‘Africa’s Pinochet’, Ronald Reagan and death at sea: Chad and Libya, past and present

Ronald Reagan and Hissene Habre, 1987

It is 19 June 1987.

In the White House, the leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan, turns, smiling, toward his guest.

Hissene Habre, dictator of Chad, dressed in traditional Tebu costume and leaning back in his chair, returns the leader of the free world’s grin.

Reagan is not unusual: every politician has a photo – most more than one – which can be used to damn them.

But on Monday (30 May 2016), almost 29 years after this visit, Habre became the first ever African ruler to be convicted by a court backed by the African Union of crimes against humanity, including rape, sexual slavery and ordering killings.

He killed 40,000 people with weapons and starvation.

The 73 year-old, who had been raised to power by US arms and public backing in 1982, and remained in power – largely due to the same things – until he was deposed in December 1990, has been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Chad is, for most Westerners, a remote, and slightly forbidding state. Landlocked – and mainly desert – it seldom features particularly high on most people in Europe’s list of interests or concerns.

In my case, Habre’s dictatorship really became of interest only after an interview I conducted with a 17 year-old refugee at Tunisia’s Choucha refugee camp in 2011.

The boy – whose story as he told it is the chapter ‘My Mother’ in The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis – had heard from his mother for the first time in eight years just three weeks before we met; before then, he had presumed she, like his father, was lost to him forever, or dead, after all had fled Chad under separate cover.

But Habre’s rule is also an indicator of the lengths to which the US government was prepared to go – alternatively of the depths to which it was willing to stoop – to oppose Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi and assist those who were willing to fight against him.

Because his invitation to the White House was not an accident, it was a direct result of his campaign against Libya’s dictator, which was also – as stated in as many words – the reason the US supported his rise to power, and his eight year reign.

Habre was first appointed to a position of power in Chad in 1978, when the state’s then military dictator General Felix Malloum made him the country’s Prime Minister. But within months as a result of a dispute with Halloum, he ordered forces loyal to him to attack the state’s army, sparking an 11-sided civil war.

Late in 1979, the Organisation of African Unity set up talks to end the war, which made Goukouni Oeddi Chad’s President, and installed Habre as Minster of Defence.

But after only a few weeks, Habre again led forces to attack the government, and only the intervention of Ghaddafi, whose Libyan state armed and supported troops loyal to Oeddi, and whose only state forces effectively occupied northern Chad, enabled the government to re-take control.

In January 1981, Ghaddafi and Oeddi announced they planned to unify Chad and Libya. The extent to which Ghaddafi was motivated in this by the belief Chad must contain deposits of oil (as in the last ten years has proved to be the case) and Oeddi by fear of renewed attack by Habre, who was now camped with troops loyal to him on Chad’s border with Sudan – is unrecorded.

But the US’ response is not: Alexander Haig, the US Secretary of State, had announced the state’s plan to ‘bloody Ghaddafi’s nose’, and to ‘increase the flow of pine boxes to Libya’ and Habre and his force presented an opportunity to do so.

The CIA’s Khartoum station chief visited Habre and offered full US support for a renewed attack on Oeddi to prevent the proposed unification of Chad and Libya, provided he succeeded in removing Ghaddafi’s troops from the state, and American dollars and American weapons enabled the rebel to succeed where he had failed twice before, and seize control of Chad.

US C141 Starlifter aircraft delivered weapons to Habre – including 12 Singer systems; American shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft hardware never before used in Africa, and Toyota Hilux 4x4s which significantly improved his force’s mobility – and while they were used to raise Habre to power, the US also recruited from within Chad a small group of Libyans; the ‘Libyan National Salvation Front’, to oppose Ghaddafi.

The latter force was actively flown into Libya by Obama’s US administration in 2011, to take part in the uprising which ended with Ghaddafi’s death.

Habre put these resources to effect and seized control of Chad, though he never entirely expelled Libyan forces from the state. In any case, his American-backed victory was enough to see him invited to the White House, where the image above was taken, and where the President actually congratulated him for killing more than 10,000 Libyans.

But Habre – a north Chadean ethnic Tebu – was also putting his new weapons to use by killing more four times as many Chadeans in order to stamp out opposition to his rule.

