Sweet Justice

There is nothing better than sweet justice. As African governments slowly democratize, I have always argued that the development of independent, efficient, effective judiciaries is the most important aspect of democratic progress. The courts in various countries on the continent pose the only significant balance of power to Prime Ministers and Presidents dominating political systems. There are several important trails that either are currently taking place or will take place that could change Africa forever. Charles Taylor is currently on trial in the Hague and Hissene Habre will likely be going to trail soon. They are two of Africa’s worse dictators still alive. Habre is dubbed Africa’s Pinochet and Charles Taylor is famous for hacking off the limbs of innocent civilians in western Africa. Even Uganda’s Joseph Kony is scared of the International Criminal Court’s indictments (he is East Africa’s most ruthless rebel leaders in recent history known for abducting more than 20,000 children that were forced to mutilate and kill northern Ugandans.) Leaders of governments and rebel movements will now have to think twice before killings, mutilating, and torturing people in large numbers.

Charles Taylor caused havoc in west Africa for at least a decade (1989-1999) by controlling rebel forces, in Liberia and Sierra Leone, that committed some of the world’s worst atrocities and he was widely known as a gun runner and diamond smuggler. He’s currently on trial for 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for supporting Sierra Leon’s Revolutionary United Front Rebels by buying them weapons and selling diamonds. “Ten of thousands of people died in the interlinked conflicts in Sierra Leon and Liberia. Instability also spread into neighboring parts of Ivory Coast and Guinea.” Below is an exert from the trial to truly understand the brutality of Taylor’s rebels:
“Describing himself as Mr. Taylor’s former chief of operations and commander of a death squad in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Mr. Marzah said the former leader ordered militias to eat the flesh of enemies in Liberia, including African and UN peacekeepers. ‘He said we should eat them. Even the UN white people – he said we could use them as pork to eat,’ Mr. Marzah said, adding that it was to ‘set an example for the people to be afraid.’ He said repeatedly that nothing was done without an explicit order from Mr. Taylor and that anyone who violated his commands would be executed. ‘We slit your throat, butcher you… throw away the head, take the flesh and put it in a pot… Charles Taylor knows that,’ he added. Mr. Marzah also described how he had killed so many men, women and children that he had lost count, and also slit open the stomachs of pregnant women on Mr. Taylor’s orders. Earlier in his testimony, Mr. Marzah told the court he had taken weapons, some stored at Mr. Taylor’s presidential mansion, to Sierra Leone and returned to Liberia with diamonds which he then delivered to Mr. Taylor.”

I was elated a few days ago to hear that Chad’s Hissene Habre might be going to trail. He was the ruthless dictator of Chad from 1982-1990 who was responsible for countless disappearances. It has been documented that he is responsible for 40,000 politically motivated murders and 200,000 cases of torture. Habre came to power with the help of the French and CIA and is currently living in exile in Senegal. There has been several attempts to bring Habre to justice. In 2006, “a Belgian court issued an arrest warrant, based on its universal law which lets Belgium try those accused of human rights abuses wherever they are committed.” However, the Senegalese refused to extradite him to Belgium. As a result, human rights organizations asked Senegal to try Habre, but they said they didn’t have the jurisdiction. Now the Senegalese have changed their constitution so they can try Habre and France has offered financial and technical assistance for the trail. This is the first significant step to bringing the oppressive dictator to trial.

Lastly, the BBC had an interesting article called “‘Ex-slave’ takes Niger to court” that is worth commenting on. Hadijatou Mani was sold into slavery when she was 12 years old for $500 in Niger. She was a sex slave and was forced to domestic and agricultural work. Several years later, she was released and decided to marry a man of her choosing and her master said she was his wife. He took her to court and she was found guilty of bigamy and sentenced to 6 month imprisonment. A local human rights group, Timidria, says there are 43,000 living as slaves in Niger. In 2003, Niger finally passed a bill making slavery a criminal offence (its about time!), but Ms. Mani says the law is not being enforced. She decided to bring her case before the Community Court of Justice of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) in Nigeria and argues “the government continues to legitimise the practice of slavery through customary law, which discriminates against women in direct conflict with the constitution and criminal code.” This case is very important because it is the first of its kind and reminds us that slavery is still a reality for thousands of Africans, particularly women and children. For example, there was a story in Uganda’s New Vision newspaper about a woman that was kidnapped 26 years ago when she was a child and taken to Yemen as a sex slave. She finally made contact with her family in 2005, but they have no money to bring her home. Also, while living in northern Uganda, many locals in Lira would tell me they thought children that were being abducted by the LRA were sold to Arabs through Sudan to the gulf as sex slaves. Many of the abducted boys were either killed or forced to fight with the rebels; however, many kidnapped girls seem to be unaccounted for. There is no proof to this claim but it cannot be technically dismissed until all LRA abductees are accounted for or until mass graves of little girls are discovered.

Parts of Africa stricken with conflict and poverty are not only difficult for the people that live in those areas, but many individuals are left very vulnerable and could be forced into slavery or conflict. This article is only a brief snapshot of some court cases recently in the news that can truly change Africa for the better. Slave owners, evil rebel leaders, and ruthless heads of state have rarely been held accountable in the past, but hopefully that will change. Strong independent judicial systems is Africa’s greatest hope for sweet justice.



One comment

  1. Shiraz Chakera · April 27, 2008

    I agree wholeheartedly with your last sentences on the importance of an independent judiciary in parts of Kenya. But the reasons for the shortfall in the judiciary in Africa is connected to many of the core inter-linking challenges facing the continent:

    * lack of political and economic stability, occasionally characterised by war
    * endemic poverty and disenfranchisement
    * brain drain
    * corruption
    * unaccountable global companies, NGOs and foreign rich governments having more power than locally elected leaders.

    These are all things that are beginning to shift, and thus we are seeing changes in the judiciary. Particularly, it is worth noting the tendency of international NGOs to be more collaborative rather than dominating in poor African countries, which is leading to actions to support local judicial processes.

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