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Nigeria: Chad blowback will hurt fight against Boko Haram

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

By Chinedu Asadu
Posted on Monday, 3 May 2021 12:28, updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021 10:51

Chad Crisis
As protests grow against the military take-over since President Déby died, will Chad keep focused on its regional security role? (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

More than a week after the death of President Idris Déby Itno, the rebels who killed the Chadian strongman are not relenting their fight as they continue to engage troops in the northern Kanem region, around 330km from Nigeria’s border communities. Experts are concerned about the growing political instability in Chad disrupting the Sahel security apparatus, with Nigeria among the hardest hit. But the Nigerian army tells The Africa Report not to worry, because it will 'fill the gap' left by the death of Déby in the regional security calculus.

With Boko Haram waving a black flag in Niger State and Nigeria’s security forces stretched like never before, what impact will the death of the Chadian president have on Nigerian security?

“Under Déby’s leadership, the Chadian army was crucial to the fight against the Boko Haram factions,” says Nnamdi Obasi, Senior Adviser on Nigeria at the International Crisis Group, who adds that “Déby’s death is certainly a hard blow to the multinational efforts for both security and development cooperation in the Lake Chad region.”

Déby’s regional role

Déby, who had just received a fresh mandate to extend his 30-year rule before his death, was a fighter. Taking power in 1990 after rebelling against President Hissène Habré, he re-engineered the constitution in 2005 to be able to stay in power for as long as he wished.

He was the keystone of the Sahel’s security architecture, the Lake Chad Basin and even the greater sub-Saharan region. The irony of his death: while he was a formidable force outside Chad, he fell to an internal rebellion while leading his troops to fight the Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT) some 300 kilometres north of the capital N’Djamena.

In mourning Déby, African neighbours extolled his commitment to peace in the subregion; Cameroon’s President Paul Biya said his death was an “immense loss for Central Africa and our continent” while Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari described the 68-year-old as “a friend of Nigeria who had enthusiastically lent his hand in our efforts to defeat the murderous Boko Haram terrorists.”

Marshal Déby pushed Chadian troops to crush Boko Haram

Déby saw himself as a soldier more than a politician, and, in August 2020, was awarded the honorary title of Field Marshal in recognition of his commitment to leading counter-offensives against “enemies of the state”, including the Boko Haram Jihadist group.

According to Mbaindangroa Djekornondé Adelph, a political scientist and journalist based in Chad, Déby was on all fronts of war against jihadist terrorism.

“He himself led the operations in the theatre of confrontation. The Marshal is a connoisseur of wars in the desert. He has important knowledge in the conduct of such wars and that’s why he’s always on the front lines,” Adelph says.

It was his penchant to lead from the frontline that drew him closer to his last breath; he was expected to give a victory speech to supporters after he won re-election for a sixth term in office, but Mahamat Bada, his campaign director, told reporters that Déby had, instead, gone to be with Chadian soldiers

At the Lake Chad region where the Boko Haram jihadist group has operated for over a decade, the late Déby often inspired victory for the Chadian military — one of the most effective armies in sub-Saharan Africa, including in April 2020 when they reportedly killed about 1,000  Boko Haram members

Although the Lake Chad basin states – including Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria – set up the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) to pool resources together in defeating the terrorists, Déby had complained bitterly that the fight against the terrorists was left for his army alone to handle, threatening to withdraw troops if things don’t change.

“Chad is alone in shouldering all the burden of the war against Boko Haram”, he had said, months after the country’s soldiers returned from Nigeria after a months-long mission to help fight the insurgents. 

Saleh Bala, a retired army general and CEO of White Ink Consult, an Abuja-based defence and security consultancy firm, noteds that beyond leading from the frontlines, Déby was “the go-to man by his counterpart heads of states and foreign governments on critical negotiations for the release of abductees.”

“Nigeria will need to raise its military capability to fill the gap created, as well as its diplomatic ability to build multilateral and bilateral coalitions to fill and secure the vacuum which the Chadian armed forces under Déby’s awesome personality had provided,” he adds.

