Chad: What are the risks after Idriss Déby’s death?
Chad: What are the risks after Idriss Déby’s death?
Getting Chad’s Transition on Track
Getting Chad’s Transition on Track
Chadian Army members are seen during an operation against rebels in Ziguey, Kanem Region, Chad on 19 April 2021. The Chadian army announced late Sunday that it has killed more than 300 rebels in the northern part of the Central African country. Abdoulaye Adoum Mahamat / Anadolu Agency
Q&A / Africa

Chad: What are the risks after Idriss Déby’s death?

The death of Chad’s President Idriss Déby has plunged the country into uncertainty, causing concern among many Chadians and in neighbouring states. Crisis Group looks at recent events and examines the main risks facing the country.

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What has happened?

According to official reports, Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno died on Tuesday 20 April around 1am after clashes between the national army and the Front for Change and Unity in Chad (FACT) not far from Mao, in the country’s central Kanem region. After 30 years in power, Déby had just been re-elected for a sixth consecutive term in office. His death was announced at 11am on national television by the army’s spokesperson, General Azem Bermandoa. Some observers have expressed doubts about this version of events and suggest alternative, unconfirmed hypotheses about the circumstances of Déby’s death. One prominent story refers to a gunfight breaking out after failed negotiations with FACT members.

That President Déby was present on the battlefield is not unusual. He took power in 1990 in a coup d’état deposing President Hissène Habré, for whom he had served as head of the army, and he consistently used his military credentials to buttress his political power. His armed forces successfully fended off rebel attacks in 2006 and 2008, and most recently in 2019, thanks to support from the French army. The late president himself was frequently on the front lines. In April 2020 for example, he led a counteroffensive against a Boko Haram faction that had just killed nearly 100 Chadian soldiers on the shores of Lake Chad. Déby’s presence on the ground allowed him to mobilise and motivate his troops, and to present himself as guarantor of the nation’s security. His death is thus a cause for concern for many Chadians and creates a climate of uncertainty in the country.

Who are the rebels who have entered Chad?

The rebels are members of FACT, a Chadian military-political group based in Libya reportedly consisting of around 1,000 to 1,500 fighters. General Mahamat Mahdi Ali set up FACT in 2016 in Tanoua, in northern Chad, after a split from another rebel group, the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) led by Déby’s former defence minister, Mahamat Nouri. Originally from Salal, in the central Bahr el Gazal region, Mahamat Mahdi Ali, who studied in France, joined several armed movements in Tibesti, Darfur and Libya. He claims to be fighting for a change of power in Chad. Many rebels have followed similar paths, leading to several incursions into the country, mainly from the north and east. A number of rebel Chadian groups were chased out of neighbouring Darfur after the rapprochement between Chad and Sudan in 2010, and they took advantage of the downfall of former Libyan President Mouammar Gaddafi in 2011 to establish a presence in Libya, using it as a base for frequent cross-border raids into Chad.

FACT launched its recent offensive at a critical time for the country. The movement’s rebel forces made their first incursion on 11 April 2021, Chad’s election day, in order to exploit electoral tensions and as a call to other opponents to join their cause. In mid-April, their public statements summoned “members of the democratic opposition, civil society and the Chadian people to continue their pressure on the regime” to support the armed struggle. Civil society organisations and opposition parties have not followed this call, and have instead issued a communiqué urging each camp to observe a ceasefire.

On 11 April, FACT fighters travelling in heavily armed vehicles moved through the sparsely populated desert region of Tibesti. On 15 April, Chad’s air force launched a first round of air strikes against the rebels in Zouarké. In parallel, several other rebel groups, including the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) and the UFDD, also based in Libya, stated their support for FACT – without, however, joining the fighting on the ground. On 17 April, the first major battle between FACT fighters and Chadian soldiers took place north of Mao, over 300km from N’Djamena. The Chadian authorities claimed to have killed 300 rebels and taken 150 prisoner. On the evening of 18 April, FACT’s leader Mahamat Mahdi acknowledged that he had lost some fighters and had made a tactical retreat further north while preparing a new round of attacks. At the same time, however, sources close to the opposition indicated that fighting was ongoing and the Chadian army was suffering significant losses, including some high-ranking officers. In a FACT communiqué, President Déby himself appeared on the list of wounded.

What is the link between Libya (from which the rebels launched their incursion) and recent events in Chad?

