Hissène Habré and Western Hypocrisy in Africa

Last Monday, the historic trial of former Chadian President Hissène Habré commenced at the freshly created Extraordinary African Chambers in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Like most post-independence leaders of Chad, an extremely poor landlocked country south of Libya and east of Sudan, Habré showed himself to be a vile creature, giving orders to imprison, torture and kill large swathes of his population based on little more than his own paranoid mind. The fact that the Chambers, an African entity jointly agreed upon by Senegal and the African Union (AU), is proceeding the long overdue judgment of a notorious war criminal like Habré is thus to be welcomed.

However, even as the likely scenario of Habré being condemned to life in prison approaches, one cannot truly feel that justice is being done when Western nations who made his abuses possible continue to exist in impunity, without so much as an admission of guilt.

Predictably, most of Habré’s erstwhile allies continue to applaud his ongoing trial as if they had nothing to do with his 8-year reign of terror between 1982 and 1990. In 2013, when asked at a White House press briefing about the trial, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Relations Ben Rhodes responded by saying “this is a trial that we have supported, and we’ve welcomed Senegal’s leadership in undertaking this effort to see that justice is done”, even adding that the US has “committed resources to support their efforts.”

The most appalling hypocrisy perhaps comes from French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius, who stated to reporters from France Inter last week that “France has always fought against impunity” and “congratulates the Africans” for bringing Habré to justice.

As the France Inter reporter mentions, however, Fabius was Prime Minister of France when Habré was President of Chad. When the latter was butchering his perceived opponents, often along ethnic lines, the French government was furnishing the Chadian military with weapons, intelligence and logistic support. As the French journalist Pascal Airault notes, Paris supported Habré before and after he came to power in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital. Moreover, France is currently supporting his successor, President Idriss Déby, who also stands accused of brutally cracking down on the political opposition and was previously the Commander-in-Chief of Habré’s army.

As guilty as France is in supporting Habré’s murderous regime though, the US has arguably even more blood on its hands. Hissène Habré’s rise to power coincided with two events: the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States and Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi’s repeated invasions of Chad in the early 1980s, often at the behest of Chadian opposition figures. For Reagan, Gaddafi was terrorism incarnate and was to be stopped at all costs, even if this meant propping up Habré’s own terrorist state. The US even helped bring the Chadian President to power in 1982, when the White House secretly ordered the CIA to provide Habré with paramilitary support.

US military aid poured into Chad throughout Habré’s tenure and, in return, the Chadian President allowed the US to use his country as a clandestine base for anti-Gaddafi operations. Perhaps the most sickening aspect of US aid to Habré was that Americans trained Chad’s infamous Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS), a Gestapo-like secret security force that was responsible for mass killings and nearly all of the regime’s worst atrocities. The collective graves that the DDS dumped its victims’ bodies in was referred to colloquially as the “Plain of the Dead” by Chadians.

That the US played a complicit role in many of Africa’s darkest moments is by now well documented. What fuels outrage now, though, is that many of these Western nations continue to give human rights lessons to African nations as if they had any right to the moral high ground. In Obama’s speech to the African Union last Tuesday, the US President repeatedly treated his African homologues like misbehaving schoolchildren, admonishing them for not abiding by their “term limits and their constitutions”.

Some Western commentators have taken this remark as a challenge to Republic of the Congo President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who is currently undertaking much-needed constitutional reform in his country. Westerners piled on to criticize the Congolese President as yet another African strongman trying to cling to power despite the fact that the reforms will actually decrease Nguesso’s power and that the President has made no indication that he will seek a new term.

Perhaps the real reason Nguesso found himself at odds with a paternalistic White House is that he publicly pushed for Africa to find its own democratic model instead of complying with the demands of the World Bank and other handmaidens of Washington. In any case, Hissène Habré is an excellent example of Western hypocrisy, where the US and its allies cloak their criticisms in high-minded human rights jargon while their actions betray their base interests.

Sonny Okello is a writer and social entrepreneur based in Uganda. Read other articles by Sonny, or visit Sonny's website.