Chad: Six things to know about the rebel group FACT

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Chad: The end of an era

By Anne-Marie Bissada
Posted on Friday, 23 April 2021 00:32, updated on Monday, 26 April 2021 12:03

U.S. says Chad rebels heading towards capital from north
People drive past a Chad army tank near presidential palace, as fighters from the rebel FACT appeared to be moving toward the capital according to the United States, in N'djamena, Chad April 19, 2021. REUTERS/ Stringer

The death of Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno came as a surprise, given his resilience and cat-like ability to avoid near-death experiences in the past. But the group being blamed for his death is Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT). They are not a well-known rebel group, but they have been around. Here are some facts on FACT.

There is a lot of speculation about the circumstances surrounding Déby’s death. The government’s official line is that he was killed fighting rebels. The day Déby’s death was announced, certain news articles and social media posts jumped the gun, stating he was killed by Boko Haram.

However, in this case, the Nigeria-based Islamist group does not seem to be the culprit.

The day before Déby’s death was confirmed, the head of FACT, Mahamat Mahadi Ali, was in an interview with Radio France Internationale describing Déby’s presence at the front lines in the centre-west of the country over the weekend.

Interim President Mahamat Idriss Déby will “need to move quickly and decisively to keep the rebels quiet,” says our source.

It was there, during a battle to push back the rebel group from advancing towards the capital, that he was hit, the government says.

1. How long has FACT been around?

The group has officially existed since 2016, but many members including its leader have been involved in whipping up rebellions, all with the same aim: ridding Chad of Déby.

The FACT leader “is a long-term political figure from Chad,” says Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Ali lived “in France for many years”, says Eizenga.

When Déby became president in 1990, it ushered in what would become a turbulent period. “But he was able to consolidate control, particularly over different armed groups from the north and east.” This moment was the calm before the storm.

“By the mid-2000s, there were a number of different rebel groups that were opposed to Déby’s regime, some of whom were actually family members of Déby, and most of them were based in western Sudan in the Darfur area,” says Eizenga.

Ali was part of one of those groups, where he floated in and out of different positions.

2. Is FACT affiliated with other rebel groups?

“It’s definitely not Boko Haram,” says Eizenga.

Ali created FACT following a split from the Union des Forces pour la Democratie et le Developpement (UFDD), led by Mahamat Nouri, a member of the Gorane group. Some UFDD members joined FACT.

Nouri had joined the FROLINAT rebel group in 1969, made up of Muslim members from the northern and central part of the country. When that group split up in 1976, he sided with Hissen Habré, who then became president of Chad.

Under Habré, Nouri became interior minister. When Déby took power in 1990, Nouri pledged allegiance to him. But following his time in Saudi Arabia as Chad’s ambassador, Nouri cut ties with Déby following his reelection in 2006. He then went to Sudan to work with the different rebel groups there, all of them seeking Déby’s ouster.

READ MORE [Exclusive] Chad: The last hours of President Idriss Déby

In the book The Trial of Hissene Habré, author Celeste Hicks wrote that FACT also has elements of former rebel groups, namely the Union des Forces de la Résistance (UFR) Zaghawa led at the time by Timan Erdimi, who was also a sympathiser of Ali’s group.

UFR Zaghawa was behind the rebellion in 2019 that led an attack into Chad from Libya. It was halted by French air strikes and the Chadian army. This was the most serious threat in years against Déby’s rule.

The rebel group was primarily composed of fighters from Déby’s own group, the Zaghawa. And those most hostile to him were members of his own family. Erdimi is Déby’s nephew. He tried to overthrow his uncle in 2008 and again in 2009 after establishing UFR Zaghawa.

FACT is not associated with, nor does it belong to any religious-based group.

3. Is FACT’s ultimate goal to rid the country of Déby?

The group was enraged by the so-called ‘stolen election’ that took place on 11 April, with Déby winning by 79.3% of votes. “It was a farce, as every election is,” says one source in Chad. The group did not want to see Déby run for what would have been his sixth term.

But, as is the case with most armed groups, FACT also wanted to rid the country of Déby so it could have a “seat at the table, to benefit from [Chad’s] sources of wealth and political influence,” says the source.

The hostility goes back to a rivalry between Déby’s Zaghawa ethnic group and the Gorane ethnic group (also known as Toubou or Daza). Habré and the current head of FACT are also from the Gorane ethnic group.

So in short, yes, “overthrowing Déby was their ultimate goal”. But given that Déby’s son is now in power, Eizenga says, that goal has not really been achieved.

4. What are FACT’s ties with Libya, where they are based?

Before grouping themselves under the FACT banner, the different factions were based in neighbouring Sudan, particularly in Darfur.

Déby and Sudan’s then president Omar al-Bashir deliberated on various peace agreements to stop rebel incursions coming from either side of the Chadian and Sudanese borders, says Eizenga.

The next-best place to go was Libya. There are reports of FACT forces acting as mercenaries for both sides of the Libyan conflict, says a source in Chad, but we cannot confirm this.

“At least four different Chadian rebel groups have all been more or less based in southern Libya for several years now,” says Eizenga.

5. Who has been arming FACT?

It’s not clear where FACT’s firepower has been coming from. There has been some “speculation that there were ties between FACT and Khalifa Haftar [head of the Libyan National Army rebel forces],” says Eizenga.

Some reports say Haftar began to arm FACT in southern Libya beginning in 2020.

But in 2019, Haftar had reportedly asked the different rebel groups to leave Libya, our source in Chad says.

However, after Haftar warmed up to the group, FACT has widely been seen “as a major threat to the Chadian government for some time now,” says Eizenga.

Although FACT was able to push back the Chadian army, the majority of its arms are considered to be low-tech. That means “4x4s mounted with machine guns and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades],” our Chad-based source says.

6. With Déby out of the picture, what will FACT do?

While there are still many unknowns, one this is certain: Chad’s political stability had more cracks in it than previously thought.

“Because of the consolidated autocracy that he [Déby] had created or that he worked at […] it was never really clear what would happen when ultimately he would be removed from power, whether it was due to natural causes or whether there was a coup d’état or whether in this case, he apparently died from wounds received on the battlefield,” says Eizenga.

Following news of Déby’s death, the quick actions of his allies indicate they do not want to leave anything to chance. Interim President Mahamat Idriss Déby will “need to move quickly and decisively to keep the rebels quiet”, says our source.

If some insurgents manage to make it into N’djamena, “then it could get very messy,” the source continues.

That said, Déby, a man who has lived six lives, raised a son who is “as capable a commander as his father”, so it is possible that he will be able to stave off FACT, for now.

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