By Aaron Ross
April 20 (Reuters) – In 30 years as Chad’s president, Idriss Deby emerged as one of Africa’s wiliest political survivors, holding on to power through rebellions that reached as far as his palace gates and establishing himself as a key military ally of Western powers.
But it was in an apparent moment of triumph, just hours after he was declared the winner of an April 11 election, that the 68-year-old former army officer met his end, killed in battle fighting rebels in the desert north.
Deby had ruled for three decades by centralising power around his family and Zaghawa ethnic group.
Key to his hold on power was Chad’s formidable military, which he used to assure control at home and win friends abroad.
In 2013, he deployed 2,000 troops to northern Mali to participate in a French-led mission to push back al Qaeda-linked fighters, making Chad the only African country to quickly deploy an effective fighting force.
Earlier this year, Deby dispatched 1,200 troops to the tri-border region of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali where Islamist militants are expanding their influence, while farther south Chadian forces fought against Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants.
That won him the gratitude of former colonial master France, which has more than 5,000 troops across West Africa’s arid Sahel region to battle militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State and is looking for an eventual exit strategy.
“France lost a brave friend,” President Emmanuel Macron’s office said in statement. “It expresses its strong attachment to Chad’s stability and territorial integrity.”
French forces have intervened on several occasions to bail Deby out of danger, most recently in 2019 when French warplanes took out a column of rebels that was crossing the desert from Libya.
Idriss Deby Itno was born on June 18, 1952, in northeastern Chad. He joined the army in the 1970s when the country was going through a long-running civil war and received military training in France, where he earned a pilot’s licence.
He returned to Chad in 1978 and threw his support behind the president, Hissène Habré, rising to become chief of the armed forces.
In 1990, he seized power, leading a rebel army swathed in desert headgear in a three-week offensive launched from neighbouring Sudan’s Darfur region.
Since then, Deby has fended off more than a half-dozen rebellions and attempted coups. His closest call came in 2008, when rebels from Darfur reached the capital N’Djamena and besieged the presidential palace before France intervened to help push them back.
Deby frequently cast himself as a wartime leader. He would often don military fatigues and pay visits to soldiers on the battlefront.
Diplomats and analysts said Deby had been grooming his adopted son, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno – named on Tuesday as interim leader – to eventually take over, but had given little indication he intended to step down anytime soon.
He pushed through a new constitution in 2018 that would have allowed him to stay in power until 2033 – even as it re-instated term limits. Last year, he took the title of “Field Marshal”.
But he faced mounting discontent at home over his management of Chad’s oil wealth, crackdowns on opponents and alleged corruption.
Low crude prices in recent years ate into government revenues, forcing cutbacks to services that led to public sector strikes.
Most of Deby’s main opponents boycotted the latest election, whose lead-up was marred by deadly clashes between opposition supporters and security forces. (Reporting by Aaron Ross; Additional reporting by David Lewis; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alex Richardson)
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