Whether president or rebel, Chad's Habre is a survivor

President Hissein Habre of Chad is currently locked in the struggle of his life. Pinned down with his troops in the palm groves of Faya Largeau by Libyan Sukhoi tactical bombers, MIG-21 fighter aircraft, and helicopter gunships, it might appear that the outgunned President of Chad has after years of success as a desert commander finally met his match.

Don't bet on it. The reason is simple, as one senior Western diplomat here explained: ''Habre has been in a similar position before. When you finally think he's finished, he always seems to bounce back. He's head and shoulders above any other leader in Chad.''

Whether President Habre is worthy of such open-ended confidence, especially against such heavy odds, is open to debate. But regardless of the outcome of the battle at Faya Largeau, there is no question that Hissein Habre is an extraordinary individual by any standards.

Born the son of a sheperd in 1939, Habre has led a varied and checkered life - full of setbacks and obstacles - which has taken him from the rugged deserts of northern Chad as a boy, to the halls of numerous French academic institutions as a young man, back to the deserts of Chad as a rebel commander in the 1970s, and finally into the presidency last year.

It is not surprising that in the highly fractious and polarized political environment of Chad, the strong-willed and controversial Habre has made both friends and enemies.

To his detractors, as one Chadian commented, ''Habre is ruthless, uncompromising, and egotistical. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants most, which is personal power.''

To his supporters, Habre is a talented, skilled, and determined nationalist - the only man in Chad with enough political acumen and personal authority to unite a nation divided by 17 years of civil war and the only man capable of standing up to the Libyans.

There is plenty of evidence in Habre's past to support both conclusions.

The uncomprising and ruthless side to his character was demonstrated by such incidents as the Claustre affair - when Habre held two French archaeologists captive for over two years in the mid-1970s and killed a French officer sent to negotiate their release - and his past enmity for southern Chadians who opposed his leadership. The constructive and conciliatory side of Habre's complex character has been demonstrated by his actions since he became President of Chad 14 months ago.

As chief of state, Habre has not only managed to create a relatively efficient and honest administration, but he has also been able to forge a tentative alliance between the differing interests of northern and southern Chadians - an accomplishment which eluded every other Chadian president since independence.

Regardless of whether individual Chadians like or dislike Habre, most Chadians respect him - and for good reason.

As one Western diplomat here observed, ''Habre has made a lot of friends and enemies in this country. There is no question that his past is scarred. But even those who hate Habre respect him. He's tough, efficient, and intelligent. He knows what he wants and he goes after it.''

As a desert fighter and military tactician, Habre's exploits are almost legendary: first as the commander in chief of the rebel organization Frolinat in the early 1970s, later as the leader and commander of his own guerrilla organization in the middle and late 1970s, and most recently as the leader of the Chadian armed forces (FANT).

Habre's reputation as a tough and skilled military commander has beeen further enhanced by his latest military exploits. With the rebel forces of former President Goukhouni Woddei controlling the entire northern half of the country and with the government FANT troops suffering a humiliating defeat at the strategic eastern town of Abeche, it was Habre who took personal control of the FANT troops, leading a two-week counteroffensive which culminated in the recent takeover of the rebel stronghold of Faya Largeau.

As one Western official with years of experience in Chad commented, ''There is no way that the government troops could have stopped the rebels without Habre. Just to have Habre at the front lines must have given his troops an incredible psychological lift. Although he's personally very quiet, he exudes authority and confidence.''

In addition to Habre's military accomplishments, his academic achievements are also impressive. After graduating from high school in his hometown of Faya Largeau and spending three years in the Chadian civil service, Habre left Chad for Paris where he spent the next five years earning successive degrees at the Institute of Overseas Higher Studies, the faculty of law and economic sciences, and finally a doctorate at the faculty of law.

Although Habre has his hands full fighting both the Libyans and Goukhouni's rebels, judging from his past there is no reason to think that he will not somehow survive this latest challenge. ''Whether as a leader of the government or as a rebel commander,'' one senior Western official in N'Djamena observed, ''Habre will be a force to reckon with in Chad for a long time to come.''

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