When asked whether he would prefer to appear on the cover of sister Jeune Afrique as a soldier or a civilian, Chad’s President Mahamat Idriss Déby smiled slyly and then replied “both”. This is a way for Déby to avoid an obvious trap, as he knows that Chadians and the international community are closely scrutinising him.
If he were to pose in a boubou, he would be accused of intentionally ‘civilianising’ himself before the presidential election, which will mark the end of the transitional period. On the other hand, if he were to don a uniform, he would be forever enshrined in his politically incorrect status as a four-star praetorian and self-proclaimed successor to his father since 21 April.
It is also a way of saying that this 37-year-old man, who was propelled to power in circumstances that are dramatic, is still looking to get his bearings and strike the right balance; even if it means relieving stress in the evening on his treadmill – his only distraction.
“My life has been turned completely upside down,” says the man who now lives between the ‘pink palace’, where former president Idriss Déby Itno’s official portraits still hang, and the residence that the latter occupied 50 metres away.
He is upset and vulnerable, as he is having to cope with the inevitable onslaught of conspiracy theories, rumours as well as fake news about his parentage, place of birth, true age and circumstances surrounding his ascension to power.
This has been quite a shock for this discreet, reticent soldier who is the most media-shy of the siblings; and who owes his position – as head of an army elite unit and country – to the fact that he was supported by his general peers.
Today, this man who whispers more than he speaks, but who is determined and driven, is learning to communicate a simple message: that of order, security, political openness, national dialogue and elections within 18 months, provided that international aid is forthcoming. Mahamat Idriss Déby is aware that his presence on the continental scene as a major general, moreover a ‘son of’ who rose to power outside of any democratic process, goes against all the rules of good governance.
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However, he argues that N’Djamena is not Bamako. This is because he did not overthrow anyone and no one was arrested. He has simply filled the gap left by his father – who died in battle – and his constitutional successor, who declined the post. Many Chadians – including those in the opposition, who know neither about his personal life nor his business – give him credit for having maintained peace. It is up to him to earn their trust.
This interview, the first given by Mahamat Idriss Déby since he became president, was conducted in two parts on 11 and 12 June at the palace and presidential residence. During the first part, he spoke as a soldier, and during the second, as a civilian.
You came to power under exceptional circumstances. Very few people outside your family and the army really know you. Who is Mahamat Idriss Déby?
Mahamat Idriss Déby: I was born on 4 April 1984 in N’Djamena. My father was then serving as the chief of staff of the armed forces during Hissène Habré’s presidency. I was raised by my late grandmother from the age of eight, hence my nickname ‘Kaka’ [grandmother in Chadian Arabic]. She played a major role in my education. I attended the French Lycée Montaigne in the capital and then did my literary baccalaureate in Abeche in 2004.
My vocation was always to become an officer, which is why my father sent me to the Lycée Militaire in Aix-en-Provence, France, where I stayed for two years, until mid-2006. Back in N’Djamena, I enrolled in the Groupement des Écoles Militaires Interarmées du Tchad, which is our officer training school. I stayed there for a year before joining the active army.
When was your first experience with live fire?
At the beginning of 2007, when we were fighting against Mahamat Nouri’s rebels, during the victorious battle of Djierna in the east, on the border with Sudan. I had volunteered as a cadet and was driving a 4×4 equipped with a machine gun.
In February 2008, I was with the Marshal when he broke the encirclement at Massaguet and organised the defence of the N’Djamena palace. In May 2009, I was again on the front line as commander of an armoured regiment when we routed Timam Erdimi’s rebels at Am-Dam in the last major battle in the east.
Your military career is now well underway…
You could say that. From 2009 to the beginning of 2013, I led the first group of the presidential guard. In February 2013, I had the honour of being appointed as second-in-command to Major General Oumar Bikimo, commander-in-chief of our expeditionary contingent in Mali.
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Everyone knows that while we were stationed there, for two months, the Forces Armées Tchadiennes en Intervention au Mali (FATIM), alongside the French army, played a key role in clearing out the Adrar des Ifoghas when faced by the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Eddine jihadis. We were 3,000km from home, on unknown terrain and facing an enemy we didn’t know. But we succeeded.
Many observers feel that you were FATIM’s real boss!
No. I was the operation’s second in command. The hierarchy was clear.
