What manner of love could be greater than laying one’s life for his people? Will a man who loved his people hold tight on to power for decades? Questions. Contradictions. But irrespective of the perception you have about him, Marshal Idriss Déby Itno died a hero. Heroism did not just fall on his laps, he earned it through his acts and deeds.
He walked his talk, matched his words with action. Déby showed practical leadership; he could have stayed in his comfort zone and allowed his men fight the war but the soldiers’ soldier inspired his men by joining them in action and by so doing, he paid the supreme price.
Exactly one year before his life was cut short, Déby, a former Chief of Chadian Army, led his men on an offensive to the Goje-Chadian area of Sambisa forest, a stronghold of the Boko Haram sect. In the operation which lasted several hours, the Chadian soldiers cleared the insurgents off the area. They also invaded one of the largest arm stores owned by Boko Haram.
Commenting on the operation, Déby had said via tweets: “In Baga-Sola, I visited soldiers injured this afternoon during the operations launched against Boko Haram. They are proud to have accomplished a sacred mission in the service of their dear homeland.”
His life was all about battles and he fought on till the end. When he visited President Muhammadu Buhari last month, Déby expressed optimism that the armies of the four countries under Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) can eradicate the Boko Haram insurgents.
Déby will never exchange pleasantries with Buhari again.
The late Chadian leader said terrorism remained an issue in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel region of Africa because the MNJTF had not been carrying out required operations. He had said a situation where the joint military outfit embarks on just one operation in a whole year had made the fight difficult and defeating the terrorists rather impossible.
“Boko Haram is indeed an evil that has hampered the four countries of the Lake Chad Basin and it has done many harm to our populations. It would be remembered that since 2013/2014, the four countries put together their means to create the Multinational Joint Task Force, this Multinational Joint Task Force has had good results. Unfortunately, the resilience of Boko Haram and the Islamic State in the Lake Chad Basin has been unprecedented. They are being supplied and being trained and being formed through Libya,” he had said.
Saved and trained by Muammar Gaddafi
Those who knew Muammar Gaddafi, late Libyan dictator, would be less surprised by Déby’s heroics in the military landscape and his penchant for power. Déby was a graduate of Gaddafi’s World Revolutionary Center (WRC), located near Benghazi in Libya. WRC trained young people about weapons and intelligence techniques.
In his 2001 book, “The Mask Of Anarchy”, Stephen Ellis, a scholar, described the WRC as the “Harvard and Yale of a whole generation of African revolutionaries”. Douglas Farah, senior fellow at the International Assessment And Strategy Center in Virginia, US, said at the centre, “courses lasted from a few weeks to more than a year, depending on the level of specialisation and rank one had.
“In addition to the African contingents, Gaddafi’s cells trained the Sandinistas from Nicaragua, along with other Latin American revolutionary movements and, in the process, built an enduring relationship with Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez,” Farah said.
Apart from being a student of Gaddafi’s school, the deceased had close ties with the dictator. Their relationship, however, was that of enemies-turned-friends.
Hissein Habre: The dictator overthrown by Déby
When Hissène Habré became President of Chad in 1982, Déby was his go-to-man for tough assignments, particularly against Libyan forces, their greatest enemy at the time. Two years earlier, Gaddafi had invaded Chad and took control of more than half of its territory. Habre, who reportedly had the backing of Washington, saw the battle against Gaddafi as a big challenge. He had entrusted Déby with the task, making him the commander-in-chief of the army. On his part, the deceased dazzled in his first major task as he floored pro-Libyan forces on Chadian soil.
The feat further endeared him to Habré and in 1985, he sent Déby to Paris for a course at the École de Guerre. By the time he returned in 1986, Déby was made the chief military advisor in the presidency. He continued his onslaught against the Libyan forces during subsequent face-off, including the popular “Toyota War”.
The pair, however, fell apart in 1989 and Déby became Habré’s target over the perceived increasing power of the Presidential Guard at the time. To avoid being killed, Déby fled to neighbouring Sudan and later Tripoli in Libya where Gaddafi gave him a shoulder to lean on. Their relationship waxed stronger along the line, Gaddafi backed Déby to seize power in Chad in exchange for Libyan prisoners of war.
