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.

N’DJAMENA, Chad — “The man sitting behind me is an intelligence agent,” said the comedian. But this was not a joke.

We were in the middle of our first meeting with Haïkal Zakaria, in 2003, in the bar of Le Méridien, then one of two grand hotels in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, when he suddenly seized a pen and discretely scribbled that sentence on a bit of paper. Chad is one of central Africa’s more repressive “démocratures,” as the French neologism has it — regimes that remain in power for decades despite regular elections. But Zakaria was unfazed. He quickly went back to telling us about his early big-screen comedies, now carefully avoiding political topics.

Zakaria’s reaction helped explain his longevity as a critic of the regime. His sense of danger was as keenly developed as his sense of absurdity — and, in that way, Chad offered him a bottomless supply of material. A few days after our initial encounter, during a meeting at another bar, he pointed out a crackling sound emanating from a man sleeping on a nearby chair — or, rather, from a spook who was trying to pretend to sleep but had forgotten to switch off his walkie-talkie. We laughed. It was the sort of gag that could well have been plucked from one of Zakaria’s hugely popular films, which often took comedic aim at the notoriously abusive Chadian army.

But Zakaria is no longer making jokes at the regime’s expense. Since 2006, the famed comedian has been an honorary colonel in an army he once pilloried in his films. And in the two most recent national elections, Zakaria wasn’t ducking President Idriss Déby’s abusive security forces; he was campaigning to get the aging strongman re-elected. (Déby, who ousted his predecessor militarily in 1990, won a fifth term in office in April.)

Over the years, we met with Zakaria on five trips to Chad — between 2003 and 2016 — and observed his transformation from comic dissident to enthusiastic supporter of the regime. This peculiar trajectory has been a deep loss for the many Chadians whose suffering Zakaria once captured in his films. But it also offers a key to understanding the longevity of the tragic soap opera that has been Déby’s reign. 

Freeze-frames of the character Al-Kanto in various films directed by Zakaria. (YouTube and Facebook)

Zakaria took a tremendous risk when he created the character of Commandant Al-Kanto in 1992 at the age of 19. Starring first in makeshift theater plays and then in an eponymous series on Télé Tchad, back then the country’s only TV channel, Al-Kanto performs his official duties as a major in the Chadian Army with hilarious incompetence and dishonesty. In one episode, he mangles the national anthem and calls the Chadian flag a “dish towel.” In another, he mocks Déby by name. (After carrying out a robbery, Al-Kanto goes to the bank to deposit his booty. The cashier asks him, “Is it for a withdrawal?” — débit, in French — and he replies, “Ah no, this time it’s not for Déby. It’s for me.”) Zakaria eventually started hiding parts of the script from his actors until just before filming, after he sensed they had started to fear for their lives.

The Chadian people laughed along with Al-Kanto’s comic blunders. But they also recognized in the commandant’s exploits a reflection of the raw violence they were forced to live through on a daily basis. Sometimes he appears as a predatory soldier, killing a sugar smuggler in one episode to resell the merchandise himself, just like Chadian customs officers were known to do in real life. But other times he’s self-righteously law-abiding, redressing the faults of Chadian society.

“Sometimes he’s bad; sometimes he’s good. No need to take sides. But generally speaking, he’s a brute, an illiterate, who spent his life at war and who now has responsibilities,” Zakaria explained in 2003. “He doesn’t know democracy, and he’s fucking everything up.”

The Chadian regime, which was roiled by corruption scandals in the 1990s, offered plenty of scandalous material to work with. The basic plotlines turned on real stories reported by the media or heard in the street. Zakaria used his character to channel the frustrations of ordinary people. In the local Arabic dialect, Al-Kanto means “the shelf,” and the comedian said he likewise viewed himself as “the shelf that carries people’s ideas.”

“It really reflects our reality, much more than Brazilian telenovelas. TV must reflect society; people must recognize themselves in what’s happening on the screen,” said Zara Mahamat Yacoub, a documentary director and producer who helped Zakaria on one of his films.

Zakaria poses as Al-Kanto dressed in his military uniform. (Photos by JÉRÔME TUBIANA for Foreign Policy)

Zakaria watches himself on television dressed as the character Al-Kanto. (Photos by JÉRÔME TUBIANA for Foreign Policy)

Ruined during a battle between rebel factions in 1979, the Cinéma Etoile is one of several grand colonial-era theaters in N'Djamena that have been shuttered. Zakaria often showed his Al-Kanto films in makeshift cinemas instead. (Photos by JÉRÔME TUBIANA for Foreign Policy.)

In a way, Al-Kanto and Zakaria are both products of the civil wars that have engulfed Chad since achieving independence in 1960. In the 1970s, as the north of the country rebelled against the tyrant François Tombalbaye, who hailed from the south of the country, Zakaria’s father, a teacher, joined the rebels — just like Al-Kanto. He was killed in 1978, when Zakaria was five, in a bloody battle between rival rebel factions. The following year, the northern insurgents took power, and Zakaria saw former rebels, some of whom had been under his father’s command and others who may well have been his murderers, become high-ranking officials. As Zakaria recalled, “They were driving their kids to school while I was walking. My mother had to travel to the village to sell my father’s camels so that her five children could study. She sold all her gold for me so that I could replace her husband.”

By the time he was a teenager, Zakaria’s paternal uncles hoped he would follow tradition and avenge his father by killing the former rebels, now in government, thought to be responsible for his slaying. But his mother objected, saying, “He died at war. No one knows who killed him.” Zakaria, who had already begun acting in plays as a schoolboy, agreed. “At war, you don’t know where the bullets come from. How many died, how many lost their father? … I also made these films to show that war can make all of us orphans.”

