16 August 2012

Senegal: Hissene Habre - a U.S.$11.4 Million Trial and Quest for Vengeance (I)


With the emergence of a new government in Senegal since April, it is very likely that before the end of this year, the trial of Hissene Habre will begin. Many Nigerians and Africans in their 20s and early 30s are likely to ask: "Who is Hissene Habre and what did the man do for which he is to stand trial?" And they will be right to ask such a question because not many know or can remember Habre, former leader of the Republic of Chad, much less the crimes which he is alleged to have committed while in office.

For those who are too young to have known Habre or those who have grown too old to remember what exactly he did while in office, it is perhaps necessary to provide a little background to enable them to understand this impending trial. Mr Hissene Habre was president of Chad from 1982 to 1990 when he was deposed by his then chief of staff and current president, Idris Deby, with the help of France. The story of this trial is one long tale of barbarity and the dogged, but to me unreasonable, quest for vengeance on the part of some especially European do-gooders. While in office and as it was the fashion among African leaders of the time, Habre is alleged to have used strong arm tactics to deal with opposition to his rule.

As a result of what he did or what was done in his name by his henchmen, an estimated 40,000 Chadians were said to have died under his watch. It is because of these and other atrocities committed during his regime that some people--victims of his rule in Chad and human rights crusaders in Europe--have waged a sustained campaign to bring him to trial for war crimes and for crimes against humanity. The campaign for his trial is about 22 years old. And the trial is coming on now because those in the quest for vengeance have been able to raise $11.7 million for Senegal to stage it. Senegal said it needed 27 million Euros for what I consider the most expensive justice in recent times, whatever verdict is eventually passed on Habre.

While I do not support the killing or maiming of even a single soul by any leader or by those acting in a leader's name, I object to this impending trial for a number of reasons; for I think that there are so many things wrong with it in spite of the obvious good intention behind it.

The first one is that Senegal has been pressured, cajoled, brow-beaten and even crudely threatened to try this man or extradite him to Belgium. Under former President Abdoulaye Wade Senegal was most unwilling to allow this trial to go on. But the dogged do-gooders will not let Senegal have rest unless Habre was made to face trial either in Senegal or he was extradited to Belgium to do so. The middle course was that Senegal should try him on behalf of Africa. As a result of this compromise, Senegal had to amend its constitution making a provision that the country's courts have powers to try anyone for any crime he or she committed in any part of the world. I am not a legal mind not to talk of being a sharp one, but I can see that this amendment is of dubious legality.

Even with my untrained mind and 'unlawyerly' eyes, I can see that the new law in Senegal is a good example of a retroactive law which is a violation of both the spirit, soul and body of democracy and a most reprehensible violation of the rights of Habre. I was taught in my Administrative Law class during my MPA programme several years ago that good laws are supposed to be impersonal--they are not targeted at specific individuals but meant for general application to every member of a given society. If my law teacher was right, then it is very clear to me that that amendment is a very bad piece of legislation because it is targeted at one man, Hissene Habre. A law should not target one man no matter what offence he has committed. If it does, a verdict of guilty against him will be conqueror's justice.

It should also worry us, self-respecting Africans, that we Africans are too easily pressured to do what is not required or asked of any other persons in the world. How can any self-respecting country allow itself to be so blatantly arm-twisted to amend its constitution the way Senegal was compelled to do just because some people want to get to one man, no matter how satanic the actions of such a man may be?

As far as I can see, even with my 'non-lawyerly' eye, what the Senegalese have been compelled to do may be laying a legal landmine that may explode in the face of other people one day. It may end up haunting the very legislators that were bamboozled to effect that amendment. What the Senegalese have just done is unwittingly setting up a very dangerous precedent. Well, this is one of the things that happen when a people are obsessively bent on vengeance. They can break a law in the course of seeking to bring the object of their hate to their own brand of self-righteous justice. Those who say they are for law and order should not bend the law in order to do justice to a cause. The Senegalese constitutional amendment is shifting the goal post when play had commenced.

The first casualty of the Habre trial is that the constitution of Senegal has become no more than a thermometer which can rise and fall depending on the mood of some vengeance-seeking people in Europe and America. A good constitution is not supposed to be so; it should be a thermostat, meant to drive society in the direction of equal opportunity, fairness, equity and justice.

Now the big powers have succeeded in bending the will of the noble people of Senegal to amend their constitution in order for them to have their way on a matter. What will stop them from again arm twisting another African country tomorrow to amend its constitution to achieve the whims and caprices of European, American or of other powerful countries? There are so many things happening in our world today to Africans which a humble me feels deeply affronted about but which, surprisingly, most Africans meekly stomach just because we are Africans, a poor, powerless and voiceless people. Our journalists and other opinion moulders who should lead the crusade for self-respect for Africans just capitulate because we have been brain-washed to accept the views of other people as the standard.

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