Why it pays to be a big-fish crook in AfricaBy LEE MWITI | Wednesday, December 1 2010 at 18:46
Senegal should be designated one of the most generous countries in Africa.
It recently agreed to host the trial of the former Chadian dictator Hissene Habré –albeit after several years of pressure—and is now fundraising so as to meet the costs.
Perhaps it is the season of giving, but the West African nation may soon be the preferred destination for the continent’s rogue figures.
Last week, the Senegalese Government agreed to provide prison facilities for Rwanda genocide suspects who would be convicted by an Arusha-based special court.
Nothing wrong here, given that the United Nations is allowed to strike such deals with willing member countries.
So Senegal will be required to construct adequate prison facilities “in conformity with UN standards”.
This means the country will put up new jails, and says they will be ready by the end of 2011.
That is one problem, or attraction, depending on how you look at it. Senegal has since independence never built a new jail for its own population.
Given that UN courts normally try the big fish/cahunas, it is safe to assume that convicts will be from Africa’s blue-eyed political families.
The other problem lies in the phrase “in conformity to UN standards”.
Let’s face it. The UN is run by developed countries, whose holding centres when held up against African prisons would resemble a room at Marritt Hotels, renowned for their plushness.
A look at The Hague’s detention centres brings home the message clearer.
Suspects there are allowed to be comfortable, have conjugal visits from their spouses or partners, and cook customised meals.
Ostensibly, this is because detainees are presumed innocent until guilty.
They can also work out in the prison gym, play sports such as tennis or stroll in the afternoon sunshine.
And each detained person has a computer in their cell, to prepare a top-notch defence. Hague officials are at pains to downplay the facilities.
“This is not a five-star hotel. The facilities are basic and a far cry from luxury,” a detention centre official told a Kenyan daily in October.
Basic then is a word that means different things to different countries--and people such as the Charles Taylors and Jean-Pierre Bembas of this world.
Admittedly, the regime does change when suspects are convicted, but not by much as they are transferred to, you guessed it, UN-standards jails.
Vast desert sand
Compare this with Senegalese—and many African—prisons where 17,000 are held in 37 colonial-era prisons meant for only hundreds.
And if you are a foreigner in Dakar, the state will not hesitate to put you in on the train to Mali and dump you in the vast desert sand.
That is if you do not find yourself in the maximum security jail in the extreme east and very hot region of Tamabcounda.
In Ghana, Kenya and Zambia, it is often reported that inmates are forced to take turns while sleeping. Here you are strongly advised to watch your back, and to not "drop the soap".
And you will be lucky to get out untraumatised, even if it was only remand.
The irony of world-class prison in Dakar is thus not lost on a creaking penal system.
It looks a popular system, with Mali, Benin, Rwanda and Swaziland some of the eight countries that have agreed to host prisoners convicted by UN-backed special courts.
Only Mali and Benin are currently hosting convicts.
Now you know where to go for your corrective needs, but only if you are not the small-fry that mainly account for Africa’s 1 billion-strong population.
Chances are that you don’t qualify.
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