The twilight of Chad's paranoid tyrant.
Chadian President Idriss Déby is a lonely man. A member of the tiny Zaghawa tribe that makes up just 1.5 percent of Chad's 10 million people, he has been betrayed at various points over his two tumultuous decades in power by his army, his clan, and even members of his close family. His prodigal son Brahim, once considered his heir, was murdered in Paris in 2007, forced to inhale the powder from a fire extinguisher.
Chadian President Idriss Déby is a lonely man. A member of the tiny Zaghawa tribe that makes up just 1.5 percent of Chad’s 10 million people, he has been betrayed at various points over his two tumultuous decades in power by his army, his clan, and even members of his close family. His prodigal son Brahim, once considered his heir, was murdered in Paris in 2007, forced to inhale the powder from a fire extinguisher.
Years of defending himself from multiple simultaneous rebellions have left the president — the "perfect Machiavellian prince," as one close observer of the country called him — "overcome by paranoia." When he wants to pass through Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena, residents say the government shuts down the roads for hours to let his convoy of blacked-out Hummers and pickups full of soldiers race through. At age 58, Déby is tall and thin with a haughty, unsmiling manner. But lately, observers say, he has been incoherent in public speeches, and there are rumors that his health is failing, which he has frequently denied. His foreign policy is isolated too, dominated by a series of quarrels with the international community.
Déby is not the most famous authoritarian ruler around, nor the most effective. But his staying power — and the outside world’s inattention to it — is remarkable. Even as the hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees camping out on Chad’s eastern border drew a rare burst of global attention to his impoverished desert country, Déby managed to avoid serious repercussions for his involvement in Sudan’s internal conflict. If anything, Déby is a case study in what can go wrong when a lonely ruler is allowed to remain a little bit too lonely.
In 1990, when the newly formed Islamic-military government in Sudan backed Déby to overthrow Chadian President Hissène Habré, the young military leader may have seemed like a trade-up. "Déby was feared," said one senior African diplomat. "But back then … there was some hope he could lead the country to a better future."
It quickly became clear, however, that Déby’s peacetime leadership was not as strong as his military talents. Members of his family ran state affairs, even forging his signature to appoint ministers, Chadian officials say, and the political opposition was slowly bought, divided, or repressed.
For years, Déby’s actions appeared to go largely unnoticed by the outside world. Some governments — the French in particular — actively supported him. "The French would be looking for someone to keep stability, and Déby does that," said a former Sudanese government minister. Once Chad started exporting oil in 2003, the West accepted Déby as a business partner. Today, much of Chad’s 150,000 barrels per day of oil goes to U.S. markets, and U.S. companies Chevron and ExxonMobil work with Malaysia’s Petronas to extract the crude.
But 2003 was also when the Darfur conflict erupted, and Khartoum’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign drove some 200,000 refugees into Chad’s eastern desert. By 2005, the split between Khartoum and the Darfuri rebels was pulling Chad apart too, energizing the anti-Déby Chadian rebels in the east. As their attacks on Déby grew more audacious, the president abandoned his old loyalties to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and began to openly support Darfur’s insurgents. Soon Déby and Bashir were engaged in a proxy war, with Khartoum aiding Chad’s rebels and N’Djamena aiding Sudan’s.
Chad’s rebels were a disorganized lot, however, agreeing on little but the need to oust Déby. After a surprise February 2008 assault on his presidential palace in N’Djamena, infighting ended up causing their downfall. "They could not agree on who would read the communiqué or who was to become the head of state," a source close to the rebellion recalled.
The attacks increased the feeling of insecurity in Chad’s capital. Just three months later, Déby sent a heavily armed Darfur rebel group on a gonzo capture-the-flag mission all the way east to Khartoum — a mission that would have been suicidal if Sudan’s security forces hadn’t responded weakly, leaving Déby with boasting rights, if little else strategically.
"Déby had to do this," one Western diplomat said. "The N’Djamena attack was a very powerful blow to his prestige — it shook the regime’s base."
Sudan is not the only issue on which Déby has gone his own way. In 2005 Déby’s parliament defied the World Bank — funder of Chad’s crucial oil pipeline — and voted to take more oil revenues into state hands. Analysts said the money went to buy arms, despite the bank’s eventually fulfilled threat to withdraw funding. This year, Déby even threw out the U.N. peacekeeping mission in his country’s east, there to protect the U.N. aid mission.
But still, Déby is practically untouchable, his mix of calculation and luck a powerful defense both from his internal enemies and, apparently, from the disapproval of the international community. Former allies call him a "warrior" who fears little, and Déby has brushed aside accusations of rights abuses. Many believe his main concern may be the long arm of international justice, prompting him to hold onto his privileged isolation for as long as possible. "His one fear is being pursued for the crimes he has committed … and there are many examples," said a former Chadian official. As one international observer put it: "People believe he will stay in power until he dies — or is killed."
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.