Deby death has Chad neighbours fearing exposure to terror groups

Tuesday April 27 2021
Idriss Deby.

A 2006 file photo of Chad President Idriss Deby inspecting a seized rebel technical in Adre. PHOTO | AFP


In April 2020, Chad President Idriss Deby led his soldiers to fight Boko Haram in Sambisa Forest in Borno, in neighbouring Nigeria. However, this mission was not viewed as an incursion but part of a regional collaboration targeting the terrorist group that has killed more than 36,000 people in the Lake Chad Basin.

This mission and many more are now being cited to pay tribute to the invaluable role of the Chadian leader, who died this past week and was buried on Friday April 23, to the continent. The country’s military said he died from wounds sustained from the battlefront as his forces battled insurgents up north.

The AU, through chairperson, Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, has eulogised Deby as a pan-Africanist who took matters of security seriously.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame, while paying tribute to him, said he will be remembered “for his invaluable contribution in the fight against terrorism and extremism, among other things.”

Chad is located in a volatile region: To the north lies unstable Libya, and to the west, the region witnesses the activity of extremist groups like Boko Haram. To the south is Central Africa, whose own insurgents have battered the new government. Then there is Sudan, whose restive Darfur region has been impacted by violence.

In Nigeria, where Boko Haram have wreaked untold havoc, government officials and counter-terrorism experts cannot overemphasise Deby’s efforts to stem the wave of terror in the region.


While some observers point to his iron-fist leadership, many admit that he helped stabilise a regional programme to counter violent extremism. For example, Nigeria’s victories against Boko Haram fighters since 2009 and the war against fighters of Islamic State of West African Province are largely the contribution of Deby’s forces and are attributed to his forces’ efforts.

“Deby’s style of dictatorship was acceptable because he led by example by participating in fighting terrorism and leading the anti-jihadist battle,” said Prof Bola Akinterinwa, a former director-general of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, a Lagos-based think-tank.

His death, said the scholar, is a bad omen for Nigeria and the Sahel.

“If we do not have a strong force to counter the insurgents, we will see Boko Haram freer than ever before launching attacks on Nigeria,” Prof Akinterinwa said Wednesday.

Boko Haram have killed, displaced, kidnapped thousands in the Lake Chad Basin. But a regional military programme based in N’Djamena, the Multinational Joint Taskforce, comprised of Chad, Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon and supported by the EU and the US, has helped contain the group’s spread.

Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari said of the death of the Chadian leader “creates a vacuum in the efforts to jointly confront Boko Haram terrorists and the Islamic State West Africa Province.”

“Deby was a friend of Nigeria who enthusiastically lent his hand in our efforts to defeat the murderous terrorists who have posed grave security challenges not only for Nigeria but also our neighbours, particularly Chad, Cameroon and Niger,” President Buhari said.

Chad’s own contribution to regional security may have come from Deby’s very presence. Forever fighting rebels, terrorists and political opposition, Deby was nicknamed Mr Survivor. Now his death, experts say, will test the stability in the country.

“There is the possibility Chad will experience deep internal instability, in part due to the nature of this transition,” said Dr Angela Muvumba-Sellström, a Ugandan scholar and senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala.

She argued that the junta could erase this possibility by working with the civil society and opposition groups for national dialogue on the transition needed and proper elections held.

“The challenges of rebels and of FACT (Front for Change and Concord in Chad) in particular, can also be a challenge. But if there is internal unity about the next steps, then the rebels will lose some of their leverage and pose mainly a tactical challenge to security,” Dr Muvumba-Sellström said, referring to the insurgents deemed responsible for killing Deby.

FACT, formed in 2016 by a group of disgruntled army officers, on Thursday warned they will advance toward N’Djamena to remove a ‘monarchy’ after Deby’s son was installed interim leader and dared invited heads of state to attend his funeral on Friday.

There are those who think this uncertainty is Deby’s own mistake: Overstaying in power.

“He overstayed and became an institution unto himself,” said Macharia Munene, a professor of History and International relations at the USIU-Africa in Nairobi.

“He survived this long by the grace of his superpower friends but overlooked certain things. His situation was similar to that of Anwar Sadat,” Prof Munene added, referring to the assassination of former Egyptian leader by a fundamentalist soldier in his army in October 1981.

Dr Ahmed Hashi, a Nairobi-based political analyst told The EastAfrican Deby should have resolved internal affairs by regularising elections.

