Habré, Hisséne 1942–
Hisséne Habré 1942–
Former president of Chad
The political chaos of the Republic of Chad has led many international observers to conclude that among all the troubled nations in the world, this pocket of sub-Saharan Africa is one of the least capable of resisting the internal and external forces that threaten to tear it apart. The country’s post-colonial life has been marked not by peace or unity springing from independence, but by ethnic and religious battling. The Chadian government—constantly warring against a vast array of enemies—hardly has the opportunity to govern. Amid the coups and blood baths that have long wreaked havoc on the country, poverty is the norm, and Chadians realize that life in their native land is as stable as a house of cards built on a windy beach.
At the center of Chadian modern history is Hissene Habré, the deposed president whose many political rises and falls reflect the turbulence of the country he struggled to lead. Alternately called brilliant, ruthless, heroic, and opportunistic, Habré became the vessel of hope and promise when he captured the presidency in 1982. He was viewed as a man who could vitalize Chad with the same zeal he had brought to a series of legendary military campaigns. But he, too, succumbed to a coup—at the hands of a former ally—and critics once again wondered whether anyone could break Chad’s regrettable cycle of self-ruination.
Habré was born in 1942 in Faya Largeau, a town in the north of Chad situated on a major route to Libya and occupied mostly by Islamic nomads and semi-nomads. His father, a poor shepherd, belonged to a subclan of the Toubous, a northern ethnic group consisting of farmers and livestock breeders. Having graduated from a mission-run primary school in 1962, Habré took a post with the French military administration, which retained supervisory responsibility of the country’s nprthern provinces even though. Chad had won its independence from France in 1960.
Within Chad’s borders—which were drawn by nineteenth-century French colonists—stewed the antagonism of 11 ethnic groups speaking different languages and clinging to different cultural traditions. But the boiled-down rivalry was that of the North versus the South. During the colonial period, the French had focused their commercial interests in the southern part of the country, occupied mostly by Christians. When the French left, the first independent president, southerner Francois Tombalbaye, continued to lavish attention on the increasingly modern, Westernized southern axis, and asked the French military to monitor the northern Muslims,
Name pronounced “Ee-sen Ah-bray”; born in 1942 in Faya Largeau, Chad; son of a shepherd; reportedly married with at least one child, a daughter. Education: Obtained several degrees, including a doctorate from the Institute of Overseas Higher Studies, Paris, France.
Government of Chad, subprefect of Moussoro, 1970-71; joined national resistance movement Front de la Liberation Nationale du Tchad (FROLINAT), 1971; leader of Forces Armées du Nord (FAN), FROLINAT’s military wing, 1972-76; held several Europeans captive, 1974-77; prime minister, 1978-79; defense minister, 1979-80; expelled from coalition government, 1980; captured presidency in coup, 1982; president, 1982-90; government overturned, 1990; forced into exile; forces loyal to Habré failed in attempt to reinstatement him, 1992.
Addresses: c/o Embassy of Chad, 2002 R St. N.W., Washington, DC 20009.
who were voicing extreme disenchantment with a system that had alienated them politically and economically.
Blessed with an astute political mind, young Habré was introduced to Tombalbaye as a prime candidate for a government position. As part of a program to cultivate loyal northern leaders, Habré was given a scholarship to study administration in Paris. While in France, he was transfixed by the student revolt movement, which protested the conservative policies of President Charles de Gaulle. Habré became known as a rather power-hungry young man exploring any and all political profiles that would facilitate his rise up the governmental ladder. As one Habré detractor, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, said of him years later, “Habré is ruthless, uncompromising, and egotistical. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants most, which is personal power.”
Habré’s intelligence and ambition were rewarded upon his return to Chad in 1970, when he was named subprefect of Moussoro, a strategically important town in the center of the country. At the time, the Chadian civil war that had started four years earlier was gaining momentum. Pitted against the French-backed Tombalbaye government was the Front de la Liberation Nationale du Tchad (FROUNAT), a northern rebel organization that was formed in 1966 to advance a nationalist struggle. Having begun as a peasant uprising in opposition to the Tombalbaye government, the northern-based FROUNAT later evolved into an unwavering militant group seeking retaliation against the more advantaged southern ethnic groups.
Tombalbaye, fearing for his political life, introduced a number of policies designed to appease FROLINAT. In 1971 he sent Habré to Algiers in a secret mission to negotiate with top rebel leaders, including FROLINAT head Abba Siddick. Habré ended up joining the rebels; almost immediately, however, Siddick began viewing him as a potential political opponent. Habré then pooled with Goukouni Oueddei, who headed the group’s military wing, Forces Armées du Nord (better known as FAN). George Joffe wrote in Current History, “By 1972, Habré had become a dominant personality inside the FAN and Goukouni Oueddei ceded command to him, becoming his deputy.”
But the alliance among FROLINAT’s leadership proved as tenuous as the government’s grip on power, with the association between Habré and Oueddei soon degenerating into hostility. One of their main disagreements centered on the Aozou Strip, a mineral-rich region of northern Chad. The neighboring Arab nation of Libya, under both Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and his monarchist predecessor, argued that a 1935 treaty between France and Italy granted the border strip to Libya. Although the treaty was not recognized in international law, by the end of 1972 Libya had unilaterally occupied the strip. Oueddei tolerated the Libyan land grab, but Habré viewed the Arabs as enemies on a par with the Tombalbaye government and urged the rebels to wage a two-pronged military campaign.
