I met Chadian president Idriss Déby, who was killed this week, several times. For 30 years, the United States and France backed this authoritarian, corrupt, often brutal ruler in the name of the same regional stability that once caused them to back his more brutal predecessor, Hissène Habré.
Without Déby’s support, it would have never been possible to prosecute Habré, who was convicted by a court in Senegal in 2016. Habré was responsible for killing some of Déby’s closest friends and relatives. “Habré is a megalomaniac,” Déby once told me. “He’s a bloodthirsty and cruel man.” Chad under Déby waived Habré’s immunity as a former head of state, allowed Belgian and African judges to carry out missions in Chad, and helped fund the African Union-backed court which tried Habré.
But the growing likelihood of a trial, as opposed to a quixotic campaign he could safely support as a way of discrediting, harassing, and immobilizing Habré, posed significant risks because of Déby's own exposure as a one-time senior figure in Habré’s regime, especially his role as Habré’s army chief during the “Black September” massacres of 1984. In the end, Déby did his best – and succeeded – in preventing an airing of that role during the trial. He also broke his promise to compensate Habré’s victims.
My Chadian friends will certainly not miss Déby. But he leaves plenty of fear and panic in his wake. The leaders of the rebels who allegedly killed Déby (the circumstances around his death remain unclear) are from Habré’s small Gorane clan. Should they manage to take power, there could be reprisals against the victims and activists who led the prosecution of Habré.
Equally worrisome is the possibility that the regime (now led by a military junta presided by Déby’s son in total contravention of Chad’s constitution) might take advantage of the chaos, as they did when rebels entered the capital in 2008, to settle scores with political opponents. In 2008, three leading opponents were kidnapped, and one remains disappeared today.
Déby may take some credit for ousting his blood-stained predecessor and helping hold him to account, but after 30 years of misrule, he failed to build a system of governance that would prevent Chad from experiencing more of the same.