Hissène Habré in 1983 CREDIT: Pierre PERRIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Hissène Habré, who has died aged 79, reportedly of Covid-19 while serving a prison sentence in Senegal, ruled the impoverished central African nation of Chad with an iron fist for eight years, from 1982 to 1990; his blood-soaked regime killed an estimated 40,000 people in secret prisons, tortured hundreds of thousands more and carried out ethnic cleansing against rival tribes.
After he was ousted from power he was tried in Senegal and sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, summary executions, torture and rape. The trial marked the first time a former African leader had been tried by a court in another African country.
Hissène Habré being welcomed to the Elysee Palace in 1989 by French President Francois Mitterrand CREDIT: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images
A former rebel commander, Habré seized power by toppling Chad’s government. In office he received substantial support from the United States and France, who both saw him as a bulwark against the expansionism of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
France sent troops, armoured vehicles and fighter jets to help him fend off Libyan military incursions, and gave him lumps of cash to fund campaigns against rebels opposed to his rule. The US-trained his secret police, armed his military and financed an intelligence network that Habré used to track down his opponents.
Most of the atrocities were carried out by Habré’s secret police force, the Documentation and Security Directorate (DDS). It ran a nightmarish network of secret prisons so crowded that detainees often had to lie upon the rotting corpses of inmates who had suffocated. Rape was commonplace.
The DDS’s favoured torture techniques included waterboarding, forcing the mouths of detainees around the exhaust pipes of idling cars and a method known as “supplice des baguettes”, in which a rope is placed around a victim’s skull and slowly tightened by twisting two sticks.
Habré directed much of the torture via a walkie-talkie and was known to participate in it himself. During his trial, one former official testified that notes from interrogations often came back from his office with annotations: “E” stood for “éxécuter” while “L” stood for “libérer” (set free).
Hissène Habré with US President Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1987 CREDIT: MIKE SARGENT/AFP via Getty Images
His rule was marked by chronic insecurity. In 1984 he unleashed a wave of murderous repression in order to quell an uprising that had taken root among the Sara people in the south of the country.
Three years later he was invited to the White House by Ronald Reagan after defeating Gaddafi in a conflict known as the Toyota War, owing to Chad’s use of Japanese pick-up trucks in it. Further bouts of ethnic cleansing came in 1987 against the Hadjerai and in 1989-90 against the Zaghawa.
In 1990, after he was deposed by a rebel force lead by Idriss Déby, his former army chief, he wrote himself a cheque for all the money in the national treasury and fled to Senegal. There he lived for years in comfortable exile, shielded by the country’s political class.
Senegal was eventually forced to put him on trial after an extradition request from a Belgian Court in 2005. It led to a ruling by the UN’s International Court of Justice that required Senegal either to hand Habré over or to try him himself as a member of the Convention against Torture.
After seeking advice from the African Union – and much foot-dragging – the country’s authorities chose the latter and set up a special court, the Extraordinary African Chambers, in 2013 to try crimes committed in Chad during Habré’s rule.
Chad’s government was initially supportive of the court, although it baulked when prosecutors sought the extradition of other members of Habré’s regime.
Hissène Habré raising his fist during court proceedings in Dakar, Senegal in 2016 CREDIT: (AP Photo/Carley Petesch
Habré disputed the court’s legitimacy, refused to defend himself and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to his chair on its first day. After that he sat silently through proceedings, swathed in a white turban. He was found guilty in May 2016. Hissène Habré was born on August 13 1942 into a family of ethnic Toubou herders in northern Chad, then a French colony. When he was in his teens a French military commander took him under his wing and he won a scholarship to study political science at Sciences-Po university in Paris. He returned to Chad in 1971 and became a civil servant.
Hissène Habré in 1975 CREDIT: Raymond Depardon/Evening Standard/Getty Images
Later he was sent to Tripoli to negotiate with a pair of northern rebel leaders opposed to the government, which had long been dominated by southerners. Instead, he joined the uprising, becoming a commander in the Front de Liberation Nationale du Tchad (Frolinat). Modelling himself on Cuba’s revolutionaries, he took to sporting a square military cap and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses.
In 1974 he gained international notoriety for kidnapping three Europeans; one of them, a French ethnologist, he held hostage for 33 months in a remote network of desert caves, demanding a ransom of 10 million francs. After falling out with other rebel leaders over the saga, he set up his own group, the Forces Armées du Nord, in 1976. A pragmatist undistracted by any ideological entanglements in his pursuit of power, by that point he had forged a reputation as one of Chad’s most astute military commanders.
Hissène Habré in 1983 CREDIT: JOEL ROBINE/AFP via Getty Images
Following peace talks, in 1978 he was granted the posts of prime minister and vice-president in a power-sharing alliance. The arrangement fell apart within a few months. A year later, he was made defence minister in another unity government but was driven into exile in Sudan when fighting resumed shortly afterwards.
He finally gained power in 1982 by capturing N’Djamena, the capital, with help from the US, which was unnerved by the previous government’s alliance with Gaddafi’s Libya.
After fleeing into exile he reportedly helped to direct several rebellions against his successor. In 2008, after a rebel offensive that almost reached the capital, a Chadian kangaroo court sentenced him to death in absentia along with 11 others.
He and his wife, Fatime Raymonde, had several children, four of whom were born in Senegal. Hissène Habré, born 13 August 1942, died August 24 2021