Africa: Publishing the Trial of Hissène Habré

Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.

In January 2017, I travelled to Chad to interview a group of victims of the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré who had been jailed for war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture the previous year. One hot evening I took a taxi down a dusty N’Djamena back street to the home of Jacqueline Moudeina, one of the Chadian lawyers who campaigned for justice on behalf of the victims. Jacqueline has always refused to play the hero and it had been difficult to get her to agree to meet me. “I’m so tired of speaking to journalists”, she said as she let me into her cool porch. “You all show up and want my time, and then you go away, make your money and never speak to me again.”

Jacqueline’s frustration with the fleeting obsessions of the news cycle hit home. As I listened over several days to the terrible stories of torture, murder, forced disappearance and dispossession in 1980s Chad, I wondered how many hundreds of times had these people turned out to recount to whomever would listen what had happened? How can any of us who have not lived through it really understand and pay testament to the impact of such brutality on people’s lives? All I could do was to promise to tell their stories. It felt a little fraudulent.

When I signed the contract for the English edition of my book, The Trial of Hissène Habré, published in the African Arguments series, I wanted to make sure that I did not forget Jacqueline’s words. I did not want to be that journalist who came, took the story, and eventually moved on to a new patch.

I chose to offer my manuscript to Zed Books for a number of reasons, not least its commitment to ‘repatriating’ knowledge. Zed had a long commitment to making sure its books were available in Africa, at affordable prices, and not as expensive hardback tomes that line the shelves of university libraries in the West.

Just writing the book was not enough. It seemed to me important that Habré’s victims should be able to hold a physical copy of the book that tells their story, as if the book could be their record. In order to achieve this, it needed to be in a language that they could understand, and not my language.

Chadian Arabic is a dialect that is not widely understood outside of the Sahel and for that reason I decided to translate it into French (which is fairly widely spoken in Chad). Even that proved to be an enormous challenge. Zed was supportive of the project, but we needed to pay someone a professional rate for a translation. While there is plenty of money available from the French government to translate the works of French authors to reach a wider audience, the UK government does not share the same linguistic paranoia. When it became clear that it was very difficult for a freelancer to apply for select pots of funding, I hatched a plan with ‘African Arguments’ managing editor, Stephanie Kitchen. If I could raise half the cost of the translation (estimated at $4,000) through crowdfunding, the International African Institute (IAI) would match the funding. The IAI is willing to support such endeavours in furtherance of its objectives to disseminate knowledge on, from and within the African continent, and in recognition of the (colonial) barriers to sharing important work across (linguistic) borders. Stephanie also had some excellent links with African publishers, including Sulaiman Adebowale at Dakar-based Amalion. Thanks to the generosity of a wide network of friends, Africanists and Francophone contacts, we hit the target within 6 weeks. We then commissioned Youssoupha Féhé Sarr, Issa Sarr and Marie Ndiaye to carry out the work, and Sulaiman agreed to publish and distribute the published book.