Africa, World

Senegal, the star of Habre trial

By Bat-El Ohayon 22 July 2015

Country's case against former Chadian dictator could give African nations an alternative to the controversial ICC. By BAT-EL OHAYON.

Former Chadian dictator, Hissene Habre’s trial has garnered widespread media coverage, not only for the notoriety of his alleged crimes but also for the fact that he is being judged in an African court based in Dakar, Senegal. This marks an historic development given that it could provide African countries an alternative to the highly contentious International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, increasing Senegal’s legal standing both regionally as well as internationally. Thus, while Habre is the one on trial and facing life in prison, Senegal’s decision and ability to carry out the trial makes it the star of the show.

Recent developments in Senegal have seen President Macky Sall develop the country’s political image abroad, most notably by seeking to decrease presidential mandate years. In this context, holding the Habre trial in Dakar will play an important role in increasing the country’s international significance, although it risks becoming a target of African ire.

Sall has been in power since 2012, and was thus not in charge in July 2006 when the African Union (AU) mandated Senegal, whose legal system was found to be competent, to judge Habre. This decision was later put into question during another AU meeting in Egypt in 2008, following which the members issued a resolution against the use of universal jurisdiction by African countries – respecting the long time tradition of not legally pursuing fellow African leaders. That said, in 2012, Belgium issued an international warrant against Habre, who lived in Senegal, demanding that the dictator be extradited. Following consultation with the AU, Sall’s Senegal announced that it would set up a special court and judge Habre, underscoring its commitment to respecting international legal responsibilities.

This decision, which was taken when Sall came into office in 2012, has put Senegal at the forefront of Africa’s leaders, in stark contrast to the recent Omar al-Bashir debacle in South Africa, where President Jacob Zuma’s legal integrity was evidently questioned. Put in the context of Senegal’s rising favour with the West, the decision to host the court serves as further proof that the real star of the Habre trial is Senegal, which has been working to further its image as a democratic leader in Africa. While other African leaders, such as incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, are allegedly attempting to revise the constitution and prolong their rule, Sall is working to instate his electoral promise of reducing presidential mandates to five years, taking effect during his term.

While the importance of trying Habre on African territory is well understood, particularly given an overall agreement among leaders to do so, Senegal’s decision to hold the trial puts it in a complicated position. On the one hand, it is gaining favour in the West, yet this may backlash, since it has swiftly broken the taboo of bringing African leaders to justice, which was evidently one of the main factors driving Zuma’s recent decision. That said, the real test to Senegal’s legal leadership will rest on whether additional leaders will be brought to justice following Habre, who in fact is a palatable example for Africa. Following this train of thought, would Senegal have been brave enough to arrest Al-Bashir should he have been on its territory, or is its willingness to respect its international legal responsibilities limited to lower political risk situations such as Habre? In fact, this trial additionally allows Africa to likely avoid ICC proceedings by proving that it has its own legal solutions to African problems, although this again leads one to question the willingness to actually follow through with this.

Put together, while the Habre trial has only just begun and is slated to last several months, Senegal’s central position is further proof of its growing role in the region, as a democratic leader. It’s true that this democracy could be questioned at times, particularly when it comes to political cleavages, yet the fact remains that Senegal is a rising star in Africa serving as an example of democracy and legal responsibility. With that said, it is important to note that it is a dangerous gamble to disregard the African tradition of not legally pursuing fellow leaders, which in the Habre case is mitigated by the overall consensus regarding his trial. As such, although Senegal is the star right now, it may soon be the enemy should it decide to become the theater of additional legal trials. DM

Bat-el Ohayon is a senior intelligence analyst specialising in Francophone Africa – Follow her at @Bateloh.

Photo: Lawyers for the victims attend the trial of former Chadian leader Hissene Habre at the Palais de Justice in Dakar, Senegal, 20 July 2015. The former Chadian leader is accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture allegedly perpetrated during his rule between 1982 to 1990. The landmark case opened in Dakar, Senegal representing a historic step for African justice as it is the first time ever that a court of one country in Africa has prosecuted a former ruler of another country. This is also the first universal jurisdiction case to proceed to trial in Africa. EPA/STR

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