Chad: Fears of dynasty succession as sons of former president Idriss Déby Itno face scrutiny

By Mathieu Olivier

Posted on Wednesday, 2 June 2021 18:09
Abdelkerim Idriss Déby, son of Hadjé Halimé and half-brother of Mahamat Idriss Déby, is deputy chief of staff. He trained at the US Military Academy of West Point. © Chad Presidency

Since Chad’s former president Idriss Déby Itno’s death, two of his sons have held power in N'Djamena: Abdelkerim and Mahamat, one in the shadows, the other in full view. This power dynamic has fuelled fears of dynastic succession.

The silence stretched on for a long time. Mahamat Idriss Déby, who was standing under the three imposing chandeliers present in the council of ministers room, knew that the moment was solemn. Crucial even. Still in uniform, with his four general’s stars pinned to his chest, the president of the Conseil Militaire de Transition (CMT) observed the men and women gathered on either side of the long table framed by tricoloured Chadian flags.

Some of the members of the transitional government who were appointed on 2 May looked tense, while the more experienced ones appeared to be less anxious. The minute of silence in honour of former president Idriss Déby Itno, who died on 18 April, was not yet over. Déby had carefully prepared a speech for his first major appointment as head of state.

He knows that he has been observed and analysed ever since he came to power following his father’s death. Déby, while listening to his visitors, reflected on the fact that he has been under pressure internationally ever since he was questioned in N’Djamena by an opposition that saw his seizure of power as a ‘family coup.’ His generals reminded him of the country’s security issues while diplomats spoke of international commitments. Politicians used the words “loyalty”, “openness” and “dialogue.”

Often silent, he went from one meeting to another, while keeping one watchword in mind: reassurance. “No”, Chad does not intend to recall its G5 Sahel contingent. “Of course”, a dialogue will be organised during the transition period. “Yes”, democratic elections will be organised within 18 months at most.

“Get to work quickly”

When the minute of silence ended, Itno’s shadow faded away and political discussions resumed once more. On 6 May, the agenda was quite light: the only item was a 1-hour ‘presentation’ by his council. Chad’s prime minister Albert Pahimi Padacké underlined the stakes. His team, he insisted, has “one imperative”: “success for a united, stable and peaceful Chad.”

Déby, who was sitting at the end of the table, gave a nod of approval. Ever since he was appointed as head of the government, the two men have been talking almost daily so they know each other quite well now. While Padacké was serving as prime minister from 2016 to 2018, ‘Kaka’ (Déby’s nickname) was already his father’s ‘shadow’ heading the presidential guard.

The main question remains the same: what will the Déby clan do in 2022? Play the Mahamat card if he takes a liking to power? Or support Abdelkerim and keep the family at the helm under the guise of a change of generations?

On 6 May, Déby, who was sitting in the place that had been previously occupied by his father, took the floor. The new strong man, who was described as “calm” and “composed” by a minister, did not linger. Reiterating the need to “cement the living together” and “ensure security”, he said “each of us has a civic duty to get to work quickly to prepare for the democratic elections that will be held at the end of the 18-month transition period.” A few minutes later, the 40 ministers gathered on the steps of the palace. Déby, who was wearing dark glasses, stood in front of them on the red carpet, in full view of the photographers and history.

One brother can hide another

That same day, another one of Itno’s sons was at work. He too is an alumnus of the French Lycée Montaigne in N’Djamena, where most of the siblings studied. Abdelkerim Idriss Déby trained at the US Military Academy of West Point, from which he graduated in 2014, while Mahamat Idriss Déby attended the joint school in the Chadian capital. While 37-year-old Mahamat Idriss Déby is considered to be the head of the transition government, his half-brother, Abdelkerim Idriss Déby, is the kingpin. This 30-year-old man with a solid build, who is the son of Hadjé Halimé (like Amira, Adam and Hissein Idriss Déby), is now considered to be the real boss of the presidential palace.

Of course, he does not occupy the main building, as Kaka has taken over his father’s office. He works 300 metres away, in an annex that groups together the general secretariat and the civil cabinet, of which he is the deputy director. But no one doubts his influence. Coming from the ministry of foreign affairs, where he was military coordinator, Abdelkerim became Itno’s right-hand man, which gave him unofficial precedence over his director of cabinet, Aziz Mahamat Saleh. In fact, businessmen and diplomats often turn to him to promote their company interests. “Abdelkerim has a better address book than his brother, especially in France and the Middle East,” says a businessman familiar with N’Djamena.

“Abdelkerim knows the business world very well. He comes from a golden generation that had the opportunity to train abroad, to learn a set of certain skills and to bring them back to N’Djamena, before joining the high administration. They are the ones who have the wind in their sails, while the generation before, that of Amira and Zakaria Idriss Déby, is less recognised,” says a palace insider. “Idriss Déby Itno wanted to rely on this generation for his sixth presidential term as he had communicated his vision of renewal to Abdelkerim,” says our source.

