Life after Idris Déby: Quo Vadis, Chad?

For many Chadians, news of the sudden death of President Idris Déby Itno on 20 April 2021, crowned the past year as an annus horribilis, while sending shockwaves through the wider Sahel and around the world. Sixty-eight-year-old Déby, who took power in 1990 when his rebel forces deposed then-President and autocratic leader Hissène Habré, died from gunshot wounds sustained on the frontlines of fighting rebels belonging to a group called “Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad” (French acronym, FACT) in the north of Chad. The shock news came just a day after the veteran ruler won his sixth term as president amid boycotts from the main political opposition.

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The dramatic manner of Déby’s death evoked a sense of valour and sacrifice—admittedly a rare commodity among national leaders today. “France lost a brave friend,” said French president and main ally Emmanuel Macron. “A warrior” who “departed the presidency as he entered it—par la grande porte” was how the U.S. Representative to the United Nations described the late leader. The African Union described Déby as a “great statesman and recognised military leader.” Yet, Déby’s lasting legacy is chequered at best. 

Former President Déby is applauded for #Chad playing a key role in regional counterterrorism. Critics, on the other hand, adduce chronic issues of corruption, nepotism, extreme poverty, and human rights violations @DanielAgbiboa

On the one hand, Déby is applauded for playing a key (military) role in regional counterterrorism campaigns, including sending his battle-hardened troops to multiple crisis zones on the continent, from Sudan and the Central African Republic to Mali and the Lake Chad region. As a testament to his perceived contributions to regional security and stability, Déby became chairman of the African Union in January 2016, succeeding the late Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe. Also, at the beginning of 2021, the rotating presidency of the 5,000-strong force of the G-5 Sahel (comprising Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania) passed to Chad. 

Critics, on the other hand, adduce chronic issues of corruption, nepotism, extreme poverty, and human rights violations that haunted Déby’s 30-year authoritarian rule. Under Déby’s watch, Chad was ranked 187 out of 189 countries on UNDP’s 2020 Human Development Index, 160 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index, and last in the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index

But let us be clear: Déby’s much-touted role in fighting terrorism in the Sahel and his pas de trois with Paris and Washington, D.C., were all geared toward one aim and one aim alone: tightening his grip on power. He died trying to do just that. Hard on the heels of Déby’s death, the military—nay, “a small circle of military friends”—dissolved the National Assembly and elected government and set up a Transitional Military Council (CMT) headed by his 37-year-old son and career soldier Mahamat Déby Itno, with a spine of 14 generals close to Déby. The CMT’s suspension of the 2018 Constitution of Chad paved the way for Mahamat to become president pro tempore and army chief. Technically, this unconstitutional move amounts to a bloodless coup that signals dynastic succession and continuity of ethno-militarized politics, while dashing hopes of a more democratic and inclusive society. 

Article 81 of the Chadian Constitution is clear. In the event of a power vacuum, the President of the National Assembly becomes Acting President and an early election is called within 90 days. In like vein, any candidate for president must be 45 years old and a civilian. Mahatma is ineligible on both counts. Like Cameroon, where President Paul Biya’s son, Franck Biya, is being groomed to take over from him when his seventh term ends in 2025, the cloud of father-son succession looms large in Chad. The military fiat that suspended the Constitution and anointed Mahatma interim president received a nod from former colonial power France and a coquettish grin from the U.S., two Western countries who see Chad as a bulwark against Islamic militants in West Africa and the Sahel. Between them, both countries have several thousand troops stationed in the Chadian capital N’Djamena. While the White House is eerily ambivalent in matters concerning Chad, the Elysée Palace has always been unequivocal. President Macron sat next to Mahatma at Déby’s funeral, sending a less-than-subtle message of France’s abiding support for the fils à papa (daddy’s boy). Under Déby, Paris and Washington, D.C., turned a blind eye to the militarized politics and crackdowns on fundamental freedoms for which Chad was deservedly notorious. After all, why would anyone try to change a system that protects their interests? What is the incentive?

The establishment of a Transitional Military Council in #Chad, amounts to a bloodless coup that signals unconstitutional dynastic succession and continuity of ethno-militarized politics, while dashing hopes of a more democratic and inclusive society @DanielAgbiboa

Chad shares borders with insurgent zones such as Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. Understandably, Déby’s death has generated questions about repercussions for regional security and stability. Some fear that growing domestic armed rebellions and suspected fractures in the Chadian army may not only spill over, but combine to weaken Chad’s role in countering violent extremism in Central and West Africa and Sudan and the Maghreb. Others fear that the CMT may prioritize internal security over regional stability. But the CMT has already moved to allay these fears by pledging its continued support for the G-5. Mahatma is not his father, but the man has the ear of Chad’s top military brass and powerful Western allies who propped up his father’s multi-decade authoritarian system. He knows that to stay relevant, he must press ahead with his father’s aggressive war on terror and his central role in Operation Barkhaine, which leads counter-terror operations across the Sahel. 

When all is said and done, those who bear the brunt are the multitudes whose cries and demands for political inclusion and improved services are routinely met with guns. Chadians joke: “We are all going to heaven as we’ve already experienced hell on earth.” While in Mali, the epicentre of the Sahelian crisis, mass protests against alleged corruption and insecurity goaded the army into ousting President Boubacar Keita in August 2020; in Chad, the omnivorous potentiality of the armed forces was on full display during demonstrations following the formation of the CMT: brutally cracking down on thousands of anti-CMT protesters who took to the streets of N’Djamena—under the rallying cry “Wakit Tama” (“The hour has come”)—to demand an inclusive national dialogue and a civilian-led transition. At least six people have died in clashes with the Chadian police, who also carried out dragnet arrests in the capital city.  

If the CMT’s promise of a “free and democratic” Chad is to hold sway, the umbilical cord of gilded and gunpowder democracy must be cut. The CMT must be seen to be moving towards a much-needed politics of mediation, one that firmly denounces the dynastic devolution of power, reconfigures the myopic military strategy in the Sahel and, above all, listens to the vox populi. Failing that, we can expect to see more of the same across the board, to wit: more militarized and contentious politics, more use of Chadian oil by the military cabal to shore up patronage, more shrinking of civic space, more neocolonialism, more armed opposition groups, and more insurgent citizenship. In short, we can expect to see the deepening of crisis as context in Chad and the Sahel.  

Daniel E. Agbiboa is Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. 

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