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).

Guéréda falls on 3 November, Abéché on 19, Biltine on 23… Faya-Largeau is taken in January 1982. The Libyan air force was powerless. In these lands where he was born, Déby, in his fatigues and map in hand, has prepared his troops for lightning attacks, the “TGV rezzous”, which surprise their victims at dawn. “Columns of Toyotas that pierce the enemy’s position at 80 km per hour,” describes a former rebel. “A real fireball”, enthused a French officer at the time, who nicknamed Déby “the cowboy”. Sitting on boxes of provisions or leaning on the bonnet of a jeep, under the sweltering heat of the Chadian theatre, the “commander” impresses and seduces.

On 7 June 1982, the rebels entered the capital, Hissène Habré and Idriss Déby side by side. The former took power. The latter became deputy head of the army. Two years later, it was under his authority that the repression in the South, known as “Black September”, was carried out, aiming to subdue the self-defence committees (the Codos).

The duo did not last long. In 1985, Habré sent his younger son to Paris to join the 23rd class of the École de guerre. A reward? In reality, Déby experienced his first dismissal, which he later claimed to have provoked. Habré, paranoid, withdrew into himself and his Goran community. Back in 1986 in N’Djamena, Idriss Déby was appointed ‘simple’ adviser to the president. The time is ripe for mistrust.

ACT III. The putschist

Idriss Déby Itno's troops enter N'Djamena, which President Hissène Habré had fled two days earlier, on 2 December 1990
Idriss Déby Itno’s troops enter N’Djamena, which President Hissène Habré had fled two days earlier, on 2 December 1990 © Pierre Briand/AFP

On 2 December 1990, Idriss Déby Itno’s troops enter N’Djamena, which President Hissène Habré had fled two days earlier.
In 1985, when he was training at the École de guerre in Paris, was Idriss Déby already thinking about power for himself? No, say witnesses at the time. With Adoum Guelemine Gabgalia (another future chief of staff), who had accompanied him to France, he spoke little about politics. When he broached the subject, it was in jest, at the bend of a meal where he often prepared the meat, as the good son of a breeder that he had remained.

Was he hiding his ambitions? Back home, he was in any case caught up in the power games. As an advisor to the Ministry of Defence, which Habré had given himself, he was at the side of the president when the latter, financially supported by Ronald Reagan’s administration, put down the Hadjeraïs rebellion in 1987, or when, in 1988, the head of state agreed to enter into talks with the Libyans. “Even if Déby had to carry out a few missions, his position as advisor was only a wardrobe”, one of his former companions maintains today.

The break was official in 1989. On 2 April, convinced that he had detected signs of treason, Habré accused his younger brother, as well as his cousin Hassan Djamous, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and Ibrahim Itno, Minister of the Interior, of fomenting a putsch. On the 11th, Djamous fled, before being arrested and then killed in unclear circumstances. Ibrahim Itno suffers the same fate. Déby, wounded, manages to escape. After fighting in the Hadjer Marfaïne mountains, he left for Sirba, then for Al-Genaïna, in Sudanese Darfur, where he took refuge with the head of the central prison.

Disguised as a prisoner, according to Goukouni Weddeye’s later account, he took the road to Nyala, Karnoi, then Khartoum, with the help of the Zaghawa chief Abbas Koty, and met Sadeq al-Mahdi, the Sudanese Prime Minister, before flying to Tobruk, Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was waiting.

Déby knows that the situation is favourable to him. Libya wanted revenge on Hissène Habré and France has not forgotten that the latter had Commander Galopin executed in 1975 when he came to negotiate the release of the hostage Françoise Claustre in Tibesti. In June 1990, at the La Baule summit, Habré openly opposed François Mitterrand’s speech on democratisation.

In Libya, Idriss Déby made contact with Adoum Togoï, a companion of Goukouni Weddeye. The alliance with Togoï did not last, but Déby, who had founded the Mouvement patriotique du salut (MPS) shortly before, saw his influence grow. Under the impetus of Paris and Tripoli, he managed to gain the confidence of the Togolese president, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was close to Habré. In May 1990, the two men met in Lomé, in the presence of Ibrahim al-Bichari, the Libyan Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Déby then flew to Burkina Faso on a plane chartered by the Togolese presidency. In Ouagadougou, where he spends a week, he is welcomed by General Gilbert Diendéré, then gets an audience with the head of state, Blaise Compaoré. With the support of Eyadema and Compaoré, he establishes links with French officials from the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST) during a secret meeting.

