A billboard in Niamey, Niger, announcing a summit of Heads of State, including Chadian President Idriss Déby (first from right), of the G5-Sahel regional security forum, February 2018.

‘Live by the Sword…’ The Death of Chad’s President and the Future of Security in the Sahel

OPINION: Despite his authoritarian rule, Idriss Déby Itno was seen as stabilising force in the Sahel region. His death might create a power vacuum, writes Marc Lanteigne.

In April this year, less than a week following his re-election to a sixth term in office, reports surfaced that Idriss Déby Itno, President of Chad, (also known as the République du Tchad), was killed during skirmishes with rebel forces in the northern part of the country. The news had thrown the country, and indeed the surrounding Sahel region, into even further disarray. President Déby, aged 68 when he died, oversaw an authoritarian state with an execrable human rights record and a mismanaged Chadian economy. This despite the development of a domestic petroleum industry over the past two decades, which continues to leave many in poverty. Nonetheless, he was widely seen outside of Chad as a stabilising force in the Sahel at a time when security in that region was deteriorating on several fronts.

Endemic civil conflict

Civil conflict has been endemic in Chad since the country gained independence from France in 1960, including a years-long civil war which began in 1978, That conflict was also a de facto border war with Libya, then under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, who supported various anti-government forces in Chad, and had attempted to invade its southern neighbour, seeking to annex the Aozou Strip as a buffer zone between the two states.

The end of that war in the late 1980s did little to stabilise Chad, however, as internal tensions continued with the ouster of President Hissène Habré in 1990 by Déby. After the turn of the century, Chad also became enmeshed within conflicts between governments throughout Northern Africa and extremist organisations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State / Daesh, including Boko Haram. As Marielle Debos wrote in her 2013 book, later translated into English with the title Living by the Gun in Chad, the post-colonial period in the country could best be described not as periods of war and peace but rather of war and ‘inter-war’, with the latter term indicating violence was still very much present even at times without declared fighting between government and opposition.

Surrounded by instability

In addition to chronic internal instability, Chad is bordered by countries facing their own domestic struggles, including Libya as well as Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Niger, and spill-over of these disputes has been frequent. France, including the current government of Emmanuel Macron, had repeatedly attempted to intervene in in the Sahel, via political and military assistance, in the hopes of restoring calm to the region.

Specifically, the Macron government has sought to undertake a ‘whole-of-region’ response to the string of wars and violence affecting the Sahel, including Chad, as well as the post-2012 civil war in Mali and escalating violence in Burkina Faso and Niger. In 2014, the ‘G5 Sahel’ (linking Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), was created under France’s aegis, with Operation Barkhane commencing later that year in a combined effort to rout extremist armed groups throughout the region, in cooperation with both the European Union and the United Nations.

Increased Chinese involvement

The headquarters of Operation Barkhane is situated in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, and the Déby government was considered central to both local anti-militant efforts, as well as an ally in the overall global war on terror. Chad’s location in north-central Africa, close to so many regional hotspots, made it an ideal jump-off point for local and international peace-building efforts. Despite the staunch anti-democratic leanings of the Déby regime, many governments, including in the West, considered it a necessary safeguard against further regional deterioration.

China has also increased its presence in Chad over the past decade after the Déby government agreed to recognise the People’s Republic, instead of Taiwan, in 2006. Beijing has since been active in assisting with the development of Chad’s petroleum reserves, assisting with infrastructure projects, and providing medical equipment and later vaccines to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Surge in fighting between military forces and rebels

There was little initial international comment when the president won the latest election this month in a landslide after marginalising, and at times arresting, several political opponents. Three years ago, Déby had overseen changes to the country’s legal system which would have allowed him to potentially stay in office until 2033.

The president’s death came in the wake of a surge in fighting between Chadian military and the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad / FACT (Front for Change and Concord in Chad) in the Kanem and Tibesti regions in the north-eastern part of the country. Déby was in the area and was said to be involved in the current fighting against FACT rebels when he was killed. FACT is also linked with the forces of Khalifa Haftar, a Libyan military leader whose forces dominate the eastern half of that country, further underscoring the porous borders which continue to plague efforts to improve security in the Sahel.

France has intervened more than once

The Macron government released a statement which honoured Déby for seeking to preserve Chadian security, as well as for being an ally in the struggle against regional terrorism. French forces have directly intervened more than once to keep Déby in power in the face of various rebellions. By contrast, Washington made more cautious comments, offering condolences to the country but also calling upon the successor government to respect the country’s constitution in the transfer of power.

This may be difficult now, given that the Chadian constitution was suspended shortly after Déby’s death, and the country’s parliament dissolved, by an ad hoc military transitional council led by the late president’s son Mahamat Idriss Déby. A provisional prime minister Albert Pahimi Padacké, was then appointed, with a promise from the military junta that elections would be called in eighteen months. The FACT predictably rejected the new government, and confirmed its intentions to move its forces southwards in the hopes of ultimately capturing N’Djamena. However, this ultimately turned out to be an empty threat as the Chadian military was able to rout the advance in May. The new military government has also refused to open negotiations with the FACT.

A strong possibility of a power vacuum

In addition to the latest rebellion, there is also the question of whether Chad’s interim government can stand up to splits within both the country’s political and military establishments. There is now a strong possibility of a power vacuum, which may hamper efforts by regional governments, and the G5, to continue their fight against a host of armed opposition forces in north-central Africa.

Moreover, it was announced this month that Operation Barkhane would be discontinued soon, to be replaced by a new joint operation which would rely more heavily on European and local partners. This new approach, however, may not be enough to remove the security threats in Chad and the surrounding region.

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