Déby – caught between Paris and Khartoum – Africa Confidential

The 4 February attack on Ndjamena was carefully timed. The rebels and their sponsors in Sudan’s National Congress (National Islamic Front) regime in Khartoum had spotted growing dissent within President Idriss Déby Itno’s own security forces and feared that outside intervention could strengthen him.

After four years of trying to undermine Déby, Sudan hoped to block the deployment of the European Union protection force, EUFOR, in eastern Chad and northeastern Central African Republic. Endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, EUFOR is regarded in the region as a French-led initiative to prop up Déby and undermine Sudan’s NC (NIF).

Déby’s regime is failing. During the last fi ve years, he has returned to his autocratic military style after a brief political liberalisation in the 1990s, when he struck a pioneering deal with the World Bank intended to make Chad’s oil revenue more accountable. He killed that deal and oil revenue goes to buy up officers and politicians. The President depends more than ever on
his Zaghawa kinsmen and there are questions about his health. To make things worse, following the rebel attack, his forces started rounding up and killing civilian opposition leaders.

The Sudan-Chad border is, like most African borders, an artificial and largely invisible creation. Various ethnic groups live on both sides, including the Zaghawa, themselves divided by clan and family. Chad’s national crisis is closely tied to the regional ambitions of Khartoum’s Islamist regime, whose opponents in Darfur use Chad as a base and a safe haven, especially the Zaghawa-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). To complicate matters further, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement faction which signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, Minni Arkou Minnawi, is also Zaghawa. He is now officially a Presidential Advisor in Khartoum.

Khartoum’s attacks on ‘African’ tribes in Darfur were well under way in 2002. When the SLM, then united, responded in early 2003, Déby tried to play neutral and negotiate a settlement. His efforts collapsed and his confrontation with Khartoum turned into a proxy war. At last year’s African Union summit in Addis Ababa, after member states eventually decided that Sudan’s President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir was unacceptable as AU Chairman, Déby accused him of genocide. This finally ended the bargain made in 1990, when Khartoum backed Déby’s ousting of Hissène Habré’s regime on condition that he would not support Sudanese oppositionists. The January raid on Ndjamena is the latest episode in this proxy war. France, still regarding itself as the regional policeman and also taking a leaf out of the United States’ book, narrowly convinced the EU that there was a power vacuum in the African desert where terrorism and criminality could thrive and that a European force could fill it. Success by the rebels would be a defeat for efforts to install the European force in eastern Chad and a big victory for Khartoum.

On 28 January, some 3-400 heavily armed troops in 300 vehicles (mostly Toyota pickups, the classic vehicles of Saharan warfare) came over from Sudan and took the border town of Adré. It is a mystery why nobody, especially the French airforce, gave warning of their approach. Two days later, they captured the town of Oum Hadjer, on the main road that runs 816 kilometres from Sudan to the capital Ndjamena. On 31 January, the rebel column won a fight at Massaguet, some 50 km. from the capital. Next day, they were on the outskirts of Ndjamena and on the following day, they were fighting within the city.

French military sources confirmed rebel claims that they reached the centre of the capital, where only the Presidential Palace was surrounded by government tanks. After rumours that Déby had fl ed or been killed, it became clear that his men were ready to defend his redoubt and, on 3 February, their counterattack proved effective. The rebels said they were making a tactical withdrawal to Mongo, capital of Guera area, home of the usually dissident Hadjerai. There, they claimed to be awaiting reinforcements and supplies, with half of their vehicles left. The French military reported two rebel columns advancing from the east; this was denied in Ndjamena, where the rebels were said to have completely dispersed. Inside and outside Chad, it is widely believed that the fighting is not over yet.

On 12 April 2006, a similar surprise attack by a column of 100 vehicles also reached the city centre before it was defeated by Déby’s forces. This time, the fight lasted three days instead of one and many more civilians were killed. Some 20,000 residents fl ed across the Chari river to Kousseri in Cameroon. The rebels failed to observe three fundamental rules of coup-making. They did not take the airport (defended by French troops, who were evacuating foreign nationals); they attacked the radio station but did not succeed in broadcasting from it; and they did not drive out or kill the President.


  • Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Développement, led by Mahamat Nouri, a Gorane veteran of the Habré years. He briefl y rejoined Déby’s camp last year as Defence Minister but was fi red in December because his movement had been involved in new attacks from Sudan in both Biltine and Salamat.
  • Rassemblement des Forces pour le Changement led by Timane Erdimi, who with his twin brother, Tom Erdimi, was formerly influential in the entourage of their uncle, Idriss Déby; their family is from the Bideyat subgroup of the Zaghawa. They broke with Déby in 2005 and Timane went to Sudan while Tom sought exile in the oil-emporium of Houston, Texas.
  • The UFDD-Fondamentale of Abdelwahid Aboud Makaye broke from the UFDD last year after the expulsion of its leader, the veteran Salamat Arab politician Acheikh Ibn Oumar, who has lived in Sudan for years. Another former Déby minister, Abderamane Koulamallah, is with the armed opposition as spokesman for the union formed in December 2007 by the three opposition groups in the mountains of Hadjer Marfaine. Abderamane’s relative, the late Ahmed

Koulamallah, was head of government before Independence.

