FOR the first time in the history of the continent, an African dictator is set to go to trial in another country for atrocities committed during his reign.

Hissène Habré, the once brutal dictator of the central African country of Chad, has finally gone on trial after a 25-year campaign to bring him to justice.

Reigning over the nation from 1982-1990, Habré is accused of overseeing the murder of up to 40,000 people, and torturing around 200,000.

Now 72, Habré has denied any knowledge of murders or torture, the majority of which were said to be carried out by the dreaded government-operated Documentation and Security Directorate (DSD) – the nation’s secret police.

The case could be a landmark moment in the history of the African justice system, and a beacon of hope for the many of those whose loved ones have fallen victim to such murderous dictatorships, as he becomes the first fallen dictator to be tried “on behalf of Africa”.

However, Habré was yesterday removed from the Senegal court after denouncing the process. He refuses to recognise the court and shouted: “Down with imperialists. [The trial] is a farce by rotten Senegalese politicians. African traitors. Valet of America.”

Rise to Power

HISSÈNE Habré was born in 1942 in Northern Chad. Growing up, he excelled in school where he caught the attention of a commander in the French Military, which led to him gaining a grant to study political science at a University in France.

Working as a local officer for the government, Habré was sent to meet rebels to persuade them to enter a ceasefire agreement, but ended up joining their ranks. It was just a short time later in 1974 when he rose to notoriety, kidnapping three Europeans and taking them hostage, demanding a ransom payment of 10 million francs.

Eight years later, Habré seized power from Goukouni Oueddei, a former rebel comrade of Habré’s. Over the next decade the dictator became notorious for his iron fist, using ethnic divides and authoritarian rule to keep the country in his grasp.

One of the most notorious sites linked to Habré and the DCD was a disused underground swimming complex known as the Piscine. Hundreds of victims have come forward to give testimony to the torture which took place at the base, including gas in the eyes, electric shocks and cigarette burns.

Some of the more graphic reports of the methods of torture compiled by Amnesty International include putting an exhaust pipe in a victim’s mouth while the vehicle was running, leaving them in a room with decomposing bodies, and, in extreme cases, leaving them in a room to starve to death.

International Support and the CIA

Habré was welcomed by Ronald Regan

HABRÉ’S rise to power was far from an organic, self-funded occurrence. Backed by the CIA, due to Chad’s ongoing war with Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya, the United States was quick to offer support to the hard-line general.

A year after he came to power, Habré managed to drive Libyan forces out of the Aozou strip, a disputed area of land between the two nations, with significant US and French, backing.

Over the next seven years the US were critical to Habré’s regime, providing weaponry and vehicles to support the dictator’s continuing efforts to destabilise Gaddafi in Libya.

As thousands in Chad were being tortured in the Piscine, Habré was invited to meet the then president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, at the White House.

“Oh, it just went swimmingly. Mr Habré and Mr Reagan got along just dandily – yes, indeed,” said the US Ambassador to Chad at the time, John Propst Blane.

Decades later, the Obama administration has praised the efforts of the Senegalese justice system in bringing Habré to court. However, the process could have been much shorter if it was not for US intervention in 1990, when the CIA flew planes loaded with weapons to the Chadian capital N’Djamena to save the leader in return for his unwavering support.

Struggle for Justice

HABRÉ fled to Senegal, using an alleged $12m taken from Chadian bank accounts to buy himself property, and, according to some sources, buy several police officials, newspaper editors and politicians who were able to keep him under the radar.

In 1992, a commission in Chad found the former leader guilty of 40,000 deaths. In 2005 a Belgian court issued a warrant for his arrest, but the African Union knocked the European country back, instead asking Senegal to commence proceedings “on behalf of Africa”.

Seven years after the AU announcement, and 23 whole years after he left office, in 2013 Senegalese paramilitary raided the former dictator’s mansion, arresting him on charges of war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity.

After 14 years of legal disputes and many more of campaigning, Habré now faces trial, with Human Rights watch preparing to give evidence of more than 1200 deaths and at least 10,000 incidences of torture.

As the court proceedings get underway, there has been widespread jubilation.

“Finally, finally, the men who brutalised us and then laughed in our faces for decades have got their comeuppance,” said the president of the Chadian Association of Victims of the Crimes of Hissène Habré, Clément Abaifouta.

The eyes of the world will now be on Dakar as one of the most significant legal cases in African history gets under way.