Deby and the trouble with the family business – By Dare Babarinsa


The sudden death of President Idris Deby Itno of Chad is bad news for Nigeria. For many years, he has been our stanch ally in the fight against the Boko Haram terrorist group. On many occasions, he had joined his troops in battle against various rebel groups.

Chadian military announced on Monday that Debby died in battle against Chadian rebels of the Front for Change and Concord who had been fighting for years to topple his perennial presidency. After more than 30 years in power, Deby finally ended his journey the way he came. He will be buried tomorrow.


So far, Chad cannot be described as a lucky country. When Deby shot his way to power in 1990, the ruler of Nigeria then was General Ibrahim Babangida. Since then, Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan, General Sani Abacha, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Alhaji Umar Musa Yar’Adua, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, and now General Muhammadu Buhari have occupied the Nigerian presidency. But in Chad only one lonely star has been in the sky. He was barely 38 when he became President of Chad in 1990. He was 68 when he won his fifth term in office last week. He did not live long enough to be sworn in for his new term. The rebel forces ensured that.

Deby ought to have retired from the presidency 15 years ago, but he changed the Constitution unilaterally to give him unlimited terms in office. He had powerful friends and was sure no one would be able to get him out of office democratically. He had money, one of the main determinants of elections in Africa. He had the military, which was his and he believed he had Lady Luck as his mistress. Luck, like power, is not a faithful mistress. Luck deserted him when he showed up on the battlefield the last time. It was not his lucky day.

Deby has been in the epicentre of power since he was in his early twenties. When Chad gained independence from France in 1960, Deby was a lad of eight years. The first President, Francois Tombalbaye, was a Christian in a country that has at least 55 percent Muslims. Like many other countries of that era, Tombalbaye saw himself as President-for-life. About three years after independence, he banned all other political parties and proclaimed Chad a one-party state. Angry youths from the North of the country rose in rebellion, supported initially by Libya, and fought Tombalbaye for many years. The President was captured in 1975 and killed. It was the signal for intense power struggle among the various armed groups until the faction led by Hissene Habre became triumphant. Habre defeated his old rival, Goukouni Queddei whose reign as President was turbulent.

One of the officers who helped Habre to power was a young general, Idris Deby. Habre made him the Commander-in-Chief of the army in 1982 when Deby was barely 30. But power tolerates no rival. Habre consolidated power and promoted the interest of his ethnic group Toubou, in a country that has more than 200 ethnic groups. Among those who have helped him to power was Deby’s own Zaghawa ethnic group. Now, Habre targeted them and other perceived centres of opposition. Deby fled north into the warm embrace of Colonel Muamah Gadhafi of Libya, whose earlier adventure to annex part of Chad had ended in disaster.

With the help of France and the support of Libya and Sudan, Deby was able to overwhelm Habre’s forces and the President fled in 1990. A few years ago, he was dragged, screaming to face an international tribunal sitting in Dakar, Senegal, for alleged human rights abuses during his bloody years in power. He was said to have ordered the execution of at least 40,000 of his countrymen and women.

Deby’s triumph seems like a breath of fresh air for a country that has known no peace since it gained independence. It is rated as one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world. Deby initially ruled as a military dictator and later transformed into an elected President. He gave his country a new Constitution that permitted multi-party democracy for the first time since the early years of Tombalbaye. The Constitution then stipulated a two-term limit for the President. Each term was five years. When his second term expired in 2006, Deby said he was too young to retire. He changed the Constitution and stayed on. His opponents complained. He jailed many of them and shot many others. Some of these opponents followed his old example and moved to the mountains and the vast Sahel that held mysteries of the ancients.

Chad is strategically placed at the centre of Africa and this gives it its importance and its troubles. Libya is on its northern border and it has been the source of trouble for Chad since the 1970s. Sudan, which is on its eastern border has been exporting war and violence to Chad since the 1960s. The Central African Republic, CAR, on its southern border has been a source of hard luck. Niger to its west has nothing tangible to offer. Only Nigeria and Cameroon on its south-western border have something good to offer. Now Boko Haram terrorists and other free agents of violence have turned that blessing into something less palatable.

The Chadian military announced yesterday that it would rule for a period of 18 months after which Chadians would be allowed to elect their new President. The man who has stepped into Deby’s shoe is his 37-year old son, Mohammat Deby Itno, who is also a general in the Chadian army. The extant Constitution stated that in case the President dies or otherwise unable to carry out the functions of his office, the Speaker of the National Parliament should move in as acting President. The Deby camp was not ready to take such chances. The military simply suspended the Constitution and asked Mr Speaker and the parliamentarians to go home.

We should expect another regime of President Deby, the son, in a few years’ time. Such transition is not uncommon in Africa and it has already happened in the Republic of Togo and Gabon. In Equatorial Guinea, where the President has been in power for more than 30 years, the son is the vice-President. For all these strongmen, the Presidency is a family business.

Though Chad became an oil-producing and exporting country in 2003, that has not changed the status of the country as one of the poorest in the world. There is a need to persuade the new men in power to interrogate the Chadian situation. First is the need to create a wider space for the political contests. To continue to deny the opposition the opportunity to participate peacefully is to give them no option other than to employ the eloquence of violence.

Nigeria should take a keen interest in happenings in Chad. After all, they have also imported more than cattle to Nigeria and some of their troubles have found domiciles in the Sambisa forest and other places. Deby was a strong ally in the fight against Islamic terrorists in the Lake Chad region. Nigeria should do everything to ensure that Chad remains steadfast in that fight. In the long run, however, Nigeria should insist that the new Deby should respect the original Constitution. There is a need for a term limit for every President. There is no more need to rule for life or to hold your country hostage. Nigeria should insist that a term limit of 10 years is enough for any Chadian who has the privilege of ruling his country.

Because of his style, President Deby’s exit left a lot of debris in its wake. He tried to unite his country by force of arms, but that proved impossible. He made powerful friends for his country and was successful in keeping his country on the map. He died on the battlefield while defending the honour and integrity of his country. He led at the front. He died on the front like a true Commander-in-Chief. What a life!


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