President Emmanuel Macron is currently in Chad (Friday) to attend the funeral of his late Chadian counterpart Idriss Deby, regarded as France’s best military ally in Africa, whose death was announced on Tuesday.By Lemine Ould M. Salem
Any death is saddening, even though it is that of a man whose life will be scrutinized by chroniclers, who will also insist on the fact that he was no angel.
Idriss Deby, spent 30 years of his 68 years at the head in Chad, a country he ruled with an iron fist.
His death affected many people in Chad, in Africa and also in France, the former colonial power, which loses undoubtedly its “best African soldier.”
This special closeness between Paris and the former trainee of the French military academies, also explains the promptness with which the Elysee Palace announced the visit by Emmanuel Macron on Friday, April 23, to attend the state funeral for the late Chadian leader.
Born about 68 years ago to a modest family of shepherds known as Bidayat – a sub-clan of the Zaghawa clan straddling Chad and Sudan – Idriss Deby became attached to France.
He was still an obscure African officer sent in the 1980s for a ordinary internship in a military school in France.
Noticed by the “Africanists” of the French general staff, he was then co-opted to be the eye of Paris in Chad.
Back in his country, the French advisers, who had the upper hand over President Hissene Habre’s army, backed him for the Number 2 position in the army, behind his cousin Hassan Djamous, another “man of France.”
Also read: Chad adopts transition charter
Accused of an attempted coup, the two men fled in April 1989 to Sudan, where only Deby managed to settle, Djamous having been caught in his flight by President Habre’s men.
The latter was brought back to the capital Ndjamena and executed.
In Sudan, Idriss Deby created the Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS), mainly composed of his Zaghawa clan members but also open to other ethnic groups, including Arabs and Hadjerai, as well as Saras from the south, who were all on bad terms with Hissene Habre’s regime.
The army deserter then made a series of trips, especially to Tripoli, Lome, Ouagadougou and Paris.
When, in November 1990, he launched his offensive columns on the eastern provinces of the country, he hardly encountered any opposition.
Over-equipped by the Libyans and well advised in secret by French experts, he entered Ndjamena on December 1 of that year.
He emptied prisons and authorized freedom of expression.
Idriss Deby’s first months in power were characterized by euphoria, but very quickly, the former warlord imposed an authoritarian style of leadership, where, despite the establishment of multi party system in 1993, power and its trappings were firmly in the hands of a small clique making up close relatives of the head of state.
It is in this context that Chad hit black gold as explorations were undertaken in the south of the country by American oil companies.
They revealed large oil fields, the exploitation of which in 2003 was supposed to bring 25 years of comfort to Chad.
But instead of strengthening the cohesion of the Deby clan, the arrival of this windfall only fuelled rivalries within the president’s entourage and he would experience his first serious fracture.
Two events triggered the rifts within the Deby clan.
The first is the conflict in Darfur: the Sudanese rebellion being largely made up of Zaghawas, many close relatives to the Chadian president have never forgiven him for his reluctance to back their Sudanese “brothers” whom they considered victims of the repression by Khartoum and its Janjaweed militiamen.
They therefore launched a rebellion.
The second event is the revision of the constitution allowing Deby to run for a third term – he was elected in 1996 and re-elected in 2001.
It means for other members of the clan that Idriss Deby was preparing for a life presidency, which would eventually lead to them being sidelined from power, whereas they had hitherto been associated with it in the name of a supposed pact of collegiality or solidarity.
Also read: Chad: What is next after Deby’s demise
The first crack in the wall of the clan burst in May 2004. Zaghawa guards try to assassinate their cousin Idriss Deby in his palace. They failed and were arrested.
In October 2005, a second blow, this time harsher, was struck at the heart of the system.
After trying to kill the head of state, several of his relatives, including a large number presidential guards, including his two most trusted nephews Tom and Timan Erdimi (brothers) fled to Sudan where they create the ‘Socle pour le Changement, l’Unité nationale et la Democratie (SCUD).
Unlike the United Front for Change (FUC) – an ally of Sudan and the force behind the April 13, 2006 assault on Ndjamena which almost sounded the death knell on Deby’s regime – which lacks the decisive support from a great power, the SCUD enjoyed good press in Washington at that time.
This new development had sent jitters to both Idriss Deby and France, the former colonial power and protector of his regime in Ndjamena.
Already absent from the exploitation of Chadian oil, the French could hardly see with a favorable eye the arrival of a regime, which would not align itself with France, especially in a country deemed pivotal in its military and diplomatic scheme in Africa.
SCUD, FUC or any other coalition of rebels that continued the fight, none of them could pull off the feat that defeated the strongman of Ndjamena.
Always the victor, Idriss Deby Itno would undoubtedly not have been triumphant if, each time, the former colonial power, which has a military base in the capital and another in Abeche (east), did not send its planes to intercept the attackers or advise and discreetly arm Habre’s army.
A good “warrior” as he likes to present himself, being also a man of honor, Deby did not hesitate when his French friends asked for his help on the eve of Operation Serval in January 2013 in Mali.
Paris then mobilized “huge human and logistical resources to intervene in Mali.
But France needed more men, preferably from the armies of the region.
Chad immediately sent nearly 2,000 troops, who proved to be decisive on the war front.
Four years later, Idriss Deby did it again.
Niger and Cameroon, two important countries for France, are threatened by Boko Haram Islamists originating in Nigeria where they are also based.
Jihadist incursions into these two countries were increasing, as well as Chad who had lost several soldiers to the insurgents.
The strongman of Ndjamena set up several units, which inflicted heavy losses on the Islamists, sometimes under his personal command.
This further earned him, being elevated last August to the title of “Marshal” by a special session of the Chadian National Assembly.
Also read: Deby death: France loses a major ally in Africa
Just before his death he was fighting rebels from FACT (Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad), who entered Chad on April 11, the day when Idriss Deby was bidding for a sixth term, he was still flying to the aid of a neighbor.
1,200 Chadian soldiers have just been deployed in Niger to drive out the jihadists from the three-border zone straddling that country, Burkina Faso and Mali.
Much of this expeditionary force was drawn from the elite unit of Chad’s powerful presidential guard.
Its leader is none other than 37-year-old Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, the son of the late president.
Currently a four-star general, he took over from his slain father after the military seized power on Tuesday and appointed him as chairman of a Transitional Military Committee (CMT).
It is supposed to organize within 18 months, a political transition for a return to elections.
On Friday, April 23, it was Mahamat who therefore presided over the funeral and homage to his father in Ndjamena, in the presence of many heads of state, including Emmanuel Macron.
He directed the repatriation of his father’s remains to the village of Am Djarass, where Deby will be laid to rest in a family cemetery located not far from Sudan.
Among the testimonies that were given in Ndjamena, that of Mr. Macron was, without doubt, the most anticipated.
He made it clear that France would stand by Chad and its new leaders.