I do not have experience in tracking down dictators’ houses. But I do have experience with how hard it is to keep a secret in Senegal. No matter how confidential the address of Hissène Habré, the exiled “African Pinochet”, word must have gotten out somehow, to someone, in this town. So I had Assane, my regular taxi-driver and longtime partner in adventure, arrive to pick me up for what he assumed was a shopping trip. “Assane,” I said, scrabbling for the right phrase in French, “we have an investigation to conduct.” He nodded and elbowed open the passenger-side door, which had lost its handle. I climbed inside the yellow-and-black taxi, and he started the engine. “We’re going to find the house of Hissène Habré.”
Habré’s dark history goes back a long way, and implicates not just his own country, but also mine and likely yours too. When Colonel Gaddafi invaded Chad in 1980, the U.S. under Reagan, with the aid of France, helped boost Habré to power and then provided him with massive amounts of aid to keep him there. The CIA had a secret base in Chad where they were training an anti-Gaddafi force. Habré was seen as the United States’ last line of defense on the continent against the Libyan leader.
But what an ally! While he was in power, according to a 1992 Chadian Truth Commission report, Habré killed and assassinated 40,000 people, aided by his dreaded Documentation and Security Directorate. When he was deposed by the current leader and was looking for exile, the U.S., who felt they owed him a debt, struck a deal with Senegal’s then-president to give Habré a home in Senegal.
This is where the story becomes part of Senegal’s shameful past, something that Senegal, and Africa, is hoping to put right today with the opening of a special court established to try Habré. He found a warm welcome amongst the political elite in Senegal, his social standing greased with the riches he brought with him. On the day he fled Chad, he emptied the nation’s coffers and brought much of it to Senegal. No one knows how much of this money ended up directly in the hands of his new hosts, but we know that when he was indicted for crimes against humanity by a Senegalese judge in 2000, the new President then, Abdoulaye Wade, had the judge transferred from the investigation and the charges were dropped. Wade’s minister of justice, Madicke Niang, would later serve as lawyer to Habré, as would Wade’s Prime Minister, Souleymane Ndene Ndiaye.
Habré also found favour with Senegal’s religious elites who had campaigned to prevent Habré’s possible extradition to Chad, where there is a death warrant for him. Extradition requests, rulings and international arrest warrants from the European Parliament, Belgium (where Chadian victims had pressed charges), the African Union, even the United Nations Committee Against Torture could not convince Abdoulaye Wade to give Habré up. Habré was bringing too much to the table to let him go that easily.
Wade lost his own battle to hang on to power and in May 2012, he was voted out in elections. The new President, Macky Sall, wanted nothing more to do with this thorn in Senegal’s side. Within two months of coming to power, Senegal and the African Union had agreed to set up a special court to try Habré after 22 years of safe harbor.
Assane and I arrived in Ouakam, a tatty neighbourhood dotted with large villas belonging to diplomats and middle-classed Senegalese (it’s also home to the military base where French politician Ségolène Royal was born) and squeezed our way along the narrow road bordering the market. We weaved around horse carts. We dodged women dashing across the road carrying buckets of medicinal leaves on their heads. Stopping at a strip of plastic-strewn dirt where some taxis were doing car repairs, Assane leaned an arm out the window and hissed. “Hey,” he called, “Habré’s house, where is it?”
The taxi men shrugged their shoulders. They weren’t from this neighbourhood. Some buses had parked on a makeshift sandy football pitch up the road, and a pretty girl in dangly earrings waited, maybe for a bus. Assane asked her, giving an extra-broad smile, where Habré’s house was. She didn’t know either.
I wondered if my deputy was employing the right tactic. I thought it was all a bit, well, overt. I had imagined we would at least get out of the taxi first, perhaps snoop around a bit, sit on a bench, make some friends. What we were doing now from the taxi didn’t seem very investigative.
Then Assane saw a mama—the respectful term for an old lady here—making her way through the sand in a bougainvillea-pink boubou (flowing robe) with an embroidered yellow head scarf framing her black wrinkled face.
“Mama,” he called out, “Habré’s house, fou mou nekk?”
“Over by the pharmacy,” she said, pointing the way we had come. “Ask over there, everyone knows it.” She marched off.
We turned the car around.
“Mamas know everything,” said Assane.
At the pharmacy, we found three men sitting on a bench under an acacia tree. Over there, they pointed, keep going across the main road. It’s the red house on the left.
Hissène Habré’s street (Rue 201, according to a blue and white metal street sign) was as pot-holed as the rest of Dakar, more sand and rocks than tarmac, and we wobbled along it in the taxi, me holding onto the furry dashboard in an attempt to stabilise my stomach. A derelict patch of land to the right was home to a horse and his owner. He also pointed at the red house, which had a row of spikes along the top. The house’s paintwork was, by Dakar standards, in good shape.
Assane asked a man who sat on a chair outside a house on the other side if the red one was the house of Habré. He said it was.
Large gates and the wall hid any of the house’s features. I got out of the car to talk to the man, who sat with one foot resting on the other knee. I wasn’t sure what to ask next.
“Is Mister Habré home?” I enquired.
“No,” he answered, looking at his watch. “He left at midday.”
“Where did he go?” I asked.
“He went to his other house in Almadies” (an upper-crust neighbourhood nearby).
Two houses in Dakar means only one thing: two wives.
“When will he be back?” I asked.
“In 48 hours,” said the man matter-of-factly. “This is the house of his second wife.”
I thanked him and got back in the car.
Assane and I continued along the road to Almadies, a booming neighbourhood where footballers and mining executives live alongside flashy clubs catering to French soldiers and their long-legged nightclub companions. At a tin shed with a magnificent view of the Atlantic ocean, a young girl carrying a baby on her back bought a five-cent packet of milk powder. Assane shouted out our business, and all the customers of the lunch shack next door turned around to see who was looking for the dictator. Everyone looked at me.
The shop owner shouted back to the road that Habré lived behind the bank. We thanked him and moved on. At the bank, a man in a bullet-proof vest politely directed us to a patch of rubble and trash behind the bank and indicated the path through the trash. Out the other side was a building, barely noticeable at first for all the debris around it, but getting larger as we got closer.
We followed the wall, longer and higher than the last, around the property and I admired the flowering bougainvillea that trailed magnificently up and over the walls from the inside. I wondered how many gardeners he had. The walls were painted a tasteful cream colour, and the gate, wide enough to accommodate the throbbing Hummer of his footballer neighbours, were flanked by handsome lanterns. A guard’s booth stood to one side, a ripped mosquito net across the window.
We followed the wall for dozens and then a hundred metres, and then continued around the corner the same distance again. A group of men sat lazing on a narrow wooden bench in the shade of another tin shack.
I asked Assane to turn the taxi around and drive back; I hadn’t got a good look at the gate.
Suddenly a man dressed in khaki guard’s uniform appeared, his face dripping with water, his pant legs rolled up, his feet wedged into plastic flip-flops. He had been washing himself for afternoon prayer. He positioned himself between us and the wall of the mansion.
“We are lost!” I said, hopelessly. He wasn’t fooled. We drove off as fast as the road would allow.
I had seen what I had set out to see, and had been impressed both by how easy it was to find and how closely he lived with ordinary Senegalese people. I wondered if they might be upset about living next to a dictator, an alleged murderer and embezzler.
Before I could ask, Assane began to laugh.
“He has no problems,” he said, navigating the taxi back through the trash pile and onto the main road. “Two villas, two wives. He has no problems at all.”