Glowing tributes are still pouring in for Idriss Deby, Chad’s strongman who died in unclear circumstances early this week. Chad’s military announced his death on April 20, attributing it to action on the frontline in the north of the country, where he had gone to inspect troops fighting rebels — Front for Change and Concorde, FACT.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni eulogised Deby as a true son of Africa who never shied away from any “confrontation with terrorism”; France’s Emmanuel Macron described him as a brave friend, while the DR Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi termed his death a great loss for Chad and Africa.
The elephant in the room now is, what next for Chad?
As is typical of all strongmen, Deby’s departure from the stage has left a huge vacuum. It also appears to have failed to appease the FACT rebels, who are pressing on with their advance on the capital N’Djamena.
In spite of a constitution that provides for the Speaker of the National Assembly to run the show, the military has installed Deby’s 37-year-old son, Gen Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, as interim leader for the next 18 months. These developments appear to summarise Deby’s legacy. Despite loving his country, for three decades he failed to appreciate the fact Chad’s long-term stability and prosperity lay in a democratic dispensation in which every Chadian held a stake.
Like other strongmen, Deby found relevance in the chaotic post-Arab Spring order that saw a breakdown in law and order and the emergence of fundamentalist faith-based groups, who crusaded, wreaking havoc across the Sahel. Positioning himself as the vanguard against the relentless onslaught of Islamic terrorism, Deby easily became a friend of Western powers, despite the democratic deficit in his country.
With the threat of extremist forces, Africa and the international community have no choice but to throw in their lot with Mahamat. France and other Western powers will have to think deeper about Chad’s long-term future prospects. If there are any lessons to learn from Libya, one is that much as strongmen can indeed hold things together for a while, the states they hold sway over are foundationally fragile.
The difficult choices in Chad require that the international community rally around the interim leadership. But that does not mean that they cannot wring some concessions from the rulers. The military feels vulnerable and is likely to be more amenable to a deal.
It is quite feasible to have a civilian administration manage the transition as the men in battle camouflage do what they are best at. Chad should not miss this opportunity and any support from western powers, should be premised on the military leaders surrendering leadership to national institutions.
As the military confronts the enemy up north, civilian authorities are in a better position to broker a truce that resets the conflict.
The prospect of Chad falling into the hands of terrorists is scary. But that should not obscure the damning legacy of military rule and its long-term consequences.