“The security situation in the Sahel will swing for the worse. Many rebels in Sudan are based in Chad,” he said.

“Leaders need to embrace a political system that allows citizens to elect their leaders without intimidation,” he said, referring to Deby’s Monday victory of 79.3 percent in elections whose results were announced even as he was busy battling the insurgents. Opponents had quit citing harassment.

Yet for all his flaws, the West often looked the other way as long as Chad kept committed to counter-terrorism.

Chad has been one of the top 10 contributors of troops to Mali’s peacekeeping mission known as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma). With 1,400 soldiers in Minusma, Deby had announced earlier in April he may recall his forces to deal with a local insurgency.

Regional challenge

The military has been praised for its offensive against Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen terror group in the Sahel that pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

“The impact of Deby’s death on regional security will be high,” Dr Muvumba-Sellström told The EastAfrican.

“Chad has been a critical security actor in counter-militant and counter terrorism within the Sahel. Its military has been pivotal in military actions. France and the US undoubtedly hope that Chad’s internal challenges will not weaken this profile and that Chad continue to contribute to joint forces in the region.”

The biggest challenge now, is whether Deby’s son, Mahamat Deby, will calm the army. Reports on Thursday suggested there was friction within the ranks. The junta has since reinstated the Cabinet and allowed Deby’s son to serve as “President of the Republic” in the interim.

“The military has been very careful to bring on the 37-year-old who is a general. It is a strategic move to ensure some kind of protection of the dynasty,” Titus Alebiosu, a retired military general in Nigeria, said on Thursday, arguing Mahamat may try to avenge his father’s death.

Across the border, Sudan’s Transitional Government hopes the death of Idriss Deby will not lead to a protracted conflict that could block Khartoum’s own road to stability. The Sudan government has called on all Chadian parties to remain calm and avoid fighting to guarantee the security and stability of the country, after the killing of President Deby.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said Khartoum is “following with great concern the developments in the events in Chad and the raging conflict between government and opposition forces for power.” “The government of Sudan, out of its keenness to establish security and stability in neighbouring Chad and in the region, calls on all Chadian parties to calm and stop the fighting in a manner that guarantees the security and stability of Chad and the safety of its citizens,” the statement added.

Sudan’s immediate concern was the safety of its nationals and Khartoum said they had ensured the safety of their diplomatic mission. But Sudan is also cautious about how things will pan out in Chad.

Power transfer

Deby’s rise to power had a lot to do with Sudan. After he escaped a manhunt ordered by then president Hissène Habré, Deby settled in Darfur from where he launched an offensive that removed Habré from power in 1990. Habré fled the capital N’Djamena.

Years later, Sudanese rebels in Darfur would launch attacks from Chad, forcing the government of Omar al-Bashir to crush them and earn an indictment by the International Criminal Court.

The hurried transfer of power and suspension of constitutional civil liberties could complicate the situation in Chad, which suffers from continual ethnic clashes.

If this happens, it will lead to a security imbalance in the Darfur region, especially in the state of West Darfur where the governor accused elements in Chad of recent violence that began on April 3 and lasted more than a week, killing at least 144 people. During this week, Sudan security forces lost control of the city of El Geneina.

Political analyst Salah Al-Maleh says events in one country affects the other.

“All indications are that the situation in Chad will worsen. It is expected that civil clashes will erupt, including between the Zaghawa and the Arab tribes and among the Zaghawa themselves within the framework of the struggle for power,” al-Maleh told The EastAfrican.

“These incidents in Chad will greatly affect Sudan and Darfur region in particular, and threaten the alliance between the Zaghawa, led by Gabriel Ibrahim and Mini Arko Minnawi, and Arab tribes led by the Rapid Support Militia leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti),” he said.

Deby had strongly encouraged an alliance between the Zaghawa and the Arab tribes from Niger to Sudan. To some extent, it led to rapprochement between the leaders of the armed movements in Darfur belonging to the Zaghawa and the leader of the Rapid Support Militia, Hemedti, during the peace negotiations in Juba, which helped speed up the signing of the Juba Peace Agreement, Al-Maleh said referring to a recent peace deal that admitted the group into the transitional government in February.

There is a fear that the events in Chad will affect the fate of the Juba Peace Agreement if the alliance between the Zaghawa and the Arab tribes collapses,” he said.