There was a palpable sense of relief at the African Union (AU) as Robert Mugabe’s term as chairperson of the continental body came to an end. It’s not that Mugabe is unpopular – anyone who has witnessed the raucous reception his speeches receive in Addis Ababa will know the opposite is true. His notoriety, however, can make life difficult for the AU officials who have to work with Western countries – and who provide more than half of AU funding – to actually get things done.
Take, for instance, the continual delays to the opening of the new Peace and Security Council building. Paid for by the Germans, rumour has it that Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t want it completed on time, for fear of having to be pictured shaking hands with Mugabe. Similar considerations applied to US President Barack Obama’s trip to the AU, which was billed as a visit to the AU Commission rather than the broader AU, so that Mugabe was not technically the host.
These worries even percolated down to the organisation of events like continental maritime conferences, which European countries were reluctant to fund lest their support be seen as an endorsement of Mugabe’s role.
Clearly, while the role of AU chairperson is largely symbolic, the identity of its occupant can have very real consequences. Not only did Mugabe complicate AU business at times, but his appointment also attracted widespread criticism.
All of which makes Mugabe’s replacement an intriguing proposition. Step forward Idriss Déby Itno, president of Chad. Although Déby has not been in power for as long as Mugabe, he is not all that far behind, having served for 25 years as head of state (compared to Mugabe’s 29, although Mugabe was effectively in charge for another seven years before that).
But somehow, Déby has succeeded in maintaining a much lower profile. Even though he and Mugabe stand similarly accused of human rights violations, intimidation of opposition and staying in power for too long – the Chadian’s international reputation is decidedly less toxic. (Nor is Déby the subject of international sanctions, like Mugabe.)
A career army officer, Déby has participated in two successful military coups: the first in 1982, to install Hissène Habré as president; and the second in 1990. The latter culminated in Habré fleeing into exile in Senegal, where he is currently being tried for international crimes, and Déby taking his place. Since then, Déby has maintained a firm grip on power, fending off several attempted coups and rebellions. Last week, he announced plans to run for another term in office, which – given the lack of a credible opposition – should extend his time in the presidential palace until 2021.
The upcoming election in Chad, scheduled for April, brings Déby’s AU position further into question. ‘To me, the biggest criticism of electing Déby as AU chair is that he is chairing the AU in the year that there are presidential elections in his own country,’ says Liesl Louw-Vaudran, editor of the Institute for Security Studies’ PSC Report. ‘Even though everyone knows he will win hands down, this seems very unfair to the opposition. What is the AU saying? That his election is a fait accompli? That they know he won’t lose and so he will be AU chair for all of 2016?’
Like Mugabe, Déby has repeatedly been implicated in human rights abuses. Amnesty International says that serious human rights violations occur in Chad ‘with almost total impunity’.
Most notably, there have been strong allegations that he was complicit in the mass killings for which Habré is now on trial. ‘For events … that left tens of thousands dead, only one man [Habré] is being tried. All the others charged have finally slipped through the net of justice owing to the will of one man [Déby], who should himself appear here because he was in the forefront of the troops,’ said Mbaye Guèye, president of the Senegalese bar and the lawyer for the victims, at the opening of the Habré trial. Given this less-than-salubrious background, it’s worth asking why Déby’s appointment as AU chair has not attracted the same degree of condemnation and general unease as Mugabe’s.
The answer may lie in one crucial distinction between the two leaders: whereas Mugabe is virulently anti-western, Déby is a key ally of both France and the United States (US), and Chad plays a major role in the international fight against Islamist extremism. Unlike Mugabe, Déby is friendly, at least as far as Western powers are concerned – and, more importantly, he is needed.
Over the last few years, Déby has dispatched his army to fight on several different fronts, including in Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria. Chad’s interventions have received mixed reviews: while hailed in Mali for pushing back Islamist rebels, along with France, in the CAR Chadian soldiers were implicated in serious human rights violations and accused of inciting rather than calming tensions.
His capital, N’Djamena, is currently the headquarters for both Operation Barkhane, France’s trans-Sahel counter-terrorism operation, and the Multinational Joint Task Force, a regional mission designed to combat Boko Haram. Prior to this, Chad also played a major role in the situation in Darfur. Déby himself is from the Zaghawa ethnic group, which has a presence in both Darfur and Eastern Chad, and is married to the daughter of notorious Janjaweed leader, Musa Hilal.
All this fighting has come at an enormous financial cost. ‘I have always argued that Chad has been able to intervene militarily on so many fronts because the government has been able to divert oil money from development to the military,’ Celeste Hicks, a journalist previously based in Chad and author of Africa’s New Oil, told ISS Today in an interview. ‘My calculations in 2014 were that Chad has spent at least US$4 billion of US$11 billion earned from oil on the military. The Mali intervention, for example, cost at least US$500 million.’ By contrast, Chad’s gross domestic product last year came to just under US$14 billion.
Hicks explains that this investment was designed to allow Déby to present himself as ‘a regional powerbroker in an unstable region’, and that it has endeared him to western allies – even though it may have been better used to improve his country’s poor development statistics. ‘International powers such as France and the US have been quite happy to encourage him to do that, because he is effectively trying to carry out a regional peacekeeping service that they are unable or unwilling to do themselves,’ she said.
In one of Déby’s first high-profile meetings in his official AU capacity, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explicitly acknowledged this connection. ‘The Secretary-General welcomed Chad’s efforts to counter the threat posed by Boko Haram, acknowledging that the effort should be supported by the international community,’ read the UN’s brief report on the meeting.
In this context, it should come as no surprise that Déby’s ascension to the AU’s top job is considerably less controversial than that of Mugabe. Déby may not be a model democrat, but – unlike Mugabe – his commitment to regional peacekeeping and counter-terrorism efforts has ensured that he has got friends in high places.