Since 2013 and the battle of Tigharghar, the Chadian army’s partners and specialists have considered it to be the best in the region. Is this something to be proud of?
This was the case before 2013. Remember what this army inflicted on [Libyan leader Muammar el] Gaddafi’s legions in 1987, despite its lack of resources?
In 2014, President Déby Itno appointed you to head the Direction Générale de Service de Sécurité des Institutions de l’État (DGSSIE), an elite unit within the army. It was in this capacity that you went to the front last April in Kanem to stop the advance of a rebel column that had come down from Libya. Former president Déby also visited the area on the evening of 17 April. And that’s when the tragedy occurred. How did you experience it?
The battle against Mahdi Ali’s mercenary columns began at around 5am, 200km away from N’Djamena. The Marshal’s group and mine were in the same area, separated from each other by only a few kilometres, him to the north and us to the south.
The series of events took place almost simultaneously, within 15 minutes. When the Marshal was wounded, I was still in the middle of the battle. It was only around noon, after I had crushed the mercenaries, that I learned of the incident. The air force commander informed me that my father had been evacuated by helicopter to N’Djamena. I went there immediately. It was on my return that I was informed of his death.
What was your reaction?
It was a violent shock – for me, for our family, for Chadians, for Africa. I was shocked but also proud because the Marshal had died a hero, just like he’d always wanted, defending his country on the battle field. It is up to us to prove that we are worthy of his legacy.
In N’Djamena, everyone was stupefied. The public feared the worst and hid at home…
It must be said that all the so-called Chadian experts predicted that utter chaos would descend in the event of the Marshal’s sudden death. None of this happened, and I thank God for his benevolence, our army for its professionalism and our people for their maturity.
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You know the rest: the chief of staff went to see the president of the national assembly to tell him to assume power, as provided for in the constitution. He declined, arguing that the country was still at war and that he could not take the risk of leading it under these conditions.
The chiefs of the different army corps then met, and we decided to take responsibility. A transitional military committee of 15 members was formed, and I was appointed by my brothers in arms to chair it. After a period of reflection, I accepted because we had to avoid a vacuum at all costs. The Chadian army has always played the role of the national bulwark.
The April attack that cost your father his life came from Libya. Does this country still pose a threat to Chad?
Unquestionably. The Marshal predicted 10 years ago that the chaos in Libya would have destabilising effects on the whole region. 30,000 mercenaries of various nationalities, including Chadians, have made themselves available to the highest bidder.
Many say that they should return home. That’s fair. But how? With arms and baggage? Unaccompanied? This is not acceptable. Look at Mahdi Ali and his gang, for example. They are mercenaries in Libya who pass themselves off as armed opponents once they enter Chad. We know the routine…
On 31 May, clashes between Chadian and Central African soldiers, which are supported by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, took place on the border between your two countries – but on Chadian territory. What are your thoughts on this?
The international investigation that Bangui and N’Djamena have agreed on will determine the exact circumstances of this incident.
Five of your soldiers were taken prisoner and then executed in the Central African Republic. Why did you not retaliate?
Let’s just say that we exercised a lot of restraint after these murders were committed.
Does the presence of Russian paramilitaries in southern neighbouring countries worry you?
No. There is no Russian threat to Chad at the moment.
Everything seems to point to the fact that Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, was killed in May in north-eastern Nigeria. Is this a relief?
Not really. With or without Shekau, and regardless of what it is called, Boko Haram is still Boko Haram and therefore a terrorist organisation that we will continue to fight relentlessly.
What is your reaction to President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statements announcing the imminent end of Operation Barkhane and the recalibration of the French military presence in the Sahel?
We have taken note of this announcement and are waiting for further details. France is a sovereign country. As far as Chad is concerned, it will maintain its commitments, both within the UN mission in Mali and within the framework of the G5 Sahel, of which Chad holds the current presidency.
I believe, just like the Marshal did, that Africans are fully capable of defending themselves against the jihadist scourge. There is no lack of men, courage or intelligence amongst our troops. All that we require from our partners is that they provide us with material aid and logistical support.
We sometimes hear about disputes within the military transition committee and even within your own family, between brothers. Is this true?
These are just rumours. There is no dissension either within the army or within our family. Our objective is the same: to preserve Chad’s unity and integrity, to avoid chaos and to hold democratic elections within 18 months.
