New First Lady Captivates Chad

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

N'DJAMENA, Chad -- The first family of Chad, by its own admission, has issues.

President Idriss Deby's twin nephews -- Tom and Timan Erdimi -- were once part of their uncle's inner circle but defected and started a rebel movement earlier this year. They are, at times, loosely joined with hardened fighters such as Mahmoud Nour, a former military confidant of the president who orchestrated an April 13 coup attempt that nearly pushed Deby out of office.

At the same time, the rest of Deby's family is no longer speaking with the president after he held a secret meeting outside the capital last year in which he said he wanted his son -- the sunglasses-clad Brahim -- to take over the presidency.

That's just the start of "Deby's dysfunctional family," as Chadian newspaper cartoonists have depicted the first family.

Deby, 53, a French-trained helicopter pilot and a former rebel himself, is so afraid of being assassinated that he admits to using doubles when traveling. His relations grew so estranged with various relatives that he decided to add "Itno" to his family name to remind his tribe of his roots -- Itno was reportedly his grandfather's name, from the elite Zaghawa tribe. Over the radio recently, Deby declared, "Henceforth, the president's name is Idriss Deby Itno." Fresh T-shirts were handed out and campaign posters were changed to carry his new initials, "IDI!"

When nothing seemed to work to restore his fortune, Deby did what many other men have done when confronting a midlife crisis: He bought a new car -- a sparkling white Hummer -- and took a new wife.

The wife, 29-year-old Chadian beauty Hinda Deby, has captivated the capital in a way unseen before in this male-dominated society. Well-spoken and dressed in flowing designer gowns and matching head scarves, Hinda is seen nearly always by her husband's side. She has replaced his son as his stenographer, taking notes on legal pads with her henna-stained nails. She recently gave a speech at the African Union in his place.

She's the "fourth lady" of Chad. Or the 13th, depending on whom you ask. (Deby has had many wives and divorces and has at least a dozen children.) Dressed in a light baby-blue outfit and narrow high-heels, she stood out among the bevy of steely-eyed, red-beret-clad special forces guards who surrounded the couple at a recent event. "She's so beautiful," cooed the normally rough-mannered president. "She helps advise me with every single decision I make."

Educated in Morocco, France and a college in Montreal, she was friendly with Brahim, Deby's son, who dabbled in college courses.

The president and Hinda Deby met at a gathering of Chad's ruling elite in the capital. He met the parents. She said she had always had a crush on the president.

They were married soon after in September, in a Sahel desert ceremony under large tents with a mix of delicacies, including chicken with peanut sauce and steaks with various cream sauces, according to diplomats who attended.

Although the capital is abuzz with reports of Hinda's beauty -- she has clear coffee-colored skin and almond-shaped eyes -- the marriage may be strategic, as many are here.

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