Wrested power through a coup
For a man who spent significant part of his youth in a military system, war and violence were nothing but a way of life. It was therefore not unsurprising that to actualise his ambition for power in 1990, only one thing came to his mind: a coup. After regrouping, he and forces loyal to him began launching attacks on Habré’s troops from his base in Sudan’s Darfur region. By late 1990, Habré fled the country and Déby’s forces seized N’Djamena, the Chadian capital. Déby suspended the constitution and formed a new government, of which he was the head.
He was designated as interim President of the country in 1993 after a national conference was held. While in power, Déby faced an uphill task not to be consumed by his own past. Just like he ousted Habré from office, several rebels attempted to remove him from power while he also grappled with numerous coup attempts. He faced several onslaughts from his extended family members. In February 2006, two of his uncles left top positions in the national army to join rebel factions fighting the government. His two nephews, Timam and Tom Erdimi, left positions as presidential advisors to join rebel factions, that same year.
But as a war strategist, he was able to weather the storms and hung on to power for 30 years. Under controversial circumstances, the deceased won elections in 1996 and 2001 respectively but after completing the stipulated eight-year term in office, he pushed for the proscription of term limits and he had his way. In the subsequent elections held in 2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021 respectively, he was declared the winner despite protests from the opposition. But for the grim reaper, Déby was left with the option of standing in the next two presidential elections, potentially remaining in office until 2033.
A champion in the ‘Other Room’
Aside his heroics at the war front, he was also a champion in “the other room.” The deceased married on numerous occasions and there were at least four divorces. He had about a dozen children. One died mysteriously in 2007. He lost Brahim at 27. Brahim was found dead in the parking garage of his apartment near Paris in France.
His prominent marriages were with Hinda in September 2005 and that of a Sudanese beauty queen in 2012.
The union had garnered the attention of people because of Hinda’s charming beauty. It also dominated discussions over its tribal affiliations, as many saw the marriage as a strategy for Déby to gain support from his people while being pressured by rebels.
Hinda was a member of the Civil Cabinet of the Presidency, serving as Special Secretary. His marriage to Amani Musa Hilal, daughter to Musa Hilal, leader of the Janjaweed militia group that reportedly killed at least 400,000 people in Darfur region, Sudan in 2003, was a big affair. Amani was a university graduate in her mid-twenties when she got married to Déby. He was said to have paid a US $26 million for dowry. Part of it was US$ 1 million of gold and jewellery.
Almost landed Gambari in trouble
The wedding was attended by many dignitaries, including Omar Al-Bashir, then the president of Sudan, and guess who? Ibrahim Gambari, Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari. Gmbari was then the head of the UN and AU Hybrid Mission in Sudan. As a diplomat, many felt, he shouldn’t have been in such a gathering but Gambari was seen dinning and hugging dictators and this would later become a talking point for diplomats and researchers across the world. The issue was so serious that some argued that it should cost him his seat but Gambari weathered the storm.
Boko Haram nemesis
At a press conference in his country in 2015, Déby was quoted to have said he knew where Abubakar Shekau, leader of the Boko Haram sect, was hiding. He had reportedly asked the Boko Haram leader to surrender or risk being dealt with.
“It is in Abubakar Shekau’s interest to surrender, we know where he is. If he refuses to give himself up, he will suffer the same fate as his comrades… we are going to win the war and we are going to wipe out Boko Haram, contrary to what certain media thinks,” he had said when he hosted the Nigerien president that year.
Déby had said Shekau fled Dikwa in Borno State after Boko Haram fighters were chased out of the town by Chadian troops.
Tough questions that fetched a reporter ‘Red Card’
When he visited Nigeria months later, a courageous reporter took him up on this issue. Musa Ubale, a correspondent of German Radio, Deutsche Welle, had asked Déby to comment on Shekau’s whereabouts. He also sought the Chadian president’s reaction to the hiring of foreign mercenaries to join the war against insurgency.
Déby had recanted, saying he did not know about Shekau’s movements. He also declined comments on the mercenaries. When Déby left, Gordon Obua, the Chief Security Officer (CSO) to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, ordered the expulsion of Ubale.
