This Punchline Has Been Approved for All Audiences
Chad’s most famous comedian used to skewer President Idriss Déby's notoriously abusive government. Then he got seduced by praise and gifts — and decided to campaign for the dictator instead.
What followed was indeed a kind of love story — but one that involved President Déby himself.
The series went back on the air, but it began a gradual moderation that paralleled its author’s ingratiation with the regime. In 2005, Zakaria was invited to perform sketches at the National Assembly building. He still made jokes about ministers’ corruption in front of the president. But Déby clapped, and then everyone else joined in. The president asked Zakaria, or rather Commandant Al-Kanto, “Why are you only a major? I’ll promote you to colonel.” There was a standing ovation. “I thought it was a joke, but it was serious,” Zakaria recalled the next time we saw him in 2010.
After his “promotion,” the comedian was given a real military uniform, and he regularly wore it, sometimes joining military parades. Also real were the fuel barrels he began receiving as gifts from the government each month. What was the big deal, fans joked, since hundreds of fictitious soldiers were known to be on the army’s payroll anyway? “The head of state poured me fresh water. You can’t refuse,” was how Zakaria justified his acceptance of Déby’s largesse.
Real officers acted as if Zakaria was a colleague, generating confusion among civilians. “I had to organize a press conference to explain that I was not a colonel; it was for the character,” Zakaria recalled. The fact that real colonels, in both the army and a Sudan-backed rebel alliance that sought to topple Déby between 2005 and 2010, were nicknamed Al-Kanto did not help make things clearer. “Now each war has its Commandant Al-Kanto,” he said.
After a Chadian rebel called Al-Kanto was killed in 2007, people dressed in black visited Zakaria’s mother to present condolences. He had to go on the radio and tell the world he was alive. Even the Séléka rebel coalition, which toppled the government of neighboring Central African Republic in 2013, had among its commanders a particularly abusive “Col. Al-Kanto” named after Zakaria’s character.
More presidential gifts followed. In 2009, Zakaria was made a member of Chad’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council and a Great Knight of the National Order of Merit, two prestigious institutions, borrowed from the former French colonizers, that Déby uses to reward loyalists.
By this point, the comic had become a fixture of the establishment he set out to mock. Colleagues suggested to Zakaria that he run for president as Al-Kanto. “I said no, all but that. When I will be a candidate, it will be for real,” he said, adding that it would not be against Déby. “The president said he loved my films. Maybe he wanted to calm me. But he says I’m encouraging him. Because I’m attacking him, he’s going to change.… I changed the army. Now, when a soldier blunders, people call him Al-Kanto.”
The army had indeed changed by the late 2000s, though not because of Zakaria. Hundreds of disgruntled soldiers had defected to join a series of Sudan-backed rebel coalitions, and others were showing little willingness to fight former comrades. Twice, in 2006 and 2008, Déby barely survived daring rebel assaults on the capital. In 2010, the Chadian president sought a diplomatic end to the dangerous proxy war with Khartoum, pledging to halt his support for rebels in Darfur and abandoning his partnership with Taiwan in favor of Sudan’s ally China. Accordingly, Zakaria began meeting us at a Chinese restaurant in N’Djamena called “Beautiful Chinese woman of the Great Wall.”
When we met there in 2010, the comedian recalled our first conversation under the eyes of security agents and remarked that things had improved since then. He was wearing a white jacket and trousers, a black shirt, a shiny dotted white tie, a black flower and silvery pearls in a buttonhole, and glossy black and white shoes: a celebrity’s uniform. He recounted with pleasure how newborn children were being named Al-Kanto. He said when rebels had attacked N’Djamena in 2008, they destroyed buildings around his production company, including the state radio station, but spared his house — instead taking “selfies” in front of an Al-Kanto poster. His fame had spread beyond Chadian borders, to Nigeria, where 100,000 pirated Al-Kanto CDs were reportedly produced in 2006, he said. It had also spread to the Central African Republic, where he made several triumphant visits.
“In Bangui, I wasn’t able to get into my car before having to pose for pictures with 40 people,” Zakaria said of his trips to CAR’s capital. “Girls are kissing you, even on the lips, [and] you can’t say anything. It was too much. We even thought of having the people pay, but finally I told my team, ‘Just organize, no more than one hour for photos!’”
People even knew him in the United States, where he shook hands with Al Pacino and Danny Glover at a film festival in 2008.
As we were chatting, a lieutenant colonel, who used to drive the president’s children to school, entered the restaurant and greeted Zakaria. Then, as we were leaving, three other soldiers saluted him with drunken voices. (Zakaria had himself emptied several Johnnie Walkers mixed with Coke.) He handed them autographed posters of his next film. A disabled beggar ran after us on crutches, shouting: “Wait, you got an Al-Kanto poster? Wait!”
A few days later, Zakaria presented a new Al-Kanto film to the press in a brand new hotel in N’Djamena. It was about the February 2008 rebel raid on the capital. For the first time, Al-Kanto’s violence is not directed against innocent civilians, but against armed looters. He remains loyal to the government and helps restore order. The film opens with an epigraph: “Even if you don’t like me, do love your country.” The quote is one of Déby’s.
This would be the final Al-Kanto film, since by then Déby had infected the comedian with the virus of politics.