Idriss Deby, who was on track for a sixth term as President of Chad before he is dead wounds sustained in combat, had carved out a reputation as a staunch ally of the West in the Sahel – despite accusations of authoritarianism.
The 68-year-old shepherd’s son is said to have been one of the world’s oldest rulers, after interim results showed him he was re-elected this week.
But his shock death cut short his 30-year political career and will likely throw Chadian politics into disarray.
He died of injuries sustained while fighting rebels over the weekend in the restless north of the country, the military said on Tuesday.
His death comes after this month’s elections which were marked by a rebel offensive launched in the north on election day. The military said on Monday it had killed 300 rebels and called off the offensive.
Deby’s long reign in the region’s brutal politics has made him a reliable figure in France’s campaign against armed groups in the Sahel region.
Deby, of the Zaghawa ethnicity, walked the classic route of power through the military and relished military culture.
Last August, the National Assembly appointed him Marshal, the first in Chad’s history, after leading an offensive against rebel fighters who had killed nearly 100 soldiers at a base in the west of the country.
Dressed in a dark blue silk cape embroidered with oak leaves and holding a staff, Deby dedicated the tribute to “all my brothers in arms”.
As a young man, Deby enrolled in the officers’ academy in the capital Ndjamena before going to France, where he trained as a pilot.
He returned in 1979 to a country plagued by rival warlords.
Deby harnessed his star to Hissène Habré and was awarded the post of army chief after Habré came to power in 1982, ousting Goukouni Weddeye.
In the following years, Deby distinguished himself by fighting Libyan-backed rebels in mountainous territory in the north of the country.
But in 1989, he fell out with his increasingly paranoid boss, who accused him of plotting a coup.
Deby fled to Sudan, where he assembled an armed rebel group, the Patriotic Salvation Movement, which traveled to Ndjamena unopposed in December 1990.
In 1996, six years after taking power and establishing democracy, Deby was elected head of state in Chad’s first multi-party vote.
He won again in successive elections.
The main opposition withdrew its participation in 2006 and 2011, thwarted by a change in the constitution allowing the former soldier to renew his mandate, and the 2015 elections were marked by accusations of fraud.
Deby was strongly supported by the former colonial power, France, which in 2008 and 2019 used military force to help defeat rebels who were trying to oust him.
“We have saved an absolutely major ally in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly told parliament in 2019.
Deby supported the French intervention in northern Mali in 2013 to push back armed groups, and the following year intervened to end chaos in the Central African Republic.
In 2015, Deby launched a regional offensive in Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger against Nigeria-based Boko Haram fighters, calling the Islamic State affiliate a “horde of madmen and drug addicts.”
One of Deby’s political rivals, Saleh Kebzabo, had protested against France’s support and urged the world to recognize the regime’s “dictatorial nature”.
Deby’s power base, the army, comprises mainly troops from the president’s Zaghawa ethnic group and is commanded by loyalists.
It is considered one of the best in the Sahel. According to the International Crisis Group think tank, defense spending represents between 30 and 40% of Chad’s annual budget.
In 2018, Deby abolished the post of Prime Minister to assume full executive authority.
“Everything is centralized around the presidency – he uses all the weapons of absolute power while intimidating society,” Roland Marchal told the Center for International Research at Sciences Po school in Paris, speaking before the death of Deby.
Marchal said Deby had a reputation for being hot-tempered and notorious mood swings, although a close associate said he had “great listening and analytical skills.”
Deby has been accused of iron dominance during his long reign. The ban on opposition protests, arbitrary arrests and the disruption of access to social media have regularly raised objections from human rights groups.
Another common complaint is that Deby had appointed parents and boyfriends to key positions, and failed to tackle the poverty that afflicts many of Chad’s 13 million people despite oil wealth.
The country ranks 187th out of 189 in the UN Human Development Index (HDI).