Chad’s Dilemma: Focus on regional security or the home front?

The only thing certain about Chad as events post-Déby continue to unfold, is the uncertainty of its future.

As of Thursday 29 April, government troops continued to fight off rebels at the Kanem region, just as the so-called National Transitional Committee (NTC) headed by Mahamat Idriss Déby — the deceased president’s son — struggles to contain protests demanding the return of civilian rule.

With a handful of problems the military is battling at the home front, there are concerns that Chad would want to go all out in defending the capital and the integrity of the country which the late Déby died fighting for rather than concentrating on the onslaught against Boko Haram terrorists.

According to Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, while Boko Haram remains a domestic threat to Chad, “the military junta would want to protect N’Djamena as much as possible and resources will be mobilised to ensure it remains stable and they do what they can to hang on to power.”

Bala reckons that Mahamat would also seek to avenge his father’s death and prove to Chadians and the global community that the armed forces “remain strong and relevant to the security of the nation.”

“This situation thereby leaves Nigeria with a huge quantum less of support in the MNJTF coalition, where Chad was always available to complement Nigeria’s shortfall of men and material to clear, occupy and dominate the Lake Chad basin, which after the Sambisa of Abubakar Shekau, is the stronghold of the ISWAP (a breakaway faction of Boko Haram),” he adds.

That could expose Nigeria the more to attacks from Boko Haram which, according to Bala, sees the country as a “strategic interest” as it continues to exploit the resources of the Lake Chad basin while overlooking nearby N’Djamena.

Adelph, however, argues that the fighting — both against Boko Haram and the rebels — does not rest on the shoulders of the late president, but on institutions like the army.

“It must be emphasised that it is not President Déby alone who is in the struggle; it is Chad and its army; it is also countries like France, with strategic support, and the other G-5 Sahel countries,” Adelph says.

“The fight against the Islamist sect Boko Haram will be maintained. Chad and its new institutions will continue to fight, both against the rebels and against Boko Haram. This is what the Transitional Military Council suggested to President Macron and the heads of state of the G5 Sahel.”

On his part, the 37 year-old Déby who now leads the military council came on board with some experience being a career soldier and having led the Direction Générale des Services de Sécurité des Institutions de l’État, DGSSIE [General Directorate of Security Services for State Institutions]for years.

Nigerian army ready to ‘push back’; immigration on ‘standby’

Nigerian officials speaking to The Africa Report say that steps — including improved security measures — are being taken to forestall any spillover from developments in Chad, whether regarding the rebels or a likely humanitarian crisis caused by the unrest.

Brigadier General Mohammed Yerima, a spokesperson of the Nigerian Army, says troops are on the alert to ensure that Boko Haram insurgents do not advance further into the country from their base in the Lake Chad axis.

“We are definitely doing something on that and it will not escalate. We have pushed them back and they will not come back,” he says in reference to the ongoing onslaught in some border communities.

The Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS), through Sunday James, its spokesperson, also says that some control posts along the border with Chad — in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe — have been upgraded to special commands, which simply means more personnel on ground.

“With the death of the Chadian president, all the comptrollers along that axis have been directed to be on alert. So, it is no longer going to be business as usual, particularly for officers patrolling that axis who have been directed to be on standby,” the official says.

Bottom line

The instability, political violence and insecurity unfolding in Chad in the aftermath of the late president’s death, coupled with an “overstretched” military power, means the country’s new transitional council will probably “struggle to sustain its critical role in regional counterterrorism operations,” according to Judd Devermont,  director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Eizenga says “it is certainly a high possibility that the security situation in Chad could escalate in the coming days” as other armed groups are likely going to try to take advantage of the situation.

That would take up much of the military’s energy and, according to Obasi, “a Chadian pull-out from, or even diminished role in, the multinational coalition against Boko Haram and ISWAP could create greater challenges for Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger.”

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