He directed his men to withdraw the accreditation of the reporter who was driven out of the villa. Until Jonathan left power, Ubale was not allowed to report the activities of the president. It was the government of Buhari that reinstated Ubale.
Ironically, when Bashir Abubakar, Chief Security Officer to Buhari, expelled Olalekan Adetayo, PUNCH’s State House Correspondent, two years later, Ubale had emerged chairman of the State House Corps. Perhaps the next government would reinstate Adetayo who may also emerge head of the reporters covering Aso Rock.
Shekau’s threatening message to Deby
After the 2020 offensive where hundreds of Boko Haram fighters were killed and weapons of the sect members were seized, Shekau released an audio where he threatened the late Chadian leader.
The Boko Haram commander, who was obviously pained by the massive casualty suffered by his sect, had said: “Idris Déby, I will address you now. I am insha Allahu taalla, Abubakar ibn Mohammed Shekau, the Imam of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad. I decided to send you this message quickly. Don’t think because you’ve fought battles in ignorance, not according to the tenet of Islam, and today, because we said we will work for Allah, you think you will triumph over us.
“First, even Pharaoh was frightened. Idriss Déby, fear Allah, repent and become a Muslim. Be careful, all these aggressions with weapons, Insha Allah, you will not defeat us. You can’t do anything to us. That area in which we were victorious, that Allah made us to kill your men, it is not that we are in enmity with human beings but anybody that is in enmity with Allah, is also our enemy. This is the summary… Idriss Déby you are in trouble. Idriss Déby you are in trouble; Idriss Déby you are in trouble. You made us to be calling your name because you are fighting Allah. People of Chad, rise up.”
Son of a herder who became president
Déby was born in 1952 to a poor herder in the village of Berdoba, close to Fada in northern Chad. His father was a member of the Bidayat clan of the Zaghawa community. But the deceased didn’t allow his poor background to define him. He saw possibilities even amid impossibilities.
Déby started his education at the Qur’anic School in Tiné, and went on to study at the École Française in Fada as well as at the Franco-Arab school (Lycée Franco-Arabe) in Abéché. He thereafter attended the Lycée Jacques Moudeina in Bongor, where he had a bachelor’s degree in science.
After acquiring his bachelor’s degree, he was sent to France through the officers’ school in N’Djamena for training which he returned in 1976 with a professional pilot certificate.
He emerged as the leader of the Habre’s forces in 1978 when he threw his support behind Hissène Habré, the then prime minister who also doubled as the head of one of the rebel groups during the civil war. His return to the country marked his foray into the country’s military. But at the time, the country was in shambles as it had become a battleground for many armed groups. Déby was, however, committed to rebuilding it and he went on to champion several reforms.
Member of the class of sit-tight African despots
While warming up for yet another term in 2016, the late President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, had said: “I will remain in office until God says come.” But while Mugabe never had his wish as the military forced him to step down three years before his death, Déby was about to commence a fresh term when death came knocking. He obviously loved power and would have wanted to experience Mugabe’s wish but power left him when he failed to leave it. Life!
Mugabe and Déby shared a lot in common. Both clamped down on the opposition, jailed their critics and abused the rights of others. Eight years ago, Amnesty International (AI) accused Déby of brutally repressing his critics but he shunned the rights group and carried on like no man’s business.
The list of African tyrants is exhaustive and Déby, who was in power for 31 years, found his place in the hall of infamy. Mobutu Sese Seko who ruled Zaire from 1965 to 1997; Gnassingbé Eyadéma who was president of Togo from 1967 to 2005 (succeeded by his son who is president till date), Masie Nguema Biyongo Ndong, president of Equitorial Guinea from 1979 till date; José Eduardo dos Santos, president of Angola from 1979 to 2017; Muammar Gaddaffi, Libyan ruler from 1961 to 2011; President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda from 1986 till date; Paul Biya, president of Cameroon from 1982 till date; Omar Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon from 1967 to 2009 (he was succeeded by his son who is president till date), Deby’s son has also succeeded him.
A strong case can be made that Déby was a brute, dictator and a repressive ruler who stood in the way of democracy although he contested sham elections. But then a Commander-in-Chief who led from the battle front? They don’t make them like Déby anymore.
Credit: Daily Trust