Nigeria can also learn from Dèby that instability in Chad may mean that instability is nearer home than we thought; flawed elections are invitations to anarchy; clamping down on alternative voices is a call to lawlessness and instability; the help of international friends is limited; development is key to stability, and not deprivation and accumulation of wealth for the self…
On Monday, April 19, the world woke up to the news that the long-serving president of the Republic of Chad, Idriss Déby, had died. His death marked the end of an inglorious chapter in the history of political leadership in Africa and left loads of lessons for Africa and her leaders.
According to reports, he died following injuries he sustained during clashes with rebels in the northern part of the country. The late Chadian leader, aged 68 at death, was said to be a poor herder’s son who initially scraped a living from the harsh deserts of northern Chad and before rising through the ranks of the Chadian military to become one of Africa’s most despotic leaders of his time. He was a tall, imposing, one-time military commander, with a haughty mien, who was versed in cunny diplomacy, which helped him outwit his opponents or buy them over. He used fear to rule the arid country and cracked down brutally on the opposition and perceived enemies whenever there was some threat.
Global superpowers, in their everyday politics of self-interest, saw the Chadian strongman as a political ally. Chad played host to military exercises conducted by the United States, which helped the Chadian army become one of the best trained and equipped in the semi-arid belt.
Déby came to power in Chad in 1990, after leading a rebellion that invaded the country, through the support of Libya, and overthrew the government of Hissène Habré, an erstwhile dictator, under whom he had previously served as head of the army. Mr. Déby was able to stay in power for three decades, to a large extent because he could endear himself to the Western powers. He had close ties with France, Chad’s former colonial power, which considered him one of its most loyal allies, often turning a blind eye to his despotic antics, harassment of opposition leaders, and suppression of internal dissent. In some instances, France did not hide its support for Mr. Déby’s government as it deployed troops to Chad in 2008 and 2019, to help him repel rebels trying to unseat him. The United States saw in Mr. Déby a vital ally in the fight against terrorism. The late Chadian leader endeared himself more to the Americans after taking the frontline command of a military force that pursued Boko Haram and its splinter groups, including the Islamic State West Africa Province, an unconsolidated affiliate of the Islamic State.
The West, in their hypocrisy, lent their support to an African sit-tight despot, turning a blind eye to the repression of political opponents, accusations of human rights abuses and corruption. They watched as Mr. Déby manipulated the political process in June 2005, in a referendum that eliminated a two-term constitutional limit, which enabled Déby to run again in 2006. In the subsequent presidential election, the Chadian leader won a spurious 65 per cent of the votes, after opposition parties had boycotted the election.
In 2018, Chad’s parliament was arm-twisted by the president to review the Constitution to allow him to stay in office until 2033. On April 11, Mr. Dèby was declared winner of what was generally considered a flawed election that would have enabled him to enter a fourth decade as Chadian president, just before his death.
There are several lessons to learn from the Idriss Déby story. The most important one is that African countries need to realise that Western powers are primarily interested in things that benefit their lands and peoples. They scream about the importance of human rights and democracy when convenient for them but become willful accomplices to despotism, tyranny, and human rights abuses when the perpetrators are of strategic interest to them and profit their countries.
In 2017, the U.S. Justice Department accused Mr. Déby of having accepted a $2 million bribe from a Chinese company in exchange for oil rights in Chad. However, Mr. Déby had supported a Western-backed military operation against Islamist militants in neighbouring Mali in 2013. A year later, he helped to end a violent turmoil in the Central African Republic. Because of these seemingly good actions, Mr. Dèby’s failings and those of his government were ultimately overlooked by Western countries. They embraced Déby as an indispensable ally in a dangerous part of the world.
…Chad frequently featured prominently on the list of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries, as Dèby squandered billions of dollars’ worth of oil wealth, and did not oversee any significant development in a country in which poverty is rife… Opposition leaders in Chad accused Mr. Déby of squandering the oil wealth by pouring it into the military, which he has used to perpetuate himself in power…
Analysts say he understood what was required to hold Chad together and knew what France, the former colonial power, and the West, wanted – and he gave it to them. Emmanuel Macron was in Chad on Friday to provide Mr. Dèby with a royal funeral. This is despite the role of the departed leader in decimating democracy in his country, and perpetuating corruption and nepotism.
Mr. Déby’s three-decade-long rule impoverished many Chadians. He was unable to turn the country’s vast resources into wealth that benefitted his countrymen. Chad became an oil-producing nation in 2003, with a $4 billion (£2.6 billion) pipeline linking its oilfields to terminals on the Atlantic coast. Currently, the country’s vast deserts cover untapped reserves of uranium and oil, which is presently pumped at a rate of 130,000 barrels a day, generating much of Chad’s revenue.
