimes were committed in Chad.

In 2012, the United Nations highest Court, International Court of Justice, ordered Senegal to try Mr. Habré or extradite him to Belgium to stand trial. Thereafter, Senegal and the AU signed a deal to set up a special tribunal to try him. The case is being tried in the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), a unique body set up by the African Union. The Senegalese parliament passed a law that allows a special African Tribunal to try the former Chad leaders.

He is charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture conducted during his reign in power in a distinctly different arena from that of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which has indicted individuals from Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Central Republic of Africa, Sudan, Libya, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Mali but all trials took place outside the continent.

Since inception of the ICC only three people, all Africans, have been convicted. These are Thomas Lubanya Dyilo in March, 2006, Charles Taylor in 2012 and Germain Katanga in October 2014. ICC has dealt with 21 other cases, all from the African Continent.

Notably, for the more than 12 years the court has been in existence it has spent an estimated over $1 billion in expenditure. The court that has about 34 judges and about700 staff. This turnover rate raises question as to the efficiency of the court itself. Human rights atrocities committed by other countries are being ignored by ICC with USA, Russia and China not even being a party to the Rome Statute. It is becoming increasingly evident that Africans can, will and should dispense justice to their people.

Interestingly, the trial may well shed light on the complacency of some western countries towards Habrés reign of terror. In 2004, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights brought to force the African Court of Human and Peoples' Rights (AFCHPR).

Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda a special tribunal was set-up by the United Nations Security Council. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda sitting in Arusha has indicted 91 people with 61 being convicted and sentenced by the court. The court opened in 1995 and held its last trial in December, 2012. Those indicted included high-ranking military and government officials, politicians, businessmen, as well as religious, militia, and media leaders.

The ICTR is the first ever international tribunal to deliver verdicts in relation to genocide, and the first to interpret the definition of genocide set forth in the 1948 Geneva Conventions. It also is the first international tribunal to define rape in international criminal law and to recognize rape as a means of perpetrating genocide.

Another landmark was reached in the "Media case", where the ICTR became the first international tribunal to hold members of the media responsible for broadcasts intended to inflame the public to commit acts of genocide.

Justice in Africa, for Africa, by Africans is becoming a reality and people of Africa await the outcome of what will be a long drawn trial with great expectations.