Chad in turmoil after president’s death: Who was Idriss Déby?

Photo: A French military helicopter flies over a town hosting a base used by the armies of Chad, Niger, and France as part of Operation Barkhane. Credit: Thomas Goisque

Crisis is gripping Chad following the demise of Idriss Déby, long-time dictator of the country and close ally to France and the United States. He succumbed to battle wounds on April 20. Fighting between the government and rebels is raging as a newly announced council of military leaders attempts to consolidate its control of the country.

Déby was apparently killed in battle in Chad’s northern region while fighting the Libya-based Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), although details of the attack have not been made public. His funeral was attended by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said France — the former colonial ruler of the country — lost a “loyal friend and close ally.”

Déby’s death is causing rising tension in the country, especially after Déby won last week’s presidential election for his sixth term. The election was boycotted by most opposition groups, citing arrests and government bans on opposition rallies. Déby had ruled the country since 1990.

To fill the power vacuum, high-ranking military commanders who were part of Déby’s regime announced that they would rule the country for an 18-month period after dissolving Chad’s National Assembly. The council subsequently named Déby’s son, 37-year-old General Mahamat Déby Itno, as interim president.

After Déby’s death came to light, FACT said it was ready to initiate a ceasefire and negotiations, but was rebuffed by the military council. The Chadian military on April 24 claimed it has “decimated” the rebels through a series of air strikes. 

Déby came into power after a December 1990 coup that overthrew President Hissène Habré. Habré was also supported by France and the United States, especially in his attempts to topple Libya’s government, then led by Muammar Gaddafi. The Western countries turned a blind eye and continued to support Habré despite his documented crimes against humanity, for which he was convicted in 2016.

Similarly, France and the United States continued to extend their support to Déby in spite of widespread allegations of corruption, repression targeting the opposition, and mismanagement of Chad’s oil revenue. Déby’s role as a loyal servant to French and U.S. imperialism allowed him to continue his tenure despite pervasive opposition and dissatisfaction with his rule, including multiple armed rebellions.

The Déby regime played a key strategic role in supporting France’s ongoing “counter-terrorist” military intervention across the Sahel. This intervention is carried out with assistance from the Pentagon. Through Operation Barkhane, the French military installed its forces across northwest Africa ostensibly to fight terrorist insurgencies in the region. Operation Barkhane is headquartered in Chad’s capital N’Djamena. Chad’s armed forces play an active role fighting alongside — and subordinate to — the French military despite the mounting civilian death toll. 

It should be noted that both France and the United States led the charge in the NATO-led overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011. This set off a chain reaction fueling the rise of religious fundamentalist insurgent groups in the region that they are now claiming to combat with Operation Barkhane. 

U.S. and French corporations have long plundered Chad’s wealth, including the vast energy deposits found underneath Lake Chad. In this period of turmoil they are determined to ensure that the country’s government continues to facilitate this process. Companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron dug their claws into Chad’s estimated 1 billion barrels of oil through hundreds of oil rigs in the 1990s and with the construction of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline. Both Chad and Cameroon’s governments combined owned only 3% of this project.

During Déby’s three decades in power, the people of Chad had their rights trampled and their resources stolen. The United States and France are scrambling to maintain their neo-colonial grip on the country now that their loyal servant is gone.

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