The rebels’ incursion into Chad from southern Libya comes as the latter’s peace process has been making significant strides. Last October, the two Libyan military coalitions – one led by the Tripoli-based authorities and the other by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) based in eastern Libya – signed a ceasefire agreement. In March, these rival factions agreed to set up a new interim national unity government. A pillar of the ceasefire agreement was the call for the departure of foreign armed forces, including those from Chad, which have served as proxy forces and were financed for years by the various Libyan military coalitions. Despite being presented as a priority, this part of the agreement has barely been implemented. Although some Chadian rebel groups have tried to join forces since February 2021 to prepare for possible future problems they could have with Libyan authorities, they have not yet faced any concerted pressure to leave the country. International actors are paying more attention to the mercenaries backed by Russia and Turkey.

FACT was able to launch its incursion into Chad because it has superior firepower and equipment compared to other rebel Chadian groups. It was able to accumulate these arms in part as a result of its aligning with Haftar’s forces. FACT rebels also probably took possession of armed vehicles and heavy artillery that Haftar’s foreign backers had supplied before his march on Tripoli in 2019. According to a report by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, FACT’s forces did not take part in the fighting but were responsible for protecting military installations in central Libya in 2017 and in the south of the country after Haftar’s forces seized control of them in February 2019. It is therefore plausible that FACT was able to put together an arsenal while in contact with the LNA. Haftar’s forces have not issued a public statement on FACT’s incursion into Chad, but in private they deny any links to this group. Either way, recent events in Chad again show that arming foreign forces in Libya has potential consequences for the stability of the entire region.

Recent events in Chad again show that arming foreign forces in Libya has potential consequences for the stability of the entire region.

What does Déby’s death mean for Chad’s neighbours?

The leaders of various neighbouring countries have expressed their condolences and deep concern at the news of Déby’s death. Chad has been relatively stable in a very precarious regional context. The country has also been a linchpin of the struggle against jihadist groups in the Lake Chad basin – where it intervened after 2014 at the request of its Nigerian and Cameroonian neighbours to fight against Boko Haram factions – and in the Sahel region. The death of Chad’s president is a hard blow for the G5 Sahel, a regional organisation set up in 2014 for security and development cooperation. Chad plays a leading military role in this coalition, and Déby was its standing president. The country also contributes more than 1,400 UN peacekeepers, currently deployed in Tessalit, Aguelhok and Kidal in Mali, and in February it sent a 1,200-strong detachment as part of the G5 Sahel joint force to the highly unstable tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The current situation has raised concerns over the future of these forces, and whether they will return to Chad to help address problems on the domestic front. Such a repatriation could have repercussions on how Chad’s allies deploy in the Sahel, particularly for the French.

What is the current situation in Chad and what risks does the country face?

Immediately after President Déby’s death, the army established a new Transitional Military Council in charge of ensuring an eighteen-month transition, pledging to later hold “free and transparent” elections. Led by the late president’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, a general in charge of the army's elite unit (the General Directorate for State Security or DGSSIE), this council has fifteen members who have all occupied senior posts in the security services. These include the chief of the general staff, Abakar Abdelkarim Daoud, the director of military intelligence, Taher Erda Taïro, and former public security, territorial administration and army ministers. The council swiftly suspended the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and the government, adopted a transitional charter, ordered a curfew, closed land borders and restricted air travel. However, after some days of hesitation, it has already backtracked on some of these directives, explaining that it needs to make “some clarifications”. For the time being, existing members of government remain in office to deal with routine business, and the borders have been reopened.

Political opposition figures and a section of civil society are highly critical of the Transitional Military Council. They are concerned about its defiance of the constitutional requirement that the National Assembly’s president oversee the transition, and about the takeover of power by the army. The former president’s supporters, in contrast, consider the council to be the only way to cope with exceptional circumstances, maintain peace and ensure the country’s defence during troubled times.

The council has reacted to criticism by seeking support. It has held meetings with members of the National Political Dialogue Framework (CNDP) and influential political party leaders, including Albert Pahimi Padacké, the runner-up in the recent presidential election. It has also pledged to set up a transitional government in the coming hours or days. It remains to be seen whether this proposed government will incorporate Chad’s full range of political groups and views, and whether those invited will agree to take up their positions. Many political leaders and members of civil society have already categorically rejected what they call a “military coup d’état”.

Chad finds itself in a very delicate situation.