Back in his sanctuary in Darfur, he knew that his troops would have no shortage of weapons or vehicles and that France would let him act. On 10 November 1990, Déby decided to attack, while Habré called on President Mitterrand to help him, in vain. The Chadian head of state played for all he was worth. He went to the front and, on the 25th, found himself facing the rebels on a plain near Tiné, Déby’s birthplace.

The rebels gain the upper hand. Habré ordered a retreat, towards Oum-Chalouba, 200 km to the west. Déby pursued him, but failed to catch up with his rival, one of whose vehicles had broken down. When Déby finally reached Oum-Chalouba on 26 November, Habré had just taken off for N’Djamena.

Four days later, the head of state held a final council of ministers. “If Idriss wants power, let him take it,” he says, before fleeing. On 2 December, Idriss Déby, greeted by the French ambassador François Gendreau and joined by Gilbert Diendéré, entered the capital.

ACT IV. The President

Idriss Déby Itno enters Ati (Batha prefecture, in central Chad), in February 1991.
Idriss Déby Itno enters Ati (Batha prefecture, in central Chad), in February 1991. © François Guenet/Divergence

“How are we going to run Chad? This is the most difficult thing we have to do. “When Idriss Déby took over N’Djamena in December 1990, his roadmap was clear. “He had to make the country governable”, summarises one of his close friends.

Appointed to the presidency of the Council of State, the winner promised to organise a national conference with the aim of drafting a new constitution. It opened in January 1993. In April, Fidèle Abdelkerim Moungar was elected Prime Minister of the Transition, while Déby took over as Head of State.

Behind the scenes, however, Déby feared that the new institutions would be too unstable, or in other words, that his power could be undermined by that of the head of government. Hadn’t Hissène Habré been Goukouni Weddeye’s Minister of Defence before he overthrew him?

In June 1993, during a visit to France, Déby discovered the popularity of his right-hand man among the French. In the following months, his mistrust grew. Could Moungar be a rival? The hypothesis gradually became more credible. So the president chose to act,” recalls a contemporary. By directing his supporters to the Transitional High Council, Déby provoked a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, who was replaced on 6 November by Delwa Kassiré Coumakoye.

Idriss Déby, who had had the Zaghawa rebel Abbas Koty arrested on 22 October (killed in the operation), asserted his power. Moungar tried to run for president in 1996, but was disqualified as his application was judged to be unsuitable. Elected in the second round against Wadel Abdelkader Kamougu, the president began his first real five-year term.

In 2001, he was re-elected in the first round, ahead of Ngarlejy Yorongar, for his second term – “the last”, some said. But the person concerned took them by surprise. In 2003, he discreetly asked his MPS strategists to work on a reform of the constitution. His objective: to remove the two-term limit, which would prevent him from standing again in 2006. The reform was put on the agenda of the Assembly in mid-2004.

The turning point was decisive, but the game was going to be tight: the opposition tried to defeat the project, desertions multiplied in the army, especially among Zaghawas officers, and several rebellions flourished from Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan (with whom the Chadian head of state has not yet reconciled). One of them is fomented by Idriss Déby’s own nephews, Timan and Tom Erdimi, but it is the men of Mahamat Nour Abdelkerim, a former companion, who worry the president most.

In May 2005, Abdelkerim’s troops were about to take N’Djamena. Forced to dissolve his presidential guard and reform it under the name of “Direction générale de service de sécurité des institutions de l’État”, Idriss Déby was cornered. However, with the support of France, he reversed the situation in extremis. A decisive victory: on 6 June, the new Constitution was adopted by referendum.

Eleven months later, although a new rebel offensive was launched on N’Djamena in April 2006, he was re-elected in the first round. “It was at this time that Déby the military man became a political strategist,” comments a Chadian political scientist. “Between 1996 and 2006, he changed dimension. He gradually learned to handle the different levers of the state and ended up controlling them all,” confirms a former diplomat in the sub-region.