Many Chadians certainly recognized in Al-Kanto’s accumulated thefts and murders an implicit plea for peace. But they also recognized their habitual tormenters: officers from the Zaghawa and Goran tribes, from which Déby and his notorious predecessor Hissène Habré hail, respectively. Having monopolized power since the early 1980s, these nomads from northern Chad are widely resented by the rest of the population. People recognized their accents in the broken Arabic and French spoken by Al-Kanto, though Zakaria, who hails from a rival Arab tribe, claims he wasn’t singling out any particular tribe or individual. “Al-Kanto is a name I invented so that no one can identify his ethnic group,” he explained. “When I’m asked where he’s from, I just say he’s Chadian.”

In just five episodes, the series became a cult hit. But the films quickly rankled Chadian officers who also saw themselves in Al-Kanto. Zakaria began receiving threatening phone calls and nighttime visits from turbaned soldiers, who occasionally detained him for days at a time. By 2003, despite his immense popularity, the comedian suspected he had gone too far. Men close to the regime had not liked parts of his latest film, in which a journalist vainly interviews a fictional minister, who looks a bit too much like an actual minister, about a corruption case. They began advising him to write love stories instead of political satire. “People keep asking me why I’m not directing romantic films,” he said. “I reply that in our country, it’s too early. There is violence, corruption.… You must be free before you can fall in love.”

But Zakaria heeded the advice — or veiled threats — and briefly suspended production of the series. He planned to shoot the next Al-Kanto episode in Paris, where the commandant might well have had a fling.

Idriss Déby in Paris, France on February 12, 1991. (Photo by ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”

Government soldiers stand guard outside the presidential palace in N'Djamena on April 17, 2006. The armored vehicles parked out front were reportedly seized from Sudan-backed rebels during an offensive four days earlier. (Photo by MARTIN VAN DER BELEN/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

President Idriss Déby and his wife wave to supporters on April 8, 2016 at the N'Djamena stadium during a presidential campaign rally. (Photo by ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

We met Zakaria again last October, in another Chinese restaurant. He was just back from southern Chad, where he had been campaigning for the Bureau Politique Al-Kanto, one of the many support committees for Déby’s ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS). Déby was seeking a fifth term in office, which he would go on to win with 60 percent of the vote in April’s election.

Zakaria was now a full-time politician. In 2010, he founded the Bureau Politique Al-Kanto “in the shade of the MPS,” he said, because “you can’t remain under the sun, or you’ll go crazy.” Chad was then celebrating its 50th independence anniversary while Déby campaigned for his third re-election. Zakaria called on his tribe to bring hundreds — he said 1,000 — of camels into the capital as part of a parade to mark the occasion. He led the way dressed in his colonel’s uniform. The president took note, and when he was re-elected to a fourth term a few months later, he appointed Zakaria to head the Ministry of Youth and Sports. One of his former actors, Hassan Sylla, became the minister of communications and the government’s spokesman.

Zakaria claims he did great things in office, including instituting a tax of one CFA franc (less than one-fifth of a U.S. penny) per telephone call to support athletics. Former friends who preferred him as a comedian said he didn’t do much beyond attend competitions abroad, and enemies accused him of misappropriating funds, though nothing was ever proved. When, a year and a month after he was appointed, a new government was formed, he was not returned to his post. As a consolation, he became one of many presidential advisors. “You take your monthly 1.5 million [CFA francs, roughly $2,600], and you have a vehicle, but the job itself is just being on a parking place,” was how Zakaria explained it. As we were speaking, his smartphone fell on the ground. “No problem, if it’s broken, the army chief of staff will buy me a new one,” he said.

A market in N'Djamena following a suicide bombing on July 11, 2015 that killed at least 14 people. Chad has seen a spike in terrorist attacks since it joined a regional coalition battling the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram. (Photo by BRAHIM ADJI/AFP/Getty Images)

Former friends say Zakaria has become a lapdog of the “boss,” as the Chadian president is commonly called. “He’s sold out,” said one longtime associate who asked not to be named. “Under our former president, Habré, he would just have disappeared in some jail. But Déby understood he could more easily silence him by laughing at his films or pretending to.”

Some say Al-Kanto’s popularity has waned since his creator entered politics. In February, there were regular anti-government protests — against Déby’s bid for a fifth term, as well as against a gang rape committed by the sons of several high-ranking officials. It was precisely the kind of violence Zakaria used to call attention to in his films. But far from taking to the streets, the former director was busy campaigning for Déby’s re-election, again bringing several hundred camels on the capital’s fresh asphalt. (He was later appointed director of the Chadian Tourism Office, a potentially lucrative post of limited influence, since Western embassies discourage travel to Chad.)

Perhaps in part because of Al-Kanto’s efforts, the Chadian strongman won another five-year term, most likely extending his reign to a minimum of 31 years. At just 63 years of age, Déby could remain in power much longer than that. Supporters of the president take comfort in that possibility, in part because they say he is the only leader capable of dealing with the rapid proliferation of threats in the region. In addition to wars in neighboring Sudan, CAR, and Libya, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has spread from northern Nigeria into Chad. “Except Déby, who, according to you, can control Chad?” the former comedian asked. “Were he to stay a hundred years, I’ll be happy.”

Jérôme Tubiana is a researcher and journalist who has covered conflicts in Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan for more than 20 years.

Clotilde Warin has worked as a journalist in Ethiopia and elsewhere in East Africa.