The documentary provides a compelling case study of a perpetrator of crimes against humanity in a place most people are unfamiliar with: former French colony of Chad, a landlocked central African country of about 13 million people, sharing a northern border with Libya. The perpetrator, Hissène Habré, a brutal dictator who ruled Chad from 1982-90, committed the type of crimes students of genocide and ethnic cleansing will be only too familiar with: the torture of tens of thousands and executed an estimated 40,000 people who opposed his rule. All of which he may not have been able to get away with for so long, suggests filmmaker Magali Serre, without ample American and French support.
In her meticulously researched study, Serre demonstrates why and how the Americans and French strengthened Habré. The rationale was the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ In this case, the enemy (of the US and France) was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who was viewed as a terrorist-supporting threat to the West. Especially after being implicated in the 1988 terrorist bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed almost 300 people. The enemy of the enemy was Chad, which was involved in a border territory battle with Gaddafi. Eager to secure Chad as ally, the Americans and French decided to support Habre with military and financial aid. But, the American military support was not limited to assisting Habré’s troops in their battles along the northern border with Libya. American agents were also involved in training Habré’s secret police, known as the DDS, who were responsible for torturing and executing political opponents.
As the former American intelligence agents and administration officials interviewed by Serre point out, it was clear that the Americans and French were aware of what was going on but chose to turn a blind eye. That both governments knew what Habré’s secret police were doing is emphasised by the fact that both a USAID (international development) office and the French Embassy were within hearing distance of a DDS holding facility in the Chad capital of N’Djamena. In the film, some of Habré’s victims describe, with agonising detail, the ordeals they endured there. One of the former CIA agents even remarks: “sometimes you have to help people who are not very nice…but we have no regrets…it was realpolitik.”
It is possible that this sad chapter in African history may never have received worldwide attention. Habre was deposed in 1990 and managed to flee to Senegal where he lived in relative obscurity for years. But, a bold decision by the authorities in Senegal to pursue a landmark trial against Habre for crimes against humanity in 2015, finally made many of his notorious deeds public knowledge around the world. In her film, Serre, by interjecting details about the French and American support for Habré in between testimonies from the victims, takes the matter a step further and ensures that evidence of the American-French complicity also enters the historical record.
The special Senegal Court, set up in collaboration with other member states of the African Union, handed down its verdict on May 30, 2016. The special court, known as the Extraordinary African Chambers, found Habré guilty of rape, sexual slavery, and ordering the killing of 40,000 people during his tenure as Chadian president. The court sentenced him to life imprisonment. Significantly, the verdict marked the first time an African court convicted a former ruler for Human Rights abuses. However, it remains to be seen, if Western countries, especially those involved in supporting Habré, will take heed from this episode. Habré was not the only brutal dictator supported by the Americans in the 1980s. The Reagan administration during that period also propped up authoritarian regimes in Chile (Pinochet), Haiti (Duvalier) and Guatemala (Rios Montt), not to mention the regime of the Shah of Iran and other dictators that other American administrations supported prior to that.
Those days have passed. The question now is what should we do now? Was the Obama administration – neoliberal and polar opposite of the neoconservative Reagan administration – wise to reach out to the regimes in Myanmar, Iran and Cuba? There is a difference between offering military support and making deals with an authoritarian regime, but all of those countries have bad human rights records and critics of Obama’s efforts suggest that his engagement only emboldened those regimes. Serre’s film is an eloquent testimony to how attempts to make deals with the devil have a way of causing unintended, disastrous consequences.
In her film, Serre does not attempt to draw any present-day comparisons. But, one cannot leave Hissène Habré: Prosecuting an Embarrassing Ally without feeling that it is impossible to make a deal with the devil – any deal with any devil – and walk away clean-handed.