Mahamat and Abdelkerim, the guardians of the temple

Has Mahamat Idriss Déby adopted his father’s supposed ambitions? “He is looking for stability so that he will be able to deal with security and the military,” says a former minister. The top brass who were attached to Itno, from Bichara Issa Djadallah to Taher Erda (military intelligence), have kept their posts and form a part of Kaka’s close guard. Kaka has also opted to appoint loyalist Daoud Yaya Brahim to the position of defence minister.

He also chose to appoint a secretary-general who is more of a technocrat than a politician, replacing Kalzeubé Pahimi Deubet with former minister David Houdeingar Ngarimaden. The latter is a law professor who was once considered for the position of prime minister and belongs to the political bureau of the former ruling party Mouvement Patriotique du Salut (MPS).

“Today, things are clear: the guardians of the temple are Kaka for security and defence, and Abdelkerim for politics and business,” says someone close to them. The two brothers meet daily and share their strategies with one another. “Abdelkerim is never far from Kaka within the corridors of the presidency,” says a member of the government. On 6 May, while one was standing in full view of the pink palace, the other had been in Rwanda the day before. However, they have the same objective: to reassure other heads of state that the transition period is going smoothly and that elections will be held.

On the evening of 5 May, Abdelkerim delivered this message to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Two days later, he conveyed this same message to Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso in Oyo, then in Yaoundé to Cameroon’s President Paul Biya. The diplomatic mission is clearly in full swing as Kaka is also due to meet with Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum on 10 June.

There is no question of letting international institutions or the African Union (AU) doubt N’Djamena’s intentions and thus apply sanctions. The respective ministers of economy and finance, Issa Doubragne and Tahir Hamid Nguilin (who have kept their positions within the transition government), as well as the experienced head of diplomacy, Mahamat Zene Cherif, have been asked to put their networks in motion.

An accelerated succession?

The presence of Moussa Faki Mahamat, head of the AU Commission, as well as that of Mahamat Saleh Annadif, UN representative in West Africa and the Sahel, in Addis Ababa is far from negligible. But Mahamat and Abdelkerim Idriss Déby’s diplomacy tactis have not yet appeased everyone. Several members of the AU Peace and Security Council, notably from southern Africa, have pleaded that sanctions be applied to the country – admittedly without success. Above all, in the heart of the Chadian capital, part of the opposition – notably led by Succès Masra and his Transformateurs – continue to speak out against Mahamat Idriss Déby’s seizure of power.

While the demonstrations were silenced by the police, the question still remains: will the transitional government led by Kaka result in a family succession? “Basically, Idriss Déby Itno’s death has not changed anything,” says a diplomat based in Chad.

“It is the calendar that has accelerated. Some people thought that the succession would take place with Idriss Déby Itno’s sixth presidential term, which he won in April. From now on, it will be done in 18 months.” Has the first round of the next presidential election been taking place ever since the transitional government took over on 2 May?

Behind the scenes, Padacké succeeded in imposing himself as prime minister, placing several of his loyalists within the government. The MPS, on the other hand, had bet on a different strategy, which has proved to be a losing one for the moment. Its secretary-general Mahamat Zen Bada had advocated for a government of technocrats, rather than his party’s more political leaders, and for the oppositionist leader Saleh Kebzabo’s appointment as prime minister. But Mahamat Idriss Déby did not follow his advice and even offered the justice portfolio to Mahamat Ahmat Alhabo, another opposition heavyweight.

What will the Déby clan do in 2022?

“Kebzabo’s party is today less well positioned than that of Pahimi Padacké, who is himself younger [54 years old compared to 74] and who has been preparing for the post-Déby era since 2016,” says an MPS leader. Is this party the first big loser of the transition government? While it felt that Itno’s victory in the April presidential election would ensure its power over the years to come, it has lost ground. Padacké, on the other hand, “will be able to use his position as prime minister to consolidate his influence,” his detractors say. “They spent a lot of money during the campaign but feel that they are getting nothing in return,” says a close MPS supporter.

The next step is a national dialogue, the dates of which have not yet been set, but which the opposition intends to use to make itself heard. “Albert Pahimi Padacké is ahead of the game and will control the organisation via the government, while Succès Masra will use the event to give himself a platform.

As for the MPS, it is in a bad position because it represents the old regime and will be forced to renew itself, probably by relying on the youth movements that animated the 2021 campaign,” says a Chadian political scientist. In the political game of N’Djamena, Itno’s death has reshuffled the cards, favouring the ambitions of some and thwarting the plans of others. But did this sudden event really change the game?

“The main question remains the same: what will the Déby clan do in 2022? Play the Mahamat card if he takes a liking to power? Or support Abdelkerim and keep the family at the helm under the guise of a change of generations?” asks a diplomat.

On 27 April, dressed in his uniform and wearing his red beret, Kaka summed up the situation in a few words during his first speech to the nation. “Our country is at the crossroads of its history,” the four-star general and leader of the transition government told his compatriots, a move that defied “disorder”, “anarchy” and “chaos”.

All that remains to be done now is to choose a course, between the hostile winds of some, the rising currents of others and the family pitfalls of the past.

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