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Idris Deby: An African strong man taken out by the bullet

By Amos Kareithi | April 22nd 2021
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (3rd L) talks to Chad's President Idriss Deby (2nd R) after the opening ceremony of the 26th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2016. Looking on is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission. [REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri]

Long after the guns have gone silent, the victors have claimed their spoils and occupied top offices in government, war veterans become liberators.

Africa is littered with freedom fighters who rode to power and on the crest of their military guerilla exploits overstayed their welcome, ultimately becoming a burden to the millions who once idolised them.

This picture, taken by Reuters in 2016, helps illustrate how the African dream has been betrayed by the same visionaries who crafted it and promised a heaven on earth to their citizens.

Today, the world is mourning Chad’s President Idris Deby, who is captured in this 2016 picture heartily chatting with another African liberator-turned-oppressor, Robert Mugabe.

In an ironic twist of fate, the 68-year-old Deby was killed in the frontline reportedly fighting rebels, a day after he won a fresh presidential election. Deby took power in 1990 after battling rebels and then toppling his friend, Hissene Habre, who had made him the overall commander of Chad’s forces. Interestingly, Habre had grabbed power through the gun in 1982 after waging war against the government.   

When he first took power in 1990, Deby promised to establish multi-party democracy but he never lived up to his promises. When his countrymen got tired of his leadership, Deby manipulated the Constitution by inserting clauses that made it possible to contest the presidency. 

Sensing that he had overstayed, he again tinkered with the Constitution, scrapping off the term limit in 2005. Through his career, he triumphantly used the bullet and the ballot but his time has finally come.

His friend, Mugabe, too started off as a liberator who spent 10 years in prison for standing up for the rights of his people. He ascended to power in February 1980 after his party, Zanu PF, won the elections. He started off as a populist president but by the time he was ousted by the military and disowned by his party after a 37-year rule in 2017, he was no longer a revered freedom fighter.

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He died in 2019 aged 95, a disgraced man whose legacy had been whitewashed by his strong arm tactics and the depths of poverty his country had sunk into.

As Chad and the world bids farewell to Deby, his death has reignited the old debate that most African presidents do not retire as they either die in office or are overthrown.

There are some old heads of state in Africa still hanging onto power as cries of protests sweep around their cities.


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