Among the 40,000 people he killed were members of the Sera, Hadjera and Zaghawa tribes, each of which he attempted to ethnically-cleanse, and many thousands more who died simply because they lived in places, or close to places, where Habre wished to exercise his might.

Nor can it be pretended that the US was not aware of this. Human Rights Watch described Habre as ‘Africa’s Pinochet’, and a former member of Regan’s administration told the US newspaper the Washington Post that: ‘Habre was… a bloodthirsty tyrant and torturer. It is fair to say we knew who and what he was and chose to turn a blind eye.

There are always people willing to attempt to excuse the inexcusable – those who call themselves ‘realists’ while arguing we should turn a blind eye to mass slaughter with phrases such as ‘politics is a dirty business’.

But the truth is that politics is only as dirty as those who engage in it, and that while the US claimed to be interested in ‘rescuing’ Libyans from Ghaddafi, it deliberately provided cash and weapons to Habre – a man who murdered more of his own people in eight years than Ghaddafi did in 42 years.

It is a cause for celebration that Habre has been tried and sentenced for his crimes. But we must ask whether it is time we also attempt to ensure that those who encourage and enable crimes against humanity are held to account.

Habre murdered 40,000 people, raped many more and forced others into sexual slavery. The US under Reagan handed him the cash, materials and weapons to help him.


In three days last week, at least 700 people drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.

On Wednesday (25 May), the Italian Navy arrived too late to prevent the capsizing of a boat close to Lampedusa.

The following morning, close to the Libyan port of Sabratha, 550 people drowned when the boat they were attempting to cross in overturned.

That boat, which did not have an engine and was being towed by another packed vessel, had contained around 670 people. Twenty-seven of them managed to reach the first boat, and 79 were rescued by international patrol boats.

On Friday 27 May, 135 people were rescued and at least 80 drowned in a third incident, again close to Lampedusa.

None of these deaths are necessary, and neither are they unexpected or a surprise to the international community.

On 3 October 2012, 359 men, women and children drowned off Lampedusa when their boat overturned. Even then, this was not a new thing; desperate people fleeing conflict, oppression, terror and shortage – death, in other words – across sub-Saharan Africa, and trying to reach Europe has been taking place for decades.

Since then, more than 9,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, and the number increases literally by the week. And the numbers likely to drown on the crossing from Libya are set to increase even further.

The majority of those crossing are not Libyans – instead they are those fleeing wars like the one above, in Chad, as well as in Sudan, Somalia and many other regions, who once fled to Libya and in some cases through it, and who cannot now risk remaining in the increasingly dangerous and fragmenting Libyan state.

Libya’s four-sided civil war is now in its third year, and it now has three powerless and illegitimate ‘governments’ forced to watch as the state is torn to pieces – it is not a place anyone can stay in for long, unless they have clear reason to do so.

Not only that, but the EU’s deal to prevent men, women and children crossing the sea from Turkey is doing nothing to prevent people fleeing death, only to prevent them making one specific crossing.

With that route blocked, many of those fleeing death in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other states, who are already desperate enough to risk their lives on the sea, are now likely to make their way south and west to Libya, where they will attempt to make the even more dangerous crossing to Italy.

Nor is the only proposal – an almost identical ‘deal’ under which NATO ships will patrol the sea between Libya and Italy, and return terrified men, women and children to so-called ‘reintegration centres’ in the very states they have fled – to improve matters either morally justified or practically likely to succeed.*

*More on this ‘idea’ will follow in the next fortnight.

The number of desperate people attempting the southern Mediterranean crossing traditionally increases through Spring and Summer. In three days last week, more than 700 people drowned, and in the last two and a half years, more than 9,000 people have died in one of the world’s calmest large stretches of water.

This is not unavoidable – it can be addressed by organising a centralised EU-run system of application and safe crossings – and neither is it acceptable.

Thirty-one months have passed since the mass drowning off Lampedusa: it is time the EU acted with humanity, and with practicality: you cannot stop people dying by trapping them in places they may be killed; and you cannot stop people fleeing death by making already dangerous routes to safety even more dangerous.

The Mediterranean is a mass grave. And this summer may see mass death on its greatest scale to date. The EU can act to stop this. It – and as its members all of us – must do so now.

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