Deby taught us lessons on the murky world of African politics

Monday April 26 2021
Idriss Deby Itno.

Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno attends the plenary session of the Paris Peace Forum on November 12, 2019. Deby died on April 20, 2021 from wounds sustained in battle, the army announced. PHOTO | LUDOVIC MARIN | POOL | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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.

However, he fell out with Habre, took off to Sudan, then Libya, where the fourth man in this spectacle, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, adopted him.

Deby set up shop in Sudan 1989, formed his insurgent group, and with the help of Khartoum and Libya, shot his way to power in Chad in December 1990. He fought off many attempts to oust him, until his luck ran out this week.

These stories of the musical chair wars in Chad, the plots and conspiracies by Gaddafi and the Sudanese, had us enthralled, and were covered colourfully by the very readable Africa Now magazine, then edited by the brilliant Peter Enahoro, and more solemnly by the New African. There were dramatic photos of the antagonists, and men in uniform with guns on the covers. It was the first time we were getting any such reporting from an African perspective. It was also a civics lesson in the intertwining and murky world of African politics.

These were men wearing turbans, desert scarfs, with names unfamiliar to the East African tongue, and doing battle in strange places. We were enthralled, and got to figure out that there was something called the Sahel, and they were our people. It was the first time I heard the word geopolitics.

Deby was part of a tragic story that gave us a cherished and enduring education about the hard edge of Africa.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3