How France Undermines Democracy in Chad
Paris’s uncritical embrace of late dictator Idriss Déby prioritized regional security over human rights. His death is an opportunity to change tack.
I only saw the late Chadian ruler Idriss Déby twice. The first was in 2014 at the first Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security, the now yearly event organized by the French Defense Ministry in Senegal’s capital to strengthen ties with African allies fighting against terrorism in the Sahel. The five presidents of the new French and U.S.-backed G-5 Sahel coalition (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad) were present. Among them, Déby was obviously the king, thanks to the key role his army, reputed as the strongest in the region, was already playing alongside the French in Mali.
My second sighting of Déby was in 2016 in Am Djéress, his small capital in the desert of northeastern Chad. When Déby became a prominent army officer in the 1980s, many members of his Zaghawa ethnic group left their Saharan homeland for the real capital, N’Djamena. In the early 2000s, Am Djéress had no more than a few huts made of branches until Déby decided to build a new town, beginning with his own house. Willingly or not, his clansmen had to follow.
A brand new Italian plane usually dedicated to troop transports flew me and other guests up to the 2-mile asphalt airfield Déby built in the desert. Then we drove to town on the longest strip of asphalt in the Chadian Sahara—a 10-mile road built by a formerly state-owned company now belonging to the president’s family.
The French ambassador had come too. Being the only diplomat present in Am Djéress was a sign of the odd privilege and, at the same time, burden Paris continues to live under—61 years after its former colony’s independence. For 30 years of Déby’s rule, Paris systematically ignored opponents’ demands for democratic change, labeling unarmed opponents as weak and immature and those who chose to take up arms as terrorists and mercenaries. In exchange, Déby obligingly lent his increasingly well-equipped forces for operations against terrorism in the Sahel. Regularly, French kingmakers have had to pay tribute to “His Majesty”—as Déby, self-proclaimed sultan of the area, was called in Am Djéress.
Within his Zaghawa community, straddling the border between Chad and Sudan, Déby long suffered from not hailing from one of the old dynastic chieftaincies, whose sons became part of Chadian and Sudanese post-colonial elites. Reputedly a troublemaker at school, the young Déby was more in the category of self-taught war chiefs.
He became chief of staff of rebel leader Hissène Habré, who took power in 1982. Habré succeeded in recapturing northern Chad, which was then occupied by Libya and allied Chadian rebels. Contrary to what is often said, Déby could not play the leading role in that victory—he had then been sent to a Paris-based military school, where he reportedly befriended French officers.
The victory against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi contributed to Chad’s national unity, but Habré’s regime was increasingly dominated by his Goran tribe, which orchestrated the violent repressions of other communities from which opponents hailed, killing thousands of people. As army chief of staff then military advisor, Déby took part in the repression in southern Chad but also condoned the arrest of members of his own Zaghawa community.
In 1989, feeling their turn would come too, Déby and fellow Zaghawa officer Hassan Djamous “got out,” as goes the Chadian word for launching a rebellion. Djamous was killed, and a terrified Déby escaped to Sudan, where he was welcomed by Sudanese Zaghawa politicians. Some of them had supported the coup that had recently brought Omar al-Bashir to power: They arranged support for Déby’s Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) from the military Islamist junta in Sudan. More surprisingly, the Chadian rebels also secured the backing of Libya, then France. Those three supporters were enemies but had a common interest in toppling Habré, whose proximity to the United States they equally saw as a threat. Paris considered the United States a rival trying to set foot in its African backyard—the same view that drove French support to the genocidal Hutu regime in Rwanda.
In 1990, after no more than a year of fighting, Déby marched into N’Djamena. His promise to replace Habré by democratic rule (his first words as president were “I bring you neither gold nor money but freedom”) brought him wide support from communities that had suffered successive repressions and from opponents in exile who believed Déby had no intention of staying in power.
Déby understood the post-Cold War era. Although it could bring more diverse alliances, he had to make concessions to the West’s calls for democracy in Africa. He established an inquiry commission on Habré’s crimes (whose report led to the former dictator’s life sentence by an international court in 2016), allowed the creation of dozens of political parties and civil society organizations, and gritted his teeth when opposition newspapers hurled insults at him. In 1993, he also organized a national conference that drafted a democratic constitution.
Soon promises began to be broken. Over the years, opposition leaders and talented figures were co-opted. Human rights lawyer Jean-Bernard Padaré and well-known TV journalist Hassan Sylla became the spokespeople of the ruling party and the government, respectively; popular comedian Haïkal Zakaria stopped mocking Déby’s army to become youth minister and a real colonel; and award-winning film director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun was briefly appointed culture minister. More threatening figures, such as human rights defender Joseph Béhidi and opposition leader Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, disappeared at the hands of security forces.
As for the “gold and money” he had not promised, Chad remained near the bottom of all economic rankings. Déby began to use oil money to buy weapons to fight rebels, including his own cousins, the Erdimi brothers—in a perfect illustration of the oil curse.
In 2016 in Am Djéress, Déby’s relatives I spoke with did not deny their worry. Oil prices were so low it was not even worth extracting, and gold prices were so high that even elite troops in Am Djéress were defecting to mine the desert. With Déby’s own community frustrated, all the ingredients of an overthrow were already in the air.