However, Chad frequently featured prominently on the list of the world’s poorest and most corrupt countries, as Dèby squandered billions of dollars’ worth of oil wealth, and did not oversee any significant development in a country in which poverty is rife. The adult literacy rate in Chad is at an abysmal 31.8 per cent. Life expectancy is shockingly at 54 years. Opposition leaders in Chad accused Mr. Déby of squandering the oil wealth by pouring it into the military, which he has used to perpetuate himself in power, manipulate the political process and repress his critics.
Deby had severe health problems over the years. He was a regular visitor to hospitals in Paris to treat a persistent liver ailment. This was unconscionable for the leader of a country in which the World Health Organisation estimates as having less than four doctors per 100,000 people.
Under Déby, Chad was never a peaceful country. Just as he invaded the country through Libya as a rebel, militants intent on toppling his government were a persistent feature of his three decades of dictatorship. There were equally some assassination attempts on him, including an alleged plan to shoot down his aircraft.
In 2006, rebels were right outside the Chadian presidential palace, lobbing grenades over the wall, before French troops intervened to save Dèby’s regime. Between 2008 and 2009, President Déby had to supervise the digging of a massive trench and the cutting down of all the giant trees lining the avenues around the Chadian capital city of N’Djamena to prevent advancing rebels from penetrating the city again. These incidents indicated a country that was a hotbed of instability. Sustainable development hardly takes place in this kind of circumstance.
Dèby virtually turned Chad into a family enterprise. He had multiple wives and children, and his sons, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, brothers and brothers-in-law invaded all the strategic positions in the country, in a system of nepotism.
The pervasive clannishness probably led to the current situation in which his son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, a 37-year-old four-star military general, has been appointed the head of a transitional military government in the country, following his death. This action violates the Constitution of the country (already suspended), which specifies that the president of the national assembly, or failing that, the first vice president, should take over when a president dies.
Déby’s death marks the end of yet another African despot. He left behind a country facing the threat of invasion by rebels, a population with most people in poverty and a highly sad legacy of absolute power, clannishness and “sit- tight” leadership.
Most analysts doubt the new Chadian ruler as capable of wielding the sort of power and influence his father held, which enabled him to hold the country together. There are reports of a power struggle between Mahamat and one of his half-brothers, Zakaria, which would likely open the door to hostilities in a battle for succession.
The feud had been brewing for a while. In January 2020, when the late president was ill, he allegedly left the First Lady, Hinda Déby, in charge of the government, to prevent a confrontation between Mahamat and Zakaria. One does not need a soothsayer to predict the likelihood that Chad will degenerate into crises soon.
For Nigeria, Déby’s death may have some implications, especially in the fight against Boko Haram. Chad had intervened several time to assist Nigeria’s military in tackling the insurgents, especially when they took over swathes of territory in North-Eastern Nigeria in 2015, and with insecurity spreading around other countries bordering the Lake Chad. Déby was ever willing to send his battle-hardened troops into Nigeria when the country needed them.
Nigeria can also learn from Dèby that instability in Chad may mean that instability is nearer home than we thought; flawed elections are invitations to anarchy; clamping down on alternative voices is a call to lawlessness and instability; the help of international friends is limited; development is key to stability, and not deprivation and accumulation of wealth for the self; and nepotism and its twin, mediocrity, can not help lift a country or secure a leader.
Lessons for African leaders abound in the present Déby’s debacle: First, his long reign entrenched the opposition and merged the political opposition and rebellion from the north into one. The president then became a source of avoidable instability. Second, it is evident that leaders who make peaceful change impossible, make violent change inevitable. Third, Dèby’s use by the West as an ally in the war against terrorism in the Sahel was a test for a defective foreign policy thesis. Simply, that thesis is that one strong man can keep a country stable and defend a region, if supported militarily. What happens when the strong man is felled by his own foibles? We should ask Saddam Hussein or Muammar Ghadaffi.
The contrary position is the view canvassed by former President Obama that what Africa needs to progress are strong institutions, not strong men. The eventual outcome in Chad will test this wager to the limits. Fourth, Idriss Dèby’s nauseating nepotism and power absolutism ought to instruct other African leaders that that leadership model has expired. Mobutu, Nguema, Abacha and others have proven that autocracy and rank corruption can only deepen Africa’s regression. Fifth, the character of a leader matters and it is what determines the choices such leader makes and it is also his/her greatest strength amidst insecurity and instability. Sixth, courage is an essential virtue of leadership and Dèby had it, but this alone is not enough to achieve greatness as a leader.
Déby’s death marks the end of yet another African despot. He left behind a country facing the threat of invasion by rebels, a population with most people in poverty and a highly sad legacy of absolute power, clannishness and “sit- tight” leadership. He presided over the affairs of Chad for more than 30 years. Still, he was unable to institute sustainable democracy, leading to the unconstitutional government that has succeeded his and a fierce battle for succession, which may tear the country to pieces. I doubt if history would be kind to him.
Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.
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