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Chad: The six lives of President Idriss Déby Itno

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Chad: The end of an era

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Tuesday, 20 April 2021 14:57

Idriss Déby Itno at the presidential palace in N'Djamena
Idriss Déby Itno at the presidential palace in N'Djamena © Vincent Fournier/JA

The death of the Chadian president was announced on Tuesday 20 April. Idriss Déby Itno had just been declared the winner of the election on 11 April, when he ran for a sixth term. From the desert expanses of the Ennedi, where he grew up, to those of the Libyan border, where he had forged an image of fearless warrior, he had weathered many storms. Until he met the rebel group known as FACT.

The announcement was made on Tuesday 20 April on Chadian national television: the head of state succumbed to wounds received in combat in the Kanem region against the rebels of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). This portrait was written at the beginning of April, when Idriss Déby Itno was seeking a sixth term at the head of the country.

Here is his portrait, in six acts: Student; Cowboy; Putschist; President; Boss of the Sahel; Indestructible

ACT I. The student

Can Idriss Déby Itno still decipher Morse code? In 1977, when he was attending the Amaury-de-La-Grange pilot school in Hazebrouck, northern France, the young Chadian officer had no difficulty. At 25, the child of Berdoba (North-East) led his fellow students in the exercise. On occasion, he would help his classmate Benaindo Tatola, who would later become his chief of staff, to get through the coding exams imposed by the school hierarchy. “For him, there was no question of a Chadian failing,” said General Tatola, now deceased.

A former student of the Koranic school of Tiné and the French school of Fada, Idriss Déby has never been the type to play solo. In Abeche, the Bideyat [a people belonging to the Zaghawas] joined the Franco-Arab high school, where he became the “boarding school master”, the link between the hundreds of boarders and the administration. Later, at the officers’ school in N’Djamena, which he joined in 1975 after a scientific baccalaureate obtained in Bongor, he also acted as group leader.

Where does the legend of this shepherd’s son begin?

According to the testimonies of the time, the student, who is described as calm and discreet, motivates his fellow students during physical exercises. Does one of them drag his feet during a walk of several dozen kilometres? He pushes him to excel. Is another close to collapsing before the end of the workout? He takes some of the load off him. “He was a complete athlete, always first in the obstacle course”, Benaindo Tatola says.

When he joined Hazebrouck, a town in Flanders, site of many battles, Idriss Déby “had already shown leadership qualities”, recalls a contemporary. “He was the unofficial leader of the Chadian community, which gravitated towards him. ”

However, politics was still far from the future president’s concerns. He observed with attention, of course, the storms that had been shaking Chad since the fall of François Tombalbaye. Félix Malloum took centre stage, with Goukouni Weddeye and Hissène Habré present. The student Déby (who will only add Itno to his name in 2006) has not yet entered the arena.

ACT II. The cowboy

“A white tornado. “In 1983, General Jean Poli, who commanded the French Manta force in Chad, was full of praise for the young officer who commanded Hissène Habré’s Forces armées nationales tchadiennes (FANT). Four years earlier, on his return from Hazebrouck, Idriss Déby had joined the Goran leader who had rebelled against President Malloum, who was overthrown in 1979 with the support of Goukouni Weddeye. But the (relative) calm did not last: in March 1980, the fragile alliance between Weddeye and Habré shattered.

Habré suffered setback after setback, while Weddeye benefited fully from the support of the Libyan army, which fielded 10,000 men in the country, including 5,000 in N’Djamena, equipped with tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers, etc. On 15 December 1980, defeated, Habré fled to Cameroon.

A temporary withdrawal. With the support of the United States and France, who were very critical of Muammar Gaddafi’s rise to power, the rebel managed to remobilise his troops. The tide turned. At the beginning of November 1981, the Libyan forces left N’Djamena. Habré went on the offensive again, with Idriss Déby as commander-in-chief of the Forces armées du Nord (FAN).

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