ACT V. The boss of the Sahel

Idriss Déby Itno, with Jean-Yves Le Drian (l.), the French Defence Minister, and with President François Hollande, in N'Djamena, 18 July 2014.
Idriss Déby Itno, with Jean-Yves Le Drian (l.), the French Defence Minister, and with President François Hollande, in N’Djamena, 18 July 2014. Alain Jocard/AFP

On 30 January 2008, the reports that reached the presidential palace in N’Djamena were alarming. Those of the French air force, which provides its intelligence to Idriss Déby Itno, too. Oum Hadjer has just fallen. Yet the town is one of the locks of southern Chad. It is true that the columns of the rebel Mahamat Nouri are still more than 500 km away. But his 300 vehicles are advancing rapidly. After having bypassed Abéché, they rush towards N’Djamena.

Idriss Déby Itno cancels his participation in the African Union summit in Addis Ababa at the last minute. He knows that he will have to fight. “There is a market in town called Hissène-a-fui. I don’t want anyone to go shopping at the Idriss-a-fui market one day,” he tells his relatives. After examining staff maps and French intelligence reports, he decides to go and meet the enemy at Massaguet, less than 80 km north-east of N’Djamena.

In Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy hesitates. Should he use the French air force to help his Chadian ally? His Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, is in favour. His staff, less so. Sarkozy believes that the operation could be badly perceived by France’s European allies. The air force will not move.

On the morning of 1 February, Idriss Déby Itno led a column of 250 vehicles. His troops destroyed a first rebel detachment. But a second unit appeared. The chief of staff, Daoud Soumaïn, was killed, and Déby Itno was unable to extricate himself from the trap. “The rebels had managed to infiltrate our radio system. Someone in our troops had told them the frequency on which the president was communicating with his troops,” explained a person close to the head of state.

The betrayal was close to being fatal. The president nevertheless managed to withdraw and reach N’Djamena, where he worked to organise his defence. At dawn on 2 February, the rebels enter the city. They reached Avenue Charles-de-Gaulle and saw the presidential palace 800 metres away. Between them and the “Grail”, a T55 armoured vehicle of the regular army destroyed pick-up after pick-up.

In Paris, Sarkozy, who was about to marry Carla Bruni in the morning, offered to exfiltrate his counterpart. Déby curtly refused. He has confidence in his armour. France did not remain inactive: its troops secured the airport, while elements of the Special Operations Command were seen in the fighting. In the early afternoon of 3 February, the rebels disengaged.

“Déby remained in the front line, in his fatigues, until the end,” recalls a former subordinate. “The year 2008 was a key moment: the one when the Chadian head of state managed to build a solid relationship with Nicolas Sarkozy, as he would later do with François Hollande, when these two presidents were supposed to put an end to Françafrique,” analyses an ex-diplomat.

“In 2007, he agreed to hand over to France the leaders of L’Arche de Zoé, who had been convicted in Chad for attempted kidnapping. This made Sarkozy his servant, so to speak,” recalls a former Quai d’Orsay official. Same thing with Hollande, this source continues: “In 2012, their relations were execrable. Déby hated what he called ‘Hollande’s lessons in democracy’. Then he seized his chance during the intervention in Mali, aware that his army was the only one that could support Paris on the ground. ”

The president decided to send troops to Mali with his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, as second in command. “He played the game perfectly with the French, who knew that many problems in the Sahel stemmed from their intervention in Libya against Gaddafi,” adds a diplomat in the region.

Close to Parisian military and intelligence networks, Idriss Déby Itno got closer to General Benoît Puga, Hollande’s private chief of staff, and, above all, to Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Minister of Defence. In 2014, Paris installed the command of Operation Barkhane in N’Djamena. Françafrique has survived. Six years after almost losing power, the former “cowboy of the desert” was remembered by the French brass: he became the “boss of the Sahel”.

Act VI. The indestructible?

On March 13, 2021, the Idriss-Mahamat-Ouya stadium in N’Djamena was decked out in the blue, white and yellow colours of the MPS, the party that Idriss Déby Itno founded three decades ago. Candidate for a sixth term, he launched the inaugural meeting of a campaign that should lead him to the first round of the presidential election on 11 April.

Mask on the face, flag in hand, the head of state, elevated to the dignity of marshal in 2020, appears relaxed. Why shouldn’t he be? Once again, and perhaps even more so than in previous elections, he is an arch-favorite.

Several opposition heavyweights announced their withdrawal from the process following the deadly assault on the home of one of the contenders, former minister Yaya Dillo Djerou, now on the run and wanted by the Chadian justice system.

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