Masses of information from the media constantly bombard us. Yet, paradoxically, often the most important news goes uncovered. Take for instance, Africa.
A country like Sudan suddenly comes under the spotlight. Reports of rape, massacre and corruption in the Darfur region reinforce all the stereotypes about the “dark continent” of savage aliens. And then, just as quickly, Sudan will fall from view.
But, while thousands of refugees from the Darfur conflict have fled to Chad, just to the west of Sudan, this country remains largely off the British and American media map. And so one of the most remarkable contemporary human rights campaigns goes largely unreported in the UK as the Belgium courts seek to try the former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for crimes of genocide during his rule from 1982 to 1990. And this in the face of the Belgium Parliament’s decision to repeal its landmark “universal human rights jurisdiction” statute.
Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters, the historic 1993 law, which allowed victims to file complaints in Belgium for atrocities committed abroad, was repealed. Yet a new law, adopted in August 2003, gave the go ahead for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners.
And finally, last month, Senegal, where Habré has been under house arrest, seized the former dictator to face an extradition request from Belgium over the genocide charges.
Formerly part of French Equatorial Africa, Chad gained its independence in 1960 and since then has been gripped by civil war. In a rare instance of press coverage on 21 May 1992, the London-based Guardian newspaper carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or have been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that Habré had committed genocide against the Chadian people.
Five years ago, in a case inspired by the one against Chile’s former leader General Augusto Pinochet, several human rights organisations, led by Human Rights Watch, filed a suit that put Habré in Senegal (his refuge since 1990) in the dock. They argued that he could be tried anywhere for crimes against humanity and that former heads of state were not immune. However, on 21 March 2001, the Senegal Court of Cassation threw out the case. And so human rights campaigners turned their attention to Belgium where one of the victims of Habré’s torture now lives.
Extraordinary events. But all of them hidden behind a virtual wall of silence in the West. Also hidden is the massive, secret war waged by the United States and Britain from bases in Chad against Libya. British involvement in a 1996 plot to assassinate the Libyan leader, Colonel Mu’ammar Gadafi, as alleged by the maverick M15 officer David Shayler, was reported as an isolated event. Yet it is best seen as part of a wide-ranging and long-standing strategy of the US and UK secret service to remove Gadafi.
Grabbing power by ousting King Idris in a 1969 coup, Gadafi (who, intriguingly, had followed a military training course in England in 1966) soon became the target of covert operations by the French, Americans, Israelis and British.
Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of M16, records how in 1971 a British plan to invade the country, release political prisoners and restore the monarchy ended in an embarrassing flop. Nine years later, the head of the French secret service, Alain de Gaigneronde de Marolles, resigned after a French-led plan ended in disaster when a rebellion by Libyan troops in Tobruk was quickly suppressed.
Then, in 1982, away from the glare of the media, Habré, with the backing of the CIA and French troops, overthrew the Chadian government of Goukouni Wedeye. Award-winning Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward (of Watergate fame), in his semi-official history of the CIA, reveals that the Chad covert operation was the first undertaken by the new CIA chief William Casey and that, throughout the decade, Libya ranked as high as the Soviet Union as the bête noir of the White House. A report from Amnesty International, Chad: The Habré Legacy, records massive military and financial support for the dictator by the US Congress. It adds: “None of the documents presented to Congress and consulted by Amnesty covering the period 1984 to 1989 make any reference to human rights violations.”
US official records indicate that funds for the Chad-based covert war against Libya also came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Israel and Iraq. The Saudis, for instance, gave $7million to an opposition group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (also backed by French intelligence and the CIA). However, a plan to assassinate Gadafi and seize power on 8 May 1984 was crushed. In the following year, the US asked Egypt to invade Libya and overthrow Gadafi but President Mubarak refused. By the end of 1985, the Washington Post had exposed the plan after congressional leaders opposing it wrote in protest to Ronald Reagan, the American President.
Frustrated in its covert attempts to topple Gadafi, the US government’s strategy suddenly shifted. For 11 minutes in the early morning of 14 April 1986, 30 US air force and navy bombers struck Tripoli and Benghazi in a raid code-named El Dorado Canyon.
The US-UK mainstream media were ecstatic. Yet the main purpose of the raid was to kill the Libyan president – dubbed a “mad dog” by Reagan. In the event, the first bomb to drop on Tripoli hit Gadafi’s home killing Hana, his adopted daughter aged 15 months – while his eight other children and wife Safiya were all put in hospital, some with serious injuries. The president escaped.
Reports of US military action against Libya disappeared from the media after the 1986 assault. But away from the glare of publicity, the CIA launched its most extensive effort yet to spark an anti-Gadafi coup. A secret army was recruited from among the many Libyans captured in border battles with Chad during the 1980s. And, as concerns grew in M16 that Gadafi was aiming to develop chemical weapons, Britain funded various opposition groups in Libya.
Then in 1990, with the crisis in the Gulf developing, French troops helped oust Habré in a secret operation and install Idriss Déby as the new President of Chad. The French government had tired of Habré’s genocidal policies while George Bush senior’s administration decided not to frustrate France in exchange for co-operation in its attack on Iraq. Yet, even under Déby, abuses of civil rights by government forces have continued.
Recently, relations between the US, UK and Libya have thawed, with Gadafi pledging support for the “war against terrorism” and agreeing to pay compensation to the victims of the 1988 Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing, for which a Libyan intelligence agent was jailed. But significantly, at his trial in November 2003, David Shayler was denied the right (under the European Convention of Human Rights) to speak out about the 1996 anti-Gadafi plot. Since it is obvious there are a lot of shady secrets from the years of the dirty war to conceal, such a decision by the court must have come as a relief to the government.
And a report in the Guardian of 15 March 2004 said US troops were arriving in several African countries, including Chad, as the Pentagon warned that the region runned the risk of becoming an al-Qaida recruiting ground. Giles Tremlett reported (“US sends special forces into North Africa”): “…US navy P-3 Orion aircraft guided Chad troops during a two-day battle on the border with Niger last week in which 43 suspected members of Algeria’s Salfist Group for Preaching and Combat were killed.” Oil reserves in North and West Africa are drawing increasing attention from the US. West Africa, mainly Nigeria, supplies the US with 15 per cent of its oil while the US National Intelligence Council has projected the figure will grow to 25 per cent by 2015.
• Richard Keeble is Professor of Journalism at Lincoln University. His publications include Secret State, Silent Press (John Libbey; 1997), a study of the US/UK press coverage of the Iraq war.