(Image source: “Swearing in ceremony of President Idriss Deby Itno of Chad | N’Djamena, 8 August 2016” by Paul Kagame is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Correction: I originally wrote it was “far-fetched” that a head of state would lead soldiers into battle. Well, I was wrong and I’ve learned a little more history. George Washington, during the Whiskey Rebellion, was the only US president to lead troops into battle while still in office (even though no battle took place). James Madison was on the field during the Battle of Blanding’s Run. Lincoln was said to have visited the Union front line within “shouting distance” of the Confederate soldiers. And apparently, President Déby was known for doing both. I rewrote the first paragraph in the “Why Does it matter?” section to reflect this information. The excellent article about President Déby’s death by Crisis Group’s Richard Moncrieff, Thibaud Lesueur, and Claudia Gazzini is here in its original French.
The president of Chad, Idriss Déby Itno, died on Tuesday from injuries the Army said he sustained while fighting the rebel group, Front for Change and Concord in T’Chad (FACT), in the Kanem region.
The official military position was
The President took control of operations during the heroic combat led against the terrorists from Libya. He was wounded during the fighting and died once repatriated to N’Djamena.
The WSJ confirmed the President was wounded in Kanem and later died in a hospital in N’Djemena.
Two western diplomats and a rebel spokesman confirmed that Mr. Déby was wounded in the desert region of Kanem on Monday then flown 130 miles to a N’Djamena hospital where he died of his injuries.
However, CNN later found the timeline and the President’s activities may be different from what was first reported;
Déby appears to have been shot on April 17 as his troops battled a rebel group in the desert north of the capital N’djamena.CNN
Another source told CNN;
Déby was wounded after plans to negotiate with northern rebel leaders rapidly collapsed into ferocious fighting which left four of his generals dead on the spot.CNN
In response to Déby’s death, the military took over control of the country. They dissolved parliament, suspended its constitution, closed its borders, blocked access to the internet, and imposed a curfew (as of yesterday borders have been reopened).
Why does it matter?
The circumstances of the president’s death are still murky. Déby, an ex-soldier himself, had a history of visiting the front line and even leading the charge, especially when it would inspire them after a setback. This same time last year, after nearly 100 of his men were just killed fighting Boko Haram near Lake Chad, he rallied his troops and led the charge (CrisisGroup). It’s unclear if a similar situation occurred while fighting with the FACT. It was reported that both sides took heavy casualties. Regardless of what exactly led to his death, the event has created many unknowns regarding stability in Chad and the region.
In the event of the president’s absence or incapacity, Chad’s constitution called for the president of the National Assembly to assume control of the country until an election could be held. But on state TV on Tuesday, it was announced that the President’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno (known as Kaka), a four-star general in the Chadian Army, was named interim president by a transitional council of military officers, the SCMP reported. That’s a coup according to the definition set by University of Kentucky political scientists Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne. The two contend that if the military holds on to power for at least seven days, it can be called a success (Powell and Thyne).
President Déby had been in power for 30 years and had just “won” a sixth term in an election that was widely believed to have been rigged. Yet, Déby long had the support of the West and was an ally in the counterterrorism operation in the region. But the president’s oppressive and iron grip on power made him unpopular with almost everyone else.
Chadians were tired of his often brutal and repressive regime. A recent example is representative of his abuse of power. In the lead-up to this month’s election, people defied a government ban on public gatherings to protest Déby’s sixth run for office. The government responded with tear gas, beatings, and arbitrary arrests. Political opponents were also targets of Déby’s wrath. This most recent election saw the arrest of 112 opposition leaders and presidential candidates, one politician (a relative of Déby) had his house raided where his 80-year-old mother (Déby’s aunt) was shot to death and five other family members were injured (HRW).
Déby’s hold on power and rampant nepotism also caused friction within his own ethnic group the Zaghawa. The minority Muslim group has outsized influence on the country’s military and politics. But many of its members felt they were long overdue for positions within the administration. Here’s Judd Devermont, Director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS):
As Déby elevated his sons, daughters, and brothers-in-law into top positions, he incurred the wrath of other Zaghawa who wanted their turn at power; last decade, the Erdimi brothers launched a rebellion against their co-ethnic leader. There is also mounting friction between Chadian Arabs and the Chadian government, which have become increasingly discontented with Déby’s rule.
Now that Déby’s gone, they may not tolerate his son in charge.
While Déby often claimed the FACT were beaten back. His death at their hands says otherwise. The group has been pushing for the capital in recent weeks. There‘s every reason to believe they will intensify their efforts. In a statement on social media the group said, “Chadian rebels reject the transitional council and pledge to march into the capital,” Twitter. The group indicated they would only pause long enough for President Deby to be buried, Reuters.
Chad is an important partner in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. They are the main contributor to the G5 Sahel Joint Force. N’Djamena is also home to over 5,000 French troops from Operation Barkhane. The French are so far supporting Kaka’s rise to power. But it’s unlikely the Chadian military will be able to maintain their role in counterterrorism with so much opposition within the country. The three largest violent extremist organizations (VEOs) in the region, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), the al Qaeda linked Jama’at al Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), and Boko Haram, will likely benefit from (and more likely look to capitalize on) any chaos that takes the Chadian military away from counterterrorism.
What comes next?
Kaka has pledged to hold elections within 18 months (AlJazeera). If the coup in Mali is any indication, Kaka may look to install military loyalists throughout the government so that even when an election takes place, the military and Kaka will remain in control.
The political opposition has already declared they won’t accept Kaka as interim president. They have even warned France not to “meddle” in the country’s affairs. Indeed, France’s support of Kaka puts it in a very undemocratic position. France’s presence in the region is already tenuous due to the duration of the counterterrorism effort that began in 2013. But also, in January of this year French forces accidentally directed an airstrike against a wedding in Bounti, Mali. Their support for such an unpopular regime may increase tension and may even help the Salafi-jihadist movement and the rebel FACT group.
Some Big ‘Ifs’ But Not A Big Stretch
Déby’s death was a turning point for the FACT. They don’t want to lose the momentum of that victory. As they step up their push towards the capital, the Chadian military and French forces could get diverted from their counterterrorism mission. If that happens, the rest of the G5 Sahel Joint force will not be able to take up the slack. This in turn would affect security across all of West Africa and the Sahel as other countries increase security within their borders. Especially at risk are Burkina Faso, Niger, and Nigeria, but also the littorals like Ivory Coast will feel the security strain as VEOs push to extend their supply routes to the coast, (ReliefWeb).
Any tightening of border security is likely to have a negative effect on trade. As informal cross-border trade (ICBT), an important means of meeting demand for legal items like food, and even legitimate trade become more difficult prices will rise. For Nigeria, that could be a tipping point as food inflation is already a cause for concern.
The US Africa Command (AFRICOM) also has a presence, and an interest, in Chad. The commander for AFRICOM, General Steven Townsend told Voice of America’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin via Twitter, “it’s not clear what Déby’s death will mean for U.S.-Chadian relations but that Déby’s son is inclined toward good relations both with France, which has a military base in Chad, and the United States.”
“It’s unclear what this means for our relationship there” per @USAfricaCommand‘s Gen Townsend— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) April 20, 2021
Deby’s son “is inclined toward good relationships w/#France & the #UnitedStates. We think that will continue”
It’s still too early to tell what the full effect of Déby’s death will be on Chad and the region. But one thing is certain his death will be significant for the region.