A few weeks later, a greater scandal took place when a 17-year-old schoolgirl accused the several regime barons sons’ of rape. This triggered unusual social media mobilization and protests across Chad. I attended the press conference the survivor gave in Paris. There, among various opposition figures, I was introduced to Mahamat Mahadi, who was moving between France, where he was a refugee, and Libya, where he was a rebel leader.
In Dakar, I had seen Déby half-jokingly request the French lead an international intervention against terrorists who were, according to him, spreading across Libya since NATO’s assassination of Qaddafi in 2011. According to Mahadi, the loose coalition controlling Western Libya saw Déby’s demand as a declaration of war. They immediately made contact with Chadian opponents, and Mahadi was sent to Libya to retake control of the disorganized Chadian rebels surviving as guns-for-hire in Libya. A few days after our meeting, he would return. There, his attempt at imposing himself as the leader of the Goran rebels only partly succeeded. They ended dividing by clans, with Mahadi only leading one of three groups: the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT).
In 2017, as the war between the Tripoli government and Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar reached central Libya, where the FACT was based, Mahadi made an odd decision. When Haftar entered the area, rather than withdrawing with his Libyan allies, the FACT remained and negotiated a nonaggression pact with the newcomers. Unlike other Chadian rebels, Mahadi’s forces found themselves trapped on the same side of the Libyan conflict that Chad and France were supporting. On the phone, Mahadi was not optimistic. He also felt French pressure. The same year, Paris froze his financial assets, accusing him of “inciting and facilitating terrorist acts.” Adding to Mahadi’s bitterness, the decree was taken under then-French President François Hollande—a member, like him, of the French Socialist Party.
In 2012, the year Hollande was elected, jihadi groups took over northern Mali, and the new president decided to intervene. He needed African allies, and Déby was willing to lend his forces—deemed the best if not the only ones capable. The socialist president forgot his Chadian comrades, and the deal was sealed. Déby had found a better financial and political rent than oil. More than politicians, Déby’s first supporters in Paris were said to be fellow officers. Hollande’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, embraced their views. In 2017, abandoning the socialists to support the French President Emmanuel Macron, Le Drian became foreign minister and made sure Paris’s pro-Déby policy was maintained.
Although the Chadian army was praised abroad, dissent only grew within Chad. When Déby’s cousin Yaya Dillo Djérou announced he would run for office against the newly self-elevated “Marshal of Chad” in February, tanks were deployed to arrest him; he resisted and escaped.
On April 11, Déby was reelected with the usual 80 percent figure. The same day, FACT forces, after having informed France of their attempt to secure Paris’s neutrality, left Libya for Chad, surprisingly well equipped with nearly 300 heavily armed pickups.
With French planes providing Déby’s forces with precious intelligence, the rebels were intercepted 180 miles from their target, the Chadian capital. Losses were heavy on both sides, with several Chadian generals killed. The 68-year-old president went to the front to rally his troops as he often did. On April 20, he was pronounced dead from injuries sustained in battle. But another version circulated: The wounds had been inflicted during an altercation with a disgruntled Zaghawa general, who was killed.
In spite of years of dire predictions, both Déby’s close circle and France seemed unprepared for the end of the one-man show. A self-styled Transitional Military Council (TMC) took power. It was composed of 15 men from Déby’s security apparatus and chaired by his son Mahamat “Kaka,” a general in his 30s who was allegedly endorsed by his father on his deathbed. In effect, it was a coup: The TMC suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament and the government. It rejected offers of cease-fires and talks by rebels it called “terrorists, evil forces, and followers of obscurantism.”
France hastily recognized the TMC. Le Drian justified the constitution’s breach due to “exceptional security reasons.” At Déby’s funeral in N’Djamena, Macron ensured France would “let no one threaten Chad’s stability” before the corpse of his “faithful friend” was buried in Am Djéress. Amid rumors that 1,200 Chadian troops deployed in the “three borders” zone between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso were returning home, France worried that an uncertain transition would make the Chadian army unable to intervene abroad. His son’s first speech reassured Paris: In spite of the “birds of ill omen and false prophets,” Chad would abide with its commitments. Even the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, had kind words for the deceased dictator.
Protests across Chad, featuring burning French flags, were violently repressed, with at least six deaths. The African Union recalled the need to respect the constitution. Macron clumsily backtracked: He condemned the protests’ repression and rejected a dynastic succession. France began to call the TMC a “junta” and asked for its charter to be amended.
For too long, France’s view remained short-sighted and purely military: Chad was no more than a provider of troops for regional wars. Déby used the rent to cling to power.
His sudden death could finally be an opportunity for dialogue and change. France’s leverage could help if Paris is willing to turn its unconditional military support into political pressure. If France renews with a new junta the same deal it had with Déby—fighters in exchange for political, financial, and military backing—it will miss that long-awaited turning point when democratic change in Chad could actually become a reality.
Jérôme Tubiana is a researcher and journalist who has covered conflicts in Chad and Sudan for more than 20 years and the author of Guantánamo Kid: The True Story of Mohammed El-Gharani.
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