Africa: Deby Taught Us Lessons On the Murky World of African Politics

Chad’s strongman Marshal Idriss Deby Itno died Tuesday from wounds sustained while visiting troops battling rebels in the north (according to the army account). He became the first African president in recent times to die on the frontline.

Deby was killed a few hours after he was declared winner of a stolen election, that was marred by the usual African abuses against rivals, and that was boycotted by most of the opposition. If he hadn’t ventured to the frontline, Deby, who’d been in power for nearly 31 years, would have lived to “eat” through his sixth term.

There is the story of Deby, the president, but also of Deby the late 1980s rebel leader. His role in the Chad drama of that period, helped introduce the story of Sahelian Africa to a generation of young people who were entering their 20s and were beginning to know the continent.

There was the militant and nationalist Goukouni Oueddei, who was president of Chad from 1979 to 1982. He had a marvellous afro as tall as Mount Kilimanjaro, and when he wasn’t wearing a robe or suit looked like a camel trader.

Oueddei’s regime was troubled by continuing war, including an insurgency led by the second man in this saga, former vice president and Defence minister Hissene Habre.

Habre fled into exile in Sudan in 1980, organised his forces, and by June 1982 had returned to win the fight for the capital N’Djamena, to be installed president.

Deby was Habre’s first army chief, and later chief military adviser. Deby, some say, invented what Somali militants call “technicals” in the 1987 so-called “Toyota War” against Libya. He perfected the technique of fighting off the back of the Toyota pick-up, and changed guerrilla war in the desert and semi-arid lands forever.