NDJAMENA, Chad — Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, speaks in a soft mumble, wears spectacles and an immaculate white robe, and is to be found in the quiet inner recesses of a gilt-edged, marble presidential palace — under crystal chandeliers and vaulted arches that seem part Renaissance, part Vegas — at the dusty center of his country’s capital.
Yet he is undeniably one of Africa’s most formidable strongmen. His men once whipped Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fighters in a desert battle, and he has survived numerous rebel assaults and coup attempts. More recently, his forces have successfully battled the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, shoring up his credentials as the West’s favorite African autocrat.
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Still, in discussing his military’s victory in the Boko Haram stronghold of Damasak, in Nigeria, Mr. Déby showed no hint of triumphalism. Instead, he was frustrated, impatient: His men were stuck, still awaiting any sign of Nigerian forces who could come take over. He does not want to be holding Nigerian territory, he said. He wants to be on the move.
We want the Nigerians to come and occupy, so we can advance, Mr. Déby complained in an interview at his palace last week. We’re wasting time, for the benefit of Boko Haram, he added. We can’t go any further in Nigeria. We’re not an army of occupation.
The president says he took up the war against Boko Haram reluctantly, and mostly as a bid for economic survival: Chad is a landlocked country, dependent on land trade routes through the militant group’s territory.
In the process, he has embarrassed Nigeria — a small-country president cleaning up a far bigger and richer one’s mess — and he has overshadowed the militaries of neighboring Cameroon and Niger that are less well equipped, while earning the gratitude of Western leaders.
Those leaders once shunned him for his shaky human rights record, low corruption ranking, nepotism and brutal police force. In fact, those conditions have not changed. His country ranks fourth from the bottom on the United Nations Human Development Index of 187 nations, with rock-bottom life expectancy and schooling levels. The Chadian elite connected to him enjoy gargantuan villas, looming above the battered one-story dwellings of ordinary people. Last week, clandestinely recorded video images showed his police officers whipping half-naked student demonstrators. And his military forces were accused of serious human rights violations during their intervention in the Central African Republic last year.
Yet Mr. Déby, 62, is a pariah no more. Now the French foreign minister smiles at him in photographs. Although he insists he is not Africa’s policeman, the West is only too happy to call on his forces in a region seething with Islamist terrorists.
While his tough, turbaned soldiers occupy towns in Nigeria recently ruled by Boko Haram, his up-to-date helicopter gunships are bombing the bloodthirsty sect in other places. Already, at least three important towns in Nigeria’s northeast — Damasak, Dikwa and Gamboru — have been taken by the Chadians. And his troops, after driving thousands of miles into the desert, are still in northern Mali taking on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
With billions of dollars in oil revenues since the early 2000s, military spending at least double that of most African countries, and 40 years of tough civil wars, most of which Mr. Déby has personally taken part in, he has built himself a formidable fighting machine whose movements and actions he coordinates personally, say those who know him.
Without Mr. Déby and his battle-hardened soldiers, analysts and diplomats say, there would be nobody on the ramparts in this vulnerable part of Africa. The Chadians are essential. They are the most capable military in the region, by a long shot, said a veteran diplomat who spent years here. They are pretty much incomparable.
Now, with Boko Haram on the ropes, temporarily at least, and in no small part thanks to his men, Mr. Déby might seem positioned for a triumphalist victory lap. But those who know him well say this is not how he operates.
Déby does things coldly. He doesn’t do things out of sentiment. That’s his strength, said Saleh Makki, a veteran opposition member of Parliament who spent 147 days in Mr. Déby’s jails in 2013 after being accused — falsely, he said — of fomenting a coup plot.
Indeed, the army’s relative strength is itself a function of Mr. Déby’s calculated insecurity. Rebels have made it to the capital twice in the past 10 years, burning ministry buildings, shooting and looting in the streets. The last time, in 2008, Mr. Déby found himself holding out nearly alone in the palace, refusing to evacuate. He took power by force himself at the head of a rebel movement in 1990 and has not budged since.
Unfortunately, we have known lots of adventures in this country was Mr. Déby’s discreet summation of Chad’s postcolonial history.
Mr. Déby’s army — lavishly equipped with Sukhoi warplanes and French light tanks, made up substantially of fighters from his ethnicity, the Zaghawa, and from his home region in the desert north — is as much an instrument of personal survival as of national defense, say opposition leaders and outside analysts.
When Déby is gone, this puzzle will fall to pieces, said Saleh Kebzabo, the longtime opposition leader here. It’s not a national army, he said. Instead of developing the country, he’s super-equipped the army, Mr. Kebzabo said.
Mr. Déby first won the admiration of the West as a military tactician in 1987, when as the commander of Chadian forces he sent his men’s Toyota pickup trucks racing through the desert to outflank Colonel Qaddafi’s Libyan forces with a swift pincer movement. These days, the commander chafes at Nigeria’s lack of coordination with his forces, and the much larger country’s apparent immobility on its own terrain.
Mr. Déby’s anger at the Nigerians was barely restrained in the interview.
All we’re doing is standing in place, Mr. Déby said. And it is to the advantage of Boko Haram.
We’ve been on the terrain for two months, and we haven’t seen a single Nigerian soldier, he added. There is a definite deficit of coordination, and a lack of common action.
He said that time was running out for a larger victory against Boko Haram. Soon it will be rainy season, he said, explaining that it will be more difficult for troops to maneuver. This will give Boko Haram a three-month bonus.
The Nigerians, for their part, are publicly dismissive of their smaller neighbor, still insisting that it is they who are doing the heavy lifting against Boko Haram, not Mr. Déby’s forces.
Diplomats and analysts acknowledge that the Nigerians have finally gotten into the fight, along with the help of South African mercenaries. But they still view Chad as an indispensable force. I don’t see any way of successfully confronting the Boko Haram without Chadian assistance, said the veteran diplomat.
That Western recognition for Mr. Déby and his army chafes, in turn, at the opposition and civil society in Chad, systematically locked out of power for years.
The responsibility of the West is huge, Mr. Kebzabo said angrily. They’ve found someone to do their dirty work. Then, they close their eyes.
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