Chad – Death of Chad’s President Leaves Vacuum in the Heart of the Sahel

Chad – Death of Chad’s President Leaves Vacuum in the Heart of the Sahel

On 20th April Chad’s President, Idriss Déby Itno, was killed while inspecting troops fighting a rebel insurgency in the North of the country. A close ally of Western powers, his death has left a vacuum at the center of power in Chad, potentially threatening security in the wider Sahel region. In the wake of a swift military transition, Chad now stands at a crossroads as protesters call for democratic elections and international allies appear to flounder in their policy towards the country.

A Contested Election 

Members of the rebel group, Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), crossed Chad’s Northern border from Libya on 11th April and began to move towards the capital. The attack came after election results which returned Idriss Déby for a sixth term with over 80% of the vote, despite widespread accusations of fraud and a crackdown on opposition parties. This year’s election followed a controversial constitutional reform in 2018 which saw Déby, who has been in power since overthrowing his former ally, Hissène Habré, in 1990, discount his previous terms allowing himself to run twice more. 

It was while visiting Chadian troops combatting the FACT incursion that Déby was killed with exact details of why he was on the frontline yet to be confirmed. In the days leading up to his death, US, French and UK embassies ordered withdrawals of their staff and issued advice for foreign nationals to leave the country. It was clear that the capital, N’Djamena, faced a genuine threat despite attempts to stabilise the situation.

A Lynchpin in the Sahel 

Chad sits in a strategically significant position between the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Déby had long placed a strong premium on his relationship with Western powers and successfully established himself as a key ally in the region. The Chadian military has gained a strong reputation on the back of its efforts to counter terrorism as part of the G5 Sahel initiative alongside US and European military powers. Déby has also been active in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria and ingratiated himself with Washington by lending support in efforts to install Khalifa Haftar in Libya.

Ties with Chad’s former colonial power, France, have been particularly close, with successive French governments supporting Déby’s regime despite its dubious record on civil liberties. Paris even went so far as to provide military support against a previous FACT-led insurgency in 2019. At the time, the French Minister of Defense justified this use of force as critical to safeguarding a “major ally in the struggle against terrorism in the Sahel”. 

A Tussle for Power 

In the hours following his father’s death, Déby’s eldest son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, was swiftly declared leader and the constitution suspended for 18 months. This move came despite constitutional protocol stating that the baton should be handed to the speaker of parliament. The takeover was condemned by FACT, who issued a statement declaring that, “Chad is not a monarchy. There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country.”  France, on the other hand, initially backed the transfer of power by Chad’s Conseil Militaire de Transition (CMT), in the name of maintaining stability in the country. Speaking as the only Western leader to attend Déby’s funeral, Emmanuel Macron declared that France would, “not let anybody put into question or threaten Chad’s stability and territorial integrity.” 

However, doubt now seems to have crept into the mind’s of decision makers in Paris. Following protests last week which saw at least 2 people killed and 27 injured, as well as reported attacks on French-connected businesses, officials in Paris appear to have changed their position on the role of the military commission in transition, calling instead for a “civilian national unity government”. In a joint statement with the DRC, the Elysée backed “an inclusive transition process open to all Chadian political forces” culminating in “elections within an 18-month delay”.

This apparent U-turn is likely a response to the complex political landscape on the ground. Despite Mahamat Déby’s swift accession, the alternative option of allowing Parliamentary Speaker, Haroun Kabadi, to take the role of transitional President and hold elections in 3 months’ time was debated. Meanwhile, Déby Senior’s two younger sons, Abdelkerim Idriss Déby and Zakaria Idriss Déby, both harbour political ambitions of their own with reports of family skirmishes already emerging.

One of Mahamat Déby’s key advantages over his brothers lies in his close ties to the Gorane, through his mother and his wife. The leader of FACT, Mahamat Mahdi Ali, is also Gorane and a large number of his recruits emanate from that group. Loyalties do not fall neatly on ethnic lines, however, as recent reports suggest that members of Déby’s Zaghawa group have joined FACT. 

A Country at a Crossroads 

The CMT’s position was beginning to look fragile even before protests pushed international allies to temper their support for the new regime. Despite making up only 1% of the population, the Zaghawa take up 7 of the 14 seats on the CMT. The much larger Arab and Sara groups, meanwhile, have 1 and 2 seats, respectively. It remains to be seen whether Mahamat Déby has either the strength or charisma to hold his coalition together amidst widespread concerns about his legitimacy and mounting protests. If Chad were to descend into open conflict over the transfer to democratic elections, the knock-on effects could be felt across the Sahel. 

Relations with foreign allies now also seem to be in question and there is a distinct possibility that destabilisation in Chad could impact wider Western policy in the region. The response from France will be watched particularly closely as Paris grapples with the implications of losing a key ally. There have long been calls for international leaders to place more emphasis on community engagement in their approach to the Sahel, and the loss of friendly strongman in the region may prove a tipping point.

Categories: Africa, Politics

About Author