Chadian President Idriss Deby has been a decades-long pillar of support for the West despite criticism over his hardline rule and failure to ease poverty.
The 68-year-old, whose party on Saturday backed him for a sixth term, has been in office since seizing power 30 years ago, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.
That longevity has made him a pivotal figure in the vast and volatile Sahel region, where pictures show him equally at ease riding a tank as on the back of a dromedary.
In August last year, he swapped his traditional gown for a dark-blue silk cape embroidered with oak leaves, clutching a brand-new field marshal’s baton a picture that confirmed the rise of a herder’s son.
Deby was born in Berdoba in northeastern Chad to a family in the Zaghawa ethnic group, a branch of the Gorane people who live on both sides of the border with Sudan.
Like many other ambitious young Africans, Deby first chose the life of a soldier, enrolling at the officers’ academy in the capital N’Djamena and later obtaining a pilot’s licence in France.
He returned in 1979 to a country in the grip of feuding warlords.
Read also: Supporters raise over N14m for Sunday Igboho
Rise to power
Deby hitched his star to Hissene Habre and was rewarded with the post of commander in chief of the army after Habre came to power in 1982, ousting Goukouni Weddeye.
In the following years, Deby distinguished himself fighting Libyan-backed rebels fighting over 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 rolled into Ndjamena unopposed in December 1990.
In 1996, six years after he seized power and ushered in democracy, Deby was elected head of state in Chad’s first multi-party vote.
He won again in succeeding elections.
The main opposition withdrew its participation in 2006 and 2011, irked by a change to the constitution enabling the former soldier to renew his term, and the elections in 2015 were marked by accusations of fraud.
The April 11 election seem set to usher in a sixth Deby term, despite moves by the fragmented opposition to rally around a single champion.
Deby has a firm ally in former colonial power France, which in 2008 and in 2019 used military force to help defeat rebels who tried to oust him.
“We safeguarded an absolutely major ally in the struggle against terrorism in the Sahel,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly told parliament in 2019.
Deby supported French intervention in northern Mali in 2013 to repel jihadists, and the following year stepped in 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 jihadists, dubbing the Islamic State affiliate “a horde of crazies and drug addicts”.
One of Deby’s political rivals, Saleh Kebzabo, has protested against France’s backing and urged the world to recognise 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 Sahel. According to the International Crisis Group think tank, defence spending accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of the annual budget.
Despite Western support, Deby has been accused of iron-fisted rule, appointing relatives and cronies to key positions and failing to address the poverty that afflicts many of Chad’s 13 million people despite oil wealth.
The country ranks 187th out of 189 in the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI).
Banned opposition demonstrations, arbitrary arrests and severed access to social networks raise regular objections from human rights groups, which have also accused the ruling class of endemic corruption.
“When he gets angry, he’s a bit scary,” a trade unionist said, referring to Deby’s notorious mood switches, although a close aide said “he has great listening ability and analytical skills.”
Seventeen prime ministers came and went under Deby until in 2018 he scrapped the position to assume full executive authority.
“Everything is centralised around the presidency he uses all the weapons of absolute power while bullying society,” said Roland Marchal at the Centre of International Research at the Sciences Po school in Paris.