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Death of Déby leaves big worries in Chad and beyond

‘The worst scenario would be a prolonged power vacuum.’

After 30 years in power, Idriss Déby was unable to provide stability or lift Chad from close to the bottom of the ‘global’ development league table. (Régis Duvignau/REUTERS)

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The sudden death of Chadian leader Idriss Déby after more than 30 years in power is a seismic event domestically, but it also has major security implications for the Sahelian region, where Déby was seen as the lynchpin of Western-backed efforts to battle jihadist groups.

The circumstances surrounding the demise of the former strongman remain unclear. According to the Chadian military, the 68-year-old Déby, who had just secured his sixth term in office after disputed elections, died after being wounded at the weekend commanding troops in the north of the country, while battling a coalition of armed groups led by the Libyan-based Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT.

The late president’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, 37, has taken over as the head of a new 15-member transitional military council that will rule for 18 months before elections are held. The government and the national assembly have been suspended, borders closed, and a two-week mourning period is underway.

Mahamat Déby’s ascension to power has been condemned by Chadian opposition groups as an unconstitutional “coup”. Some have called for an inclusive national dialogue – overseen by the UN and the African Union – to resolve decades of instability and humanitarian crisis.

Despite Chad’s mineral wealth, it has remained desperately poor. Déby’s rule was marked by corruption, human rights violations, and repeated attempts by armed groups to overthrow him. Chad is also at the crossroads of multiple regional conflicts, and shelters more than 470,000 refugees from Sudan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Nigeria and Niger.

Chad has been shaken by Déby’s sudden death. “The worst scenario would be a prolonged power vacuum, especially if the son doesn't manage to rally others to him,” Yan St-Pierre of the MOSECON Group, a security analysis outfit, told The New Humanitarian.

Human Rights Watch has urged a short transition to democratic civilian rule and appealed to Chadian security forces, as well as armed groups, “to refrain from attacking civilians”.

On Tuesday, FACT rejected the new military council and vowed to fight on, saying in a written statement: “There can be no dynastic devolution of power. Chad is not a monarchy.”

Lingering threat

FACT, allied with the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar, has amassed significant weaponry through Haftar’s links to the United Arab Emirates during his war to seize power in Tripoli, according to Andrew Lebovich at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Haftar’s recent political and military setbacks have left FACT soldiers free to head south.

Based in southern Libya, it remains a threat to the interim government. Its forces crossed into Chad on 11 April, election day, and as several columns raced towards the capital, N’Djamena, Western governments called on their citizens to leave the country. The advance was eventually stopped amid heavy fighting and pushed back towards the border.

To counter FACT’s incursion, some Chadian troops were reportedly withdrawn from the regional five-nation G5 force fighting jihadist groups in the Sahel, and analysts say that continued instability in Chad could weaken that multinational effort.

“Certainly, the transitional government will see a need to not only shore up its own stability, but also continue to fight a rebellion that managed to get fairly close to N’Djamena,” Lebovich told The New Humanitarian.

There are similar concerns in Nigeria, where Chadian troops have assisted the government in its long-running conflict with Boko Haram and its rival offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

If the political succession in N'Djamena is not orderly, “then the resulting conflict will see the whole Chadian front of the war against ISWAP and BH collapse”, regional security researcher Fulan Nasrullah told The New Humanitarian.

Western governments turned a blind