The trial and conviction of the former Chadian dictator is a reminder that no matter how long, there will be consequences for impunity

A day to the end of the month of May, a significant event occurred in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. Hissene Habre, a former dictator who ruled Chad with an iron hand for eight years, was convicted of crimes against humanity, including torture, summary execution and rape. Except he wins the appeal his lawyers promised to file against the conviction, Habre will spend the rest of his life in jail.

“The court’s verdict is a huge victory for human rights and the rights of victims throughout Africa,” said Vukasin Petrovic, director for Africa programmes, Freedom House, who added: “By pursuing Hissene Habre on African soil, the nation of Senegal, with the support of the African Union, is setting a new standard of accountability for heads of state and other senior officials who ignore fundamental human rights and yet have avoided prosecution for crimes committed in power. Wrong-doers, no matter their status, can no longer count on other leaders protecting them.”

Indeed, Habre’s trial and conviction was a befitting consequence for his wholesome crimes against his own people, and a soothing balm on the deep wounds of his victims, many of whom were long dead while their relations and loved ones still carry the scar. Several of them were there in the court room when their former traducer was asked by the Extraordinary African Chambers, a special court put together by the African Union and Senegal, to go behind bars for ever. They pumped their clenched fists into the air, cheered and embraced one another in ecstatic jubilation over their victory against the man that had brought so much sorrow to them.

Although it was long in coming, as it took 26 years to bring Habre to the law, it is nonetheless important that justice has finally been done. The former Chadian strongman was pushed out of office in 1990 by Idris Deby in a coup, forcing him to flee to Senegal where he had been living off his humongous loot from his extremely poor country. But his victims did not think wherever he was on earth could be too far for him to be brought to the temple of justice.

In 2001, a court in Senegal ruled that the former dictator could not be tried in the country for torture. The victims, however, persisted in their quest for justice, and with the help of Human Rights Watch, Habre was arraigned before the special court last year. There he came full face with 90 of his victims who testified to his barbaric acts of torture, murder and sexual slavery.

The trial and conviction of Habre is significant in many respects, particularly for its deterrence value that must by now have warned other African dictators that they would have their day with justice. Before Habre, there was the Liberian dictator, Charles Taylor, who had been tried and convicted for similar offences. There were also the trials of senior government officials of Rwanda for their roles in the genocide that occurred in that country in 1990.

However, the Chadian dictator is the first former leader to be so tried by an African court, sitting in the continent and backed by the African Union. It is a pointer to the growing sentiments not only against dictatorial rule and its devastating abuse of citizens’ rights, but also the uprising for justice, democracy and good governance. As Habre goes to jail, therefore, the lesson must not be lost on all those entrusted with the responsibility to govern the affairs of their people: leadership is not a licence to plunder public wealth and trample on the rights of people; it is a sacred mandate to cater to their welfare.