Front line dictator
What the death of Idriss Deby Itno in battle means for the fight against Islamic terrorism
Surprise was the natural reaction upon hearing the news on April 20, that the long-standing president of Chad, Idriss Deby Itno, had been killed on the front lines of his country’s war with the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) militia group.
Deby had been in power for thirty years and had just won another election, his sixth, according to provisional results released the previous day. The election had taken place on the same day as the FACT rebels took over some garrison towns and began to march on the capital, N’Djamena, advancing hundreds of miles. The Chadian military said it had repelled a rebel column, but the United States was beginning to close its embassy, and the Foreign Office advice held that all British nationals should urgently leave the country.
Government spokesmen suggested that Deby, a former general and recently promoted honorary field marshal, had foregone delivering a victory speech in the election to be with his troops, and later that he had died of gunshot wounds at the front with the men. Details are murky, and when Deby received his wounds, and where he died, are still in question. Deby was a life-long military man. He took power in a coup in 1990. And he keenly enjoyed leading his forces, fighting off numerous rebellions and attempted coups, most recently in 2019.
The shock of Deby’s death, and the advancing rebels, have thrown Chad into profound chaos matched by an institutional scramble. Formalising the election was swiftly abandoned, and Deby was succeeded by his son, the 37-year-old general Mahamat Deby Itno, at the head of a hastily convened Military Transitional Council. Parliament was dissolved.
Despite the relative frequency with which insurgencies and rebellions seemed to emerge during the Deby years, Chad was a largely stable state and a regional military power. Under Deby, the revenues from Chad’s oil industry went to maintain the armed forces, and Deby was reputed to have spent money from the World Bank on military helicopters.
Chad’s armed forces featured in interventions in neighbouring states including the Central African Republic. It serves at the head of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) — an alliance including Niger, Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon — which is fighting the pan-national Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram. Chad’s armed forces contributed troops to France’s 2013 campaign in Mali, Operation Serval, which defeated jihadist forces attempting to take the country over.
In France’s subsequent campaign across the Sahel against Islamists, it has based thousands of troops in Chad, a former colony. As France’s Sahel campaign has run into difficulty, the mantle has partially been taken up by the United States. Both countries depend upon a stable Chad and its armed forces to base their troops and support their operations against terrorists and rebels region-wide.
Deby was a dictator at the head of one of the most corrupt countries in the world
With Deby dead and the situation in Chad appearing close to collapse, a certain kind of restrained panic has broken out in western capitals. Diplomats speculate to Reuters that the naming of Deby’s son as interim leader is meant to reassure them that the military has things in hand. But in fact, they say, it creates the opposite impression: that the constitution has already been thrown out, that a coup is underway, and that the continuation of the Deby dynasty appears to suggest less a firm grip on power than an impulsive lunge for it.
This may be idle, overheated talk. But for the moment, people in N’Djamena, fearing the worst, don’t appear to be venturing outside.
It is possible that France and the United States may be drawn into attempting to stabilise things — even by preventing FACT rebels from taking the capital, if it comes to that. France attacked a rebel convoy in 2019, with the Chadian military’s permission.
This is all a little awkward for France, however. It’s possibly a consequence of France’s own decisions that the rebel group appeared when it did. FACT is a sometime-opponent, sometime-ally of the Libyan National Army and its leader Khalifa Haftar, France’s favoured warlord in the Libyan civil war. At the moment, the LNA and FACT appear to be in alliance. Without Haftar’s backing, FACT could not maintain its Libyan bases. Without those bases, FACT could neither have bidden its time nor crossed the border into Chad with such determination.
The Americans, meanwhile, are having some difficulties of their own. In an official statement mourning Deby’s death, the United States offered unsubtle hints that he must be followed by “a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution”.
Deby was a dictator at the head of one of the most corrupt countries in the world. He was useful to the West because of his country’s strong military, and his own seeming adeptness in commanding it.
Without him, Chad seems all the weaker. If the state is either overtaken by rebels, or usurped in a dynastic or military coup, Chad’s past stability counts for nothing — its strong military either serving a new and unwelcome master or dissolving into chaos and dysfunction as the state reels and buckles.
France and the United States are on edge. They need Chad to survive this reversal. Without it, their variable campaigns against Islamism across the Sahel, against Boko Haram in particular, may very soon be shot to pieces. This is the worst possible result of an impulsive trip to the front by an eager old general keen to experience, once again, the smell of cordite.
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