According to a confirmation from the national army of Chad read on national television, the newly re-elected President Idriss Déby has died of wounds he received while commanding his army in battles against rebels in the north.
Shockwaves from the killing of Chadian leader in the early hours of 19 April reverberated across West and Central Africa to Addis Ababa and Khartoum. They reached France’s President Emmanuel Macron who is also jetting down to pay his respects in N’Djamena on Friday.
Diplomats are talking of a ‘Gaddafi moment’ when an autocrat’s exit upsets the security calculus across a vast expanse of the map and disrupts hundreds of thousands of lives.
How and why Déby was killed is shrouded in mystery. He was flanked by his troops and senior officers trying to repel insurgents at Nokou, some 300 kilometres north of the capital N’Djamena,
‘Reminiscent of city-state of Sparta’
Déby’s dominance in Chad over the last three decades, leading the most effective fighting force in the region, lent an aura of invincibility to the country reminiscent of the city-state of Sparta in ancient Greece.
For Chad’s Déby, like Sparta’s Lycurgus, military prowess translated into political strategy and power. Mythology also played its part.
Although Chad was an essential component of every alliance against insurgents in its neighbourhood, the paradox is that Déby was slain amid an internal rebellion.
Chad’s neighbours fear that with Déby’s passing, those alliances will be gravely weakened. At the beginning of this month, 200 Chadian soldiers led an attack at Aguelhok in eastern Mali, killing over 40 fighters linked to Iyad Ag-Ghaly and al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel .
In the Sahel and in the Lake Chad Basin, Déby’s troops were taking on the toughest missions. Should Chad’s army break asunder, there are reports of serial defections to the insurgents, an echoing military vacuum could open up.
Chairman of the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Moussa Faki Mahamat, prime minister and then foreign minister in successive Déby governments, knows the stakes at first hand.
Describing Déby as a ‘great statesman and recognised military leader’, Moussa Faki will have to navigate around the AU’s strictures against coup d’etats.
‘Hastily suspended constitutional rule’
Chad’s hastily assembled ruling military council, under the late President’s son General Mahamat Idris Déby, has suspended constitutional rule, unilaterally announcing an 18-month transition run by the army.
That is unacceptable both to the insurgents, led by the Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT), and to the street in N’Djamena which is threatening a general strike.
Behind the scenes many are calling for ‘flexibility’ on constitutional proprieties. Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, who had met with Déby twice over the past month, told the BBC that “stability and continuity” were now the top priorities for Chad. There is, he added, an immediate “need to fill the void” after Déby’s demise, and then to discuss the restoration of constitutional rule.
Negotiating a ceasefire should take precedence, according to Richard Moncrieff, Project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group. “Right now, we have a rebel alliance which will be emboldened by Déby’s death and are manifestly well equipped and well organised and have stated their intentions to march on the capital.”
Fighting terrorism gets tricky
Chad’s national political ructions could send shockwaves far beyond its borders, says Moncrieff. “The first order concern is that the security in Chad degrades further … that is the nightmare scenario. If that happens all the jihadists from Libya to Niger and Lake Chad are going to be emboldened. Chad has had no jihadist group on its soil, apart from the muddy shores of the Lake for the last ten years. And that is some achievement.”
In that, Chad stands alone in the region. In Mali, transitional President Bah N’Daw saluted Déby, and thanked the people of Chad for “… their support, under the direction of the Field Marshall (Déby) to achieve peace, security and fight terrorism in the Sahel.”
The Presidents of Burkina Faso and Niger, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Mohamed Bazoum, echoed the tributes. Like N’Daw, they worry about the immediate struggle.
Under Déby, Chad had sent 1850 troops to the G5-Sahel security alliance which includes Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. It is critical to the body’s counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel. Chad’s special forces has led the fight against sundry jihadist groups.
Although G5-Sahel’s operations focus on the ‘trois frontières’ [three borders] zone bordering Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, its headquarters are in N’Djamena. At a summit in February, Déby pledged to send another 1,200 troops to les trois frontières. They arrived at the end of last month and went straight into action.
Chad’s ‘super mercenary’ role in the Sahel underpins its relations with France. It dates back to the 1980s when Déby’s predecessor Hissene Habré repelled Goukouni Oueddei’s insurgents, backed by Colonel Muammar el Gaddafi in Libya.
Since France launched its Opération Barkhane in 2014 against jihadist insurgents in the Sahel, Chad has been its strongest regional ally. As France’s President Emmanuel Macron comes under pressure at home to announce an exit strategy for its 4,500 troops in the Sahel, Chad’s role has become more critical.
By bringing in Estonian and Czech troops into its Force Takuba, with British and Danish air support, France is encouraging other nations to join Barkhane, allowing it to cut its own contingent.
Should Chad start withdrawing troops from the Sahel, to shore up its national military, the regional alliance would weaken. And so would the prospects of Macron withdrawing troops before presidential elections in France next year.
The UN also treads warily with Chad
N’Dajamena provides 1,500 of the 13,000 blue helmeted peacekeepers in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
Likewise, in the Lake Chad Basin, Ndjamena’s role as provider of troops to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) alongside Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger has been key in the fight against Islamic State in West Africa Province and Boko Haram.
Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari invited Déby to Abuja for security talks last month, underlining Chad’s importance in this cross-border campaign.
Less welcome, but still more complex, have been Chad’s interventions in the Central African Republic, where Déby had been accused of backing rebel forces led by ousted President François Bozizé against the newly elected President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.
‘Rollercoaster ride with Sudan’
Further to the east, Sudan and Chad have a roller-coaster history of alliances and conflict. Déby’s Zaghawa people have been deeply involved in the fight over land and political rights in Sudan’s western Darfur province.
It was Sudan’s Islamist leader Field Marshall Omar al-Bashir who backed Déby’s seizure of power in 1990. But the two fell out a decade later when the Khartoum regime tried to crush dissidents in Darfur, many of whom were Zaghawa.
Now with both Bashir and Déby out of the picture, the political configurations in both countries are changing. The risks are clear, a new fight for power in Chad splitting the national army could spill across the border to Darfur, forcing communities there to take sides.
But there is also a great opportunity says Suliman Baldo, an expert on transitional justice and now a senior advisor to the Sentry Project in Washington DC. Sudan’s reform movement which pushed Bashir from power could work with Chad’s democracy activists, sharing their experience of negotiating power-sharing deals between civilians and the military, and drawing up a new constitution.
That is the high road. Back in N’Djamena the choices look starker, more binary.
Can the centre hold by making enough concession to its political and armed opponents? If it fails, few sound hopeful about an early resolution to the crisis.
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