Your father was Zaghawa, your mother is Gorane. Are these dual origins a strength or a weakness?
There is no need to read this much into it. I am first and foremost a Chadian, before anything else. I refuse to participate in anything that is remotely like to tribalism or regionalism.
Yet you have already been accused of hiring recruits from only certain ethnic backgrounds within the DGSSIE…
This is not true. The Chadian army is national and republican. Any Chadian citizen can join the army and, as a matter of fact, no one can be forced to enlist.
The military command reflects our diversity and it is no coincidence that this army has been the pillar of our unity since independence. Our citizens enlist out of a sense of duty and to serve the nation, not for money or power. You know, some people are determined to discredit our army. But these sentiments are not echoed by the Chadian people, who appreciate all that the army has done for them.
You keep saying “we” rather than “I”, even though you are the leader.
Yes, I am the President of the Conseil Militaire de Transition (CMT), the head of state. But we are a team that has decided to take on certain responsibilities until the end of our mission. And we are working together.
Are there any similarities between the putsch in Mali and your rise to power?
None. What happened here was not premeditated and had nothing to do with a coup. The Marshal died in battle, a battle in which I also participated. The president of the national assembly, who was supposed to become president, refused to take office and no one could force him to become the head of state against his will. You are free to ask him about this. It was therefore our duty to take charge of the transitional government.
What is the transitional government’s timetable?
The CMT is there to ensure that the state runs smoothly during this period. Within this framework, we have appointed a civilian prime minister from the opposition, Pahimi Padacké, who has formed a broad-based government that includes Acheikh Ibn Oumar, a government minister who has been tasked with reconciliation and dialogue.
The prime minister and his government have been entrusted with a clear mission, which is to hold a national dialogue and elections in 18 months. It is up to them to propose a precise timetable, under the auspices of the Conseil National de Transition, which, once formed, will be composed of 93 members and will act as a parliament.
Will the objective of the national dialogue be to draw up a transitional charter, or even, a new constitution?
Anything is possible. The delegates themselves will decide on their country’s future, in the name of the Chadian people.
You have released several high-profile detainees, including the son of the former rebel leader Timam Erdimi and the human rights activist Baradine Berdeï. You have also legalised the opposition leader Succès Masra’s party Les Tranformateurs. Why?
An inclusive and peaceful transitional government requires concessions. Once again, our mission is to bring together all Chadians, notably through dialogue. Then, once this is achieved, to return power to civilians with a democratically elected president.
Clashes between the police and demonstrators that are hostile to the military transitional government took place in N’Djamena on 27 April, resulting in numerous deaths. Are you sorry this happened?
Of course, I am. An investigation has been opened, but from what I know, these incidents were more the work of a few people – whose objective was to sow chaos – than of the police themselves.
If this investigation implicates police officers, will you punish them?
Of course we will. Enforcing justice is part of our role. No one is above the law.
In its current wording, the transitional charter provides for the possibility of an 18-month extension. Do you intend to use it?
Let’s be clear: we started with 18 months and our wish is to not go beyond that. However, two conditions must be met for this deadline to be respected. The first is that we Chadians are able to agree to move forward at the planned pace.
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The second is that our partners help us to finance the dialogue and the elections because the Chadian treasury obviously cannot bear such a cost alone. If we agree and if we are helped, the 18 months are within our reach. If not, it will be very difficult. Democracy has a cost and it cannot be promoted from the outside unless we receive some help to pay for it.
Have you ruled out being a presidential candidate yourself?
The CMT, which I chair, does not intend to seize power. Its mission, I repeat, is to preserve peace, unity and sovereignty; and then, once the elections are over, to withdraw to the barracks.
Therefore, the members of the CMT will not stand for election once their mission has been accomplished. They made this commitment to the people. Having said that, as a believer, I feel that we must leave the rest to God, for he decides everything, from destiny to power. I could never have imagined that one day I would become the head of state.
Many people believe that the Marshal was preparing a dynastic succession…
This idea never crossed his mind. His only wish was that Chad become prosperous and unified.
Do you think that, wherever he is now, your father is proud of you?
I believe so, yes. Proud of Chad, the Chadians and their army. Everything happened peacefully, as he would have wanted.
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