A dynasty of warriors in Chad will do little to end the Islamist threat
Franklin D. Roosevelt is said to have said of Anastasio Somoza, the late Nicaraguan dictator: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” This largely sums up the attitude of the West towards Idriss Deby, the “warrior president” of Chad, who was killed on the battlefield this week after 31 years in power.
In a less troubled part of the world, Deby could have been seen for what he was: a brutal dictator and a warlord. The son of a poor shepherd in the desert lands of northern Chad, he went through the army after training in France and seized power in a coup in 1990. Although he started with apparently good intentions, he crystallized into a hardened strong man. He redeemed his rivals, if they were lucky, and enriched his cronies with oil profits.
For three decades he ruled a militarized state in which the region’s best-equipped and professional armed forces absorbed most resources. The 16 million inhabitants of his country were practically on their own. Literacy rates are just over 30% and life expectancy is 54 years. The UN Human Development Index ranks Chad 187 out of 189. If Déby was a warrior, he was not good at combating human misery.
But Chad is in a troubled neighborhood. A country almost four times the size of Germany, it straddles the semi-arid Sahel belt at the crossroads of several violent conflicts. France has 5,000 soldiers bogged down in the region. They are headquartered in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, and fight various jihadist groups across the Sahel associated with Isis. Islamists, feeding on a toxic mix of poverty, ignorance and local conflict, have embarked on a frenzy of killings and kidnappings, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso. Tens of thousands of people have died and 2 million have been displaced.
In such a context, Déby was considered by France and the West more generally as an ally. It was a pistol for hire and an alternative to sending more troops to an area which was called Afghanistan from France.
Under his command, the Chadian army has been more effective than Nigerian forces against Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group active in northeastern Nigeria. In Mali in 2013, Déby’s army fought alongside France when it ousted Islamists who threatened to take over the country. The following year, he helped quell fighting in the Central African Republic. Militarily, Chad has been the most effective member of the G5, an alliance with Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Mauritania aimed at pushing back the Islamist threat.
A grateful France returned the favor. Two years ago, French fighter jets bombed a rebel convoy coming from Libya to protect the Deby regime. This time it couldn’t save him. But, from his death, Paris effused to have “lost a brave friend.” . . a great soldier and president who worked tirelessly for three decades for the security of his country and the stability of the region ”. The US State Department said it mourned her passing.
These are generous words for a man who presided over a formidable security apparatus that suppressed all opposition. As Helga Dickow, principal researcher at the University of Friborg, writes: “Political freedoms are almost non-existent; human rights violations are part of daily life, and opposition leaders, human rights activists, journalists and trade unionists live under constant threat. “
After his death, Chad risks a period of chaos. Several factions oppose the handover of power to Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, 37, and are pushing for the elections. The instinct of the West is to stick with what it knows. But the answers to the Islamist threat in the Sahel lie in development, opportunities and institutions. Little long-term good will likely come from a dynasty of warriors without any legitimacy beyond the gun.