What’s Next for Chad and Sahel? – Deby’s Demise Fuels Insecurity and Uncertainty

Written by | Friday, April 23rd, 2021

The sudden death this week of Chad’s longtime President Idriss Deby has thrown the country, as well as its neighbours and international partners, into disarray. The 68-year-old strongman died after succumbing to wounds sustained while commanding troops fighting off advancing rebels, according to Chad’s military. Hailed by his allies but despised by his people, Deby‘s death leaves behind a country torn apart, a region plagued by extremist groups and his Western allies unsure of how to proceed. Over the course of Deby’s three-decade hold on power, Chad has remained one of the poorest countries in Africa, but it has also come to be seen as a military linchpin in the escalating fight against armed groups in Central and West Africa.
While in Europe he was praised for spearheading Chad’s counterterrorism operations in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, back home, he also had a reputation for ruling with an iron fist. Deby’s demise undoubtedly has implications for the stability of the Central African nation, as well as its neighbors. “France and the United States depended on Deby’s leadership and his military might to advance their regional security objectives,” said Judd Devermont from the US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The domestic and security tumult in Chad may draw some troops away from the missions in Mali and the Liptako-Gourma tri-border region, depriving France of its most effective partner,” he added. “It will have less impact on the Lake Chad Basin where Chadian troops already have pulled troops from far-flung forward operating bases in Nigeria to reconcentrate its defences on the border.”
Despite accusations of a democratic deficit and a litany of human rights abuses by its military, Chad has been a key ally in the West’s military strategy in the region on two fronts: against al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) in the western portion of the Sahel, and against Boko Haram in the Chad Basin. What has made Chad attractive to Western countries is its geography, military force and friendly leadership. It is of particular interest to France, the former colonial power in the region, where it still maintains numerous business interests. France’s military effort in the Sahel region, the 5,100-strong Operation Barkhane, is headquartered in N’Djamena. “Chad is losing a friend of France and a reliable partner who has worked tirelessly for the security of his country and the stability of the Sahel,” the French ministry for Europe and foreign affairs said in a statement (20 April).
But, as an European diplomat in the region said, the ex-colonial power had “miscalculated” by depending so much on Déby. “Chad, and his military and security apparatus at large, was always considered to be the backbone of [France’s military alliance in the Sahel] and this backbone is now in danger,” the person said. While Mr Déby’s 37-year-old son – General Mahamat Idriss Déby – who has also served as the head of the elite presidential guard, had been groomed to replace his father, “no one in the Chadian regime, whether son or nephew, can lead the country as Déby used to”, said a French diplomat with close knowledge of France’s Africa policy. Instead of handing power to the leader of parliament, as required by the constitution, the army put in place a military council headed by Déby Jr, also known as “Kaka”. The African Union, which is supposed to have a “no coup” policy, uttered barely a murmur. France, Chad’s main Western ally, turned a blind eye, too.

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