In a moment of frankness after three days of combat, Déby admitted that he had lost four-fifths of his government and much of his army. Many believed he was on his way out, prompting feelers between rebels and the legal opposition. Reports suggest that information from French bugging of oppositionists was passed on to Déby, who ordered the arrest of, among others:

  • Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, head of the opposition Coordination pour la Défense de la Constitution, formed in August 2007. A Maba from Biltine and a former Front de Libération Nationale du Tchad militant, he served under Habré and Déby.
  • Lol Mahamat Choua, a respected former Mayor of Ndjamena and a leading Kanembu, was briefl y head of state in 1979.
  • Abdelkader Kamougué, a survivor of the pre-1979 southerndominated military government, was formerly Foreign Minister.
  • Ngarléjy Yorongar, a tempestuous figure from the oilproducing south, was gaoled by Déby in 1997 for criminal libel.

Déby’s main southern supporter has been the noisy Prime Minister Nourredine Delwa Kassiré Koumakoyé from Mayo Kebbi – sometimes an outspoken opponent, sometimes presidential Rottweiler, and little respected by other politicians.

Some arrests are said to have been violent and international observers fear a witch-hunt. Africa Confi dential hears that when troops came to arrest Saleh Kebzabo, a former presidential candidate, and found he had gone into hiding, they shot his brother dead. Accusations of complicity with the rebellion leave the legitimate opposition enfeebled and angry. Yet many wonder how long the President can survive. The populous far south, which dominated politics for 20 years after Independence, has been politically passive since a rebellion by the Forces Armées pour la République Fédérale died down in the 1990s. Oil calmed the region down but the militia leader Laokein ‘Frisson’ Bardé, killed by Déby’s troops in 1997, is remembered as a folk hero.

Déby stakes his claim to national loyalty by sporadic nationalist demonstrations, as when he took on the World Bank over control of oil revenue or France over the Arche de Zoé (Zoë’s Ark) kidnapping of 103 purported orphans (AC Vol 48 No 22). (He now says that he is ready to pardon the gaoled aid-workers, who are serving their terms in France). The growing corruption that accompanies oil money adds to his unpopularity. Few believe his replacement would do much better, though.

Déby’s entourage has like most courts tended to have a fluctuating membership. His family, described in Ndjamena’s independent newspapers as ‘dysfunctional’, is riven by quarrels and defections, as are relations with other clan members. A son, Brahim, who had been an advisor in the Presidency was murdered by persons apparently unknown last year in Paris. Dynastic ambition survives in General Idriss Déby’s elder brother, the immensely rich Daoussa Déby. In 2006, Idriss took as his fourth wife a 29-year old society beauty, Hinda, who as well as being his personal secretary is now First Lady, too.

His current closest advisors are Finance Minister Abass Mahamat Tolli and Infrastructure Minister Adoum Younosmi, who are said to have assisted in directing operations from within the Palace during this month’s attacks. Foreign Minister Ahmat Allam-mi also has Déby’s trust but many ministers have risen and fallen. Among the military, the Presidential Advisor on Public Security, General Bichara Issa Djadallah, is also said to be influential but he is reputed to trust none of his top brass


Chad and Sudan have been meddling in each other’s politics for 30 years, and the semi-nomadic peoples who straddle the border (including President Idriss Déby Itno’s Zaghawa) complicate the relationship. President Idriss said this month that Chad was at war with Sudan, and Sudan’s Defence Minister, Lieutenant General Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein, said on 7 February that his forces ‘could destroy Ndjamena within 24 hours’. The next day, Sudanese aircraft again attacked rebels and villagers in Western Darfur.

The Sudan-backed rebel attacks on Ndjamena were timed to deter outside intervention by both the European Union Force in Chad and Central African Republic (EUFOR). and the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

As the rebels struck, the African Union was holding one of its twice-yearly summits in Addis Ababa. The AU, a trade union for heads of state, firmly opposes the violent overthrow of governments. That seems likely to persist now that Mali’s Alpha Oumar Konaré has been replaced as President of the AU Commission by the Gabonese diplomat Jean Ping.

The summit duly condemned the Chadian rebels and sent as mediators three one-time coup-makers – Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, and Colonel Moammar el Gadaffi of Libya (who once sent his tanks into Chad). Prime Minister Nourredine Delwa Kassiré Koumakoyé described them as ‘jokers and hypocrites’. North African countries tend to stand by Muslim Sudan. Chad’s Francophone neighbours support Déby. Nigeria’s otherwise inactive Senate resolved that Chad represented a national security threat.

President Nicolas Sarkozy hopes to reform France’s crony relations with its former African backyard. Paris has kept troops in Chad for years and has intervened there often. At the end of January, some 300 men were added to the 1,200 there. France’s majority contribution to EUFOR will add another 2,100.

During the latest fi ghting, France pretended to stay neutral then, with Déby threatened, the covert support became open and French forces fi red on rebels to defend the airport. Armed with support from the United Nations Security Council, Sarkozy backed military action on Déby’s side. ‘If France has to do its duty, it will’, he said.

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