Political Trajectory of Idriss Deby in Chad


Photo source: Al Jazeera
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In April 2021, General Azem Bermendao announced that Chadian President Idriss Deby died on the battlefield fighting with the rebels. In the same broadcast, he announced that he would be taking over the country with the establishment of transitional military council. By dissolving the executive and legislature, critics saw it as a putsch. People, decrying takeover, went out to the streets, carried placards, burnt French flags, and clashed violently with the police.

Dying in a battlefield is hardly a common death for any country’s leader in modern times. This situation in Chad speaks of an endlessly warring country populated by ferocious fighters. Deby, who awarded himself the title of “marshal” just a few months before his death, had lived by the gun in both his domestic and international policies. He made himself an indispensable military ally to the West, and was well aware that his political survival depended on Paris and Washington DC, as much as it did on his homeland. Like many Chadian soldiers, Deby received some of his training in France, at the School of War (L’Ecole de Guerre), an institution for military higher education in Paris.

His political-military pathway was a winding one, with stints in both government forces and in the rebellions: it was in June 1982, when Idriss Deby led Hissene Habre’s rebel forces took control of Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena. Deby was then appointed commander in chief of the Chadian National Armed Forces (FANT). Déby also made his mark fighting on the side of the government army, defeating pro-Libyan troops in northern Chad in 1983. He commanded the army when it carried out brutal crackdowns between 1983 and 1985 on the self-defence movements, known as codos that had formed in southern Chad. His forces tortured and executed codos activists, looted villages and massacred civilians. Following a failed coup attempt to remove Habre from power, Deby headed up a rebel coalition because Habre had targeted his own ethnic group Zaghawa by murdering his friends and relatives. For that purpose, he set up a base in neighbouring Sudan’s western province, Darfur in 1989. In 1990, he succeeded in taking power thanks to support from both Sudan and France, which in the end abandoned its ally Habre, who they believed had become too close to the US.

With time, Deby had become an indispensable ally to France and the US. He played the military card, making Chad an emerging regional power. However, this kind of diplomacy made Chad’s allies turn a blind eye not only to regional human rights perpetrated by Déby’s own army against civilians, but also in other countries which it has intervened.

His son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby, now sits at the head of the transitional council, which is a military junta composed of fourteen other generals. Under the transitional character, the junta functions as the executive with Mahamat Déby as head of state. He has appointed an interim government led by civilian Albert Pahimi Padacke as prime minister, but the military retains control.

The African Union has called for increased power-sharing between civilian and military leaders. However, its decision not to lodge sanctions allows the military to oversee the transition. The US government has followed the African Union’s lead, giving its support to these recommendations. From the start, France, Chad’s former colonial power, has supported the junta in the name of stability.

These political moves were carefully thought out by US and France, as Chadian military plays an important role in counterinsurgency operations, in the Lake Chad Basin and western Sahel.
One notable thing that is creating problems for Chad is that its military is facing rising insurgency from southern Libya. Secondary to it, Chad’s security also depends upon stability in Central Asian Republic and Sudan’s Darfur. However, Chad’s neighbouring countries like Niger and Nigeria, despite facing security threats, have successfully managed a political change without the military stepping in to abolish the constitution. This fact is resonating in the minds of many Chadians. That’s why the protests in Chad are calling for a return of constitutional order.

In the past, Former President Deby had routinely manipulated the constitution, and political institutions to centralise power around himself. His death created a power vaccum between the civilian allies and the military junta. Although, the military coup has altered the succession crises, atleast temporarily.

Deby’s allies had first fought with him, and Chad’s regional politics in a way also meant like living with a gun. There were years of armed opposition, exiles, and eventually amnesty and return of opponents. Many ministers in its transnational government followed that trajectory.

The process of distributing portfolios is a risky affair in Chad. In an Oped for Washington Post, Monkey Cage wrote: ‘the process of doling out political positions encourages rebellion and exclusion, rather than peace or dialogue. And Chad’s transition path does not guarantee stability, simply because centralised power is vested in people willing to take up arms for control. International support for such a system, ostensibly for internal stability in the short term, may encourage longer-term regional instability at the expense of Chadian civilians.’

In rejecting the military transfer of power, the Chadian protesters remind us that Chad is not doomed. Against all odds, in the shadows of the military junta, a civilian political alternative has formed.


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