Chad finds itself in a very delicate situation. Political and military groups have already made it clear that they do not view the military council as legitimate. “We plan to continue the offensive”, said FACT’s spokesman Kingabé Ogouzeimi de Tapol. Although FACT has suffered significant human and material losses, President Déby’s death has undoubtedly spurred on his armed adversaries. The Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR), another Chadian rebel group operating out of Libya, has announced its support for FACT. According to some sources, the two groups may lead a joint offensive on Chadian positions. Renewed fighting could therefore break out in the coming days, either in provincial areas or near the capital N’Djamena, posing a risk for the civilian population.

Other issues hang in the balance. Tensions could spill over onto the streets and lead to a standoff between some civil society organisations and political parties on one side, and the new military authorities on the other. Although Chadian observers report that Idriss Déby’s son enjoys a good reputation and the respect of his soldiers, many wonder whether he will have sufficient authority to lead the army on various fronts, both within Chad’s borders and abroad.

Within such a volatile context, a ceasefire is the top priority.

To ensure a peaceful transition, it will be important to find areas of common ground between the military council and its opponents. Within such a volatile context, a ceasefire is the top priority. International actors with influence in Chad should push the various parties toward these objectives.

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Demonstrators march through the streets of the Chadian capital N'Djamena on 11 September 2021 Djimet WICHE / AFP
Commentary / Africa

Getting Chad’s Transition on Track

Five months after President Idriss Déby’s sudden death, Chadian authorities are preparing a highly anticipated national dialogue. The country faces significant challenges as it charts a course to civilian rule.

In April, Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno was killed in clashes with the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). The rebels had sped across the Libyan border in heavily armed convoys in a bid to reach the capital N’Djamena; the army had stopped their advance, and Déby had come to the battlefront. His unexpected death prompted a group of army generals to instal his 37-year-old son Mahamat as leader of a fifteen-member Transitional Military Council. The junta announced that it would rule Chad for an eighteen-month period, renewable once, during which time it would organise an inclusive national dialogue before handing over the reins of power to civilians through elections. Though wary of its ambitions, Chad’s international allies swiftly endorsed the new leadership. By early May, the army had pushed the FACT insurgents back into Libya. The military takeover reassured those who had worried that Déby’s death would usher in chaos, but dampened hopes for democratic rule. Some Chadian opposition figures express disquiet about the transition and the military’s continued grip on the state. Government officials, opposition figures and rebels all have divergent views on what should happen next. Outside powers, meanwhile, appear to have little sway over the junta. 

The military council would be wise to soothe anxieties about Chad’s political future by taking concrete steps to ensure a smooth transition. It should agree that the current transition cannot be extended and disavow any intention of keeping the presidency in military hands. It should also proceed with preparations for a long-awaited national dialogue and, together with rebel groups, find conditions acceptable to both sides for securing their participation in those discussions. 

Early Reactions

External actors have stepped lightly in reaction to the junta’s assumption of power. France and the African Union (AU), arguably the ones most involved, were particularly reluctant to antagonise N’Djamena, an important ally in the anti-jihadist fight in the Lake Chad basin and the Sahel. Paris invoked “exceptional security situations and the necessity of ensuring the country’s stability” to justify its support for the junta in N’Djamena. Though the AU had temporarily suspended Mali’s membership in response to a coup the preceding August, it kept Chad in good standing because of the country’s military contributions to the counter-terrorism operations as well as the fragility of the post-Déby dispensation. The AU agreed to support the transition on condition that the authorities hold a presidential election within eighteen months and bar the military council’s members from running in those polls, demanding that the junta amend the transitional charter to include clauses to this effect. Mahamat Déby, aware of the considerable diplomatic leverage that Chad’s contributions to regional counter-terrorism efforts provide, in turn promised to both adhere to the AU’s demands and keep Chadian troops in the field. 

Due partly to international pressure, the transitional authorities took steps to open up political space in the country. They reversed a decades-long ban on protest marches, allowed the popular Transformateurs opposition movement to become a political party and committed to drafting an amnesty or pardon for exiled or imprisoned rebels (some of whom a Chadian court has sentenced to death). In late April, they formed a civilian cabinet, thus seeming to relinquish some of their power while co-opting key opposition politicians. 

The junta has not, however, amended the transitional charter as it promised the AU, making opponents suspicious of its intentions. Some Chadian officials, including Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacké, say the charter’s revision should be discussed during the national dialogue. But opponents fear that the transition will run into delays or that the junta will simply have Mahamat Déby take his father’s place permanently. In a June interview, the younger Déby said two “conditions” would have to be met prior to the vote: that “Chadians get along” and that the transition receive international financial support. 

While Mahamat Déby secured France’s support during a state visit to Paris, the junta’s relations with the AU quickly soured. In early July, N’Djamena rejected the appointment of Senegalese diplomat Ibrahima Fall as high representative of the AU to support the Chadian transition on the grounds that the AU had not consulted it about the decision, a version of events the AU disputes. With key member countries such as Egypt and Nigeria backing the military council, the AU finally replaced Fall with Congolese diplomat Basile Ikouébé. Some observers saw Chad’s rebuff of Fall as an intentional snub to AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, a Chadian whom the junta reportedly suspects of having presidential ambitions. N’Djamena’s distrust of Faki Mahamat may thus obstruct the AU’s ability to influence the transition.

The Main Actors’ Positions

Idriss Déby’s demise has upended Chadian politics. Having lost its hegemony with its founder’s death, the former ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS) obtained less than half the ministerial posts in the 40-member government, although its national network could still be a powerful vehicle for a presidential candidate. In June, the party’s secretary general, Mahamat Zene Bada, fled to France when the junta pushed him to organise an extraordinary general congress to name a new leadership. His deputy Ruth Madjidian Padja subsequently convened the congress, resulting in the appointment of former National Assembly chair Haroun Kabadi as secretary general. The widely held belief that the junta was trying to take control of the party stiffened resistance to it among key MPS founding members.

The opposition is divided. Some opposition leaders have opted to join the government – notably former opposition leaders such as Saleh Kebzabo or Mahamat Alhabo. Others question the junta’s legitimacy. Some political parties and civil society groups – like the Wakit Tamma coalition, which has since stated it was open to joining the dialogue – initially called for a civilian-military council to replace the junta and rejected the decrees establishing the committee that is to organise the national dialogue. Further, while these groups and parties also wanted Chadians to agree upon an interim parliament’s formation through the dialogue – which would have given it the necessary standing to vote on a new constitution – the junta on 24 September approved the formation of a 93-member interim parliament selected by a committee it had appointed for this purpose. 

The National Dialogue

Most Chadian stakeholders have agreed to join the national dialogue, but their expectations vary. The dialogue should take place in November-December 2021, followed by elections between June and September 2022. Opposition figures, armed groups and civil society representatives have called for dialogue for decades, hoping that it can lay the groundwork for state reforms. Participants will undoubtedly want to discuss a wide range of issues. The new opposition coalition sees the dialogue as an opportunity to make up for years of exclusion from governance and will probably seek to redress the balance of power in state institutions, reduce the military’s political role, and introduce checks and balances in government. They hold up Chad’s 1993 National Sovereign Conference as a model, having long asked for an “inclusive and sovereign national conference”. Given its short timeframe, however, the proposed dialogue is unlikely to yield progress on more than key constitutional and electoral matters. 

Mahamat Déby and other officials have said they agree in principle to the insurgents’ participation but want them to disarm first.

Perhaps the main sticking point, however, is the participation of rebel groups. Opposition and civil society figures believe that including various insurgencies (“military-political groups”, in Chadian parlance) will strengthen the opposition’s own bargaining position. Mahamat Déby and other officials have said they agree in principle to the insurgents’ participation but want them to disarm first. Several rebel leaders, including FACT leader Mahamat Mahadi Ali, told Crisis Group that intermediaries have contacted them on behalf of the Chadian government, foreign governments and private mediators. In June, the Togolese government hosted talks with some of the rebel groups to determine their demands. The latter asked to be included in the national dialogue’s organising committee, called for an amnesty and requested a preliminary round of government-rebel negotiations, to take place outside Chad, before they would decide whether or not to join the dialogue. Although Togo likely acted with the junta’s consent, N’Djamena ignored the talks’ outcome. 

An abundance of mediators complicates things further. Mahamat Déby appointed two key figures to organise the national dialogue: National Reconciliation Minister Acheikh Ibn Oumar, a former foreign affairs minister and former leader of Chadian Arab rebel movements; and Ali Abderaman Haggar, a respected intellectual from Déby’s Zaghawa ethnic group who serves as the junta’s reconciliation and dialogue adviser. The two men will have to navigate competition between the junta and the civilian government to whom they respectively report. Then, on 14 August, the junta named a 70-member dialogue organising committee gathering MPS members, former opposition leaders and civil society representatives, as well as a 28-member committee that is to organise separate talks with rebels, without specifying where talks would be held and whether they will be conditioned on rebel disarmament. Chaired by Goukouni Oueddeï, a widely respected former rebel leader turned president (1979-1982), the latter committee consists of MPS members and security officials who, like the Libya-based rebels, mostly hail from the north.

But whether separate talks can occur remains to be seen. Two armed groups are particularly divisive. One is FACT: Déby’s sons hold FACT leader Mahamat Mahadi Ali responsible for their father’s death, complicating his eventual return to Chad. The Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), also based in Libya, and led by Déby’s cousins Timan and Tom Erdimi, is another. In July 2021, the Erdimi family accused Egyptian authorities of having arrested Tom in late 2020 at the Chadian government’s request. His whereabouts are unknown. Egypt has not confirmed the arrest but describes Tom as “a dangerous terrorist”. Chadian security sources suggest that Cairo may have since handed Tom over to N’Djamena, an allegation denied by Chadian authorities. On 24 August, the military council arranged the return to N’Djamena of the UFR’s representative in France, Mahamat Abdelkarim Hanno, a former intelligence chief. Some rebels frame his homecoming as part of a divide-and-rule strategy, rather than a sign that the authorities want to engage with the armed opposition as a whole. On 31 August, during an official visit to Sudan, Mahamat Déby called Libya-based rebels “mercenaries”, stating they “should not be allowed to leave Libya because they constitute a threat for the stability and security of both Chad and Sudan”.

Risks and Prospects

While Chad has mostly avoided violence in a period of great uncertainty, the situation could become more perilous. Delaying the transition could shatter the brittle trust among the country’s main stakeholders. National and international actors must strive to maintain consensus in order to see the transition through within the agreed timeframe. 

Several risks loom on the horizon. Many Chadians fear that the military council will not honour its pledges to limit the transition to eighteen months and exclude its own members from running in the presidential election. Should it renege on those promises, protests could break out. Secondly, the Libya-based rebels are still active and, although weakened, could re-enter the country and launch a fresh offensive. Thirdly, ethnic divides could deepen as politicians jockey for power. Some Chadians, notably in the diaspora, are already spreading polarising rhetoric on social media. 

Lastly, trouble is brewing along Chad’s borders. On 30 May, troops from the neighbouring Central African Republic, reportedly accompanied by Russian mercenaries, attacked a Chadian army post, ostensibly in pursuit of Central African rebels who had crossed the frontier. The incident briefly heightened tensions between the two countries. On 4 August, Boko Haram insurgents in the Lake Chad area killed 26 Chadian troops, the highest toll since a March 2020 attack in the same area that killed nearly 100 soldiers and triggered a massive counter-insurgency campaign. Mahamat Déby responded by withdrawing half the 1,200-strong Chadian contingent in the G5 Sahel force from the Mali-Niger-Burkina Faso tri-border area as part of a “strategic redeployment”. 

Much is resting on Chad’s transition

Much is resting on Chad’s transition. The region remains highly unstable, with neighbour Sudan pursuing its own delicate transition, while Libya’s patience with the Chadian rebels on its soil may soon run out. On 14 September, troops answering to Khalifa Haftar, the commander whose forces had battled the government in Tripoli from 2014 through October 2020, when the sides concluded a ceasefire, attacked his former FACT allies in south-western Libya. Libya’s national unity government pact, signed in March, requires that all foreign fighters who backed either Haftar or Tripoli leave the country. 

While there is broad consensus around the need to go to the national dialogue, the junta needs to build trust so that the dialogue can take place under the best possible conditions. To that end, Chad’s authorities should revise the transition charter in line with AU demands prior to the dialogue, ensuring that the transition will not exceed eighteen months and incorporating provisions that bar military council members from running in the presidential election. 


They should also make greater efforts to ensure that insurgent groups can join the dialogue, so as to undercut the ostensible raison d’être of the Libya-based rebellions and offer reassurance that at least some of their members can return to Chad. The insurgent groups’ participation to the dialogue will offer them a forum for airing their grievances peacefully and thus is vital for avoiding further armed conflict in the country. The junta could also engage directly with armed groups in internationally mediated talks outside Chad before the dialogue kicks off in N’Djamena, in order to build a baseline of confidence among the sides and avert risks of confrontation once they return. For their part, international stakeholders, notably the AU, relevant member states and France, should make concerted efforts to encourage Chad’s authorities to apply these measures.

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