In 1974 during an assault on a government-held district capital, Habré took two French archeologists captive, a move that troubled the more cautious Oueddei. Against Oueddei’s urging, Habré boldly decided to negotiate with the French government directly, thus further emasculating the Chadian government and earning Habré the international celebrity of a rebel big shot. When Habré ordered the killing of a French officer sent to negotiate the release of the last remaining hostage (an anthropologist whose husband was a high French official), the world witnessed the ruth-lessness that would characterize his ascent to power—and, later, his struggle to retain the Chadian presidency.
That the political views of Habré and Oueddei were irreconcilable became eminently clear in 1975, when Tombalbaye was killed in a coup that brought army chief of staff Felix Malloum to power. Oueddei favored a conciliatory approach to the new administration, which inherited the backing of the French, while Habré advocated a redoubling of the anti-government rebellion. The showdown between the two rebel leaders came at a 1976 meeting, when Oueddei, who still enjoyed popular support, succeeded in dismissing Habré from the leadership of FROLINAT’s military arm.
Habré and a band of 200 supporters took refuge along Chad’s eastern border with Sudan. The Sudanese government shared Habré’s opposition to Libyan expansionism and provided the exiled leader with weapons and a safe base. Despite Habré’s expulsion, few observers doubted that he would reemerge on the national scene. That opportunity latter arrived in the form of an invitation by Malloum, one of Habré’s sworn enemies, for Habré to become prime minister of a new Chadian government ostensibly dedicated to national unity. Predictably, that arrangement proved impossible, and the government quickly deteriorated, unable to stem the explosive fighting among the country’s religious and ethnic groups.
Finally, a series of mediation attempts by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), as well as several independent nations, introduced a broadly representative coalition government whose make-up contained the seeds of its own destruction. Oueddei was named president, while Habré became the defense minister. After a short honeymoon of peace, Chad began yet another descent into anarchy in early 1980. Large-scale fighting sent as many as 250 people a day into French military hospitals. Habré called on Oueddei to demand the removal of Libyan forces that, in Habré’s eyes, were not in Chad for the official purpose of preserving the coalition government, but to guarantee Arab control of the Aozou Strip. Oueddei, however, continued to defend the Libyans and with the support of other factional chieftains, all of whom feared the dictatorial ambition they perceived in Habré, expelled Habré from the government.
Again, Habré took refuge along the Sudanese border, where he and his supporters were supplied with arms by Sudan and Egypt, largely because of the their hostility toward the Qaddafi regime in Libya. By mid-September of 1981, Habré, increasingly seen as a first-rate military tactician, controlled several key provinces and had won brownie points with the international community by expressing interest in a reconciliation with the government, a move roundly rejected by Oueddei. Because his anti-Libyan message had attracted more and more popular support, Habré was able to lead his troops into the capital city of N’Djamena in June of 1982, forcing Oueddei and his allies to flee. Habré was then installed as president.
During his tenure in office, Habré succeeded in keeping Oueddei’s forces at bay; in fact, many of Oueddei’s supporters—alarmed at Libya’s persistent encroachment into Chad—ultimately came to rally around the new president. In 1983, France poured in $500,000 a day and the United States provided anti-aircraft equipment for Habré’s successful military operation designed to repel advancing Libyan forces. And in 1987, when 10,000 Libyan forces played a cat and mouse game with Chad and its supporters in the West, Habré launched a series of aggressive attacks, some of them into Libya itself, thereby defeating his opponents and galvanizing his military legend.
Even though it appeared that Habré had sparked the rebirth of Chad—particularly after a 1989 election that gave his government a legitimacy not seen since the onset of the civil war—the deep-rooted problem of internal religious and ethnic tensions remained. The country, one of the world’s poorest, had spent up to 40 percent of its money on the war and thus offered little support to the millions of its citizens who had suffered through drought and famine and had seen their crops drop significantly in value in the world market. Moreover, although he brought former adversaries into his administration, Habré was notoriously brutal in clamping down on dissenters. One political prisoner, who was tortured under orders from Habré, told the New York Times, “One of the things I’ve never been able to understand is how an African leader who was brilliant intellectually could do such things. His great abilities often contradicted policies [of cruelty].”
The rampant human rights abuses were cited as one reason why France, routinely the defender of Chadian governments, did not come to rescue Habré in December of 1990, when rebels under the control of Libyan-backed Idriss Deby marched with little resistance into the capital, forcing Habré out of office and out of the country. Deby had become Habré’s chief of staff in 1982, but in 1989 he fled N’Djamena after being accused of plotting a coup in the name of the northern Zaghawa tribe, a rival of Habré’s ethnic group. Two years later, with the backing of French paramilitary troops, the Chadian army of Deby crushed a rebellion by forces loyal to Habré, who during the fighting was reported to have remained in exile in Senegal.
Africa South of the Sahara: 1993, 22nd edition, Europa, 1993.
Contemporary West African States, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Decalo, Samuel, Historical Dictionary of Chad, 2nd edition, Scarecrow, 1987.
Wright, John L., Libya, Chad, and the Central Sahara, B&N Imports, 1989.
Boston Globe, January 5, 1992, p. 8.
Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 1983, p. 6.
Current History, April 1990, p. 157.
New York Times, April 15, 1987, sec. IV, p. 3; December 6, 1990, p. A3; December 7, 1990, p. A5; December 16, 1990, sec. IV, p. 2; January 5, 1992, p. A10.
Washington Post, January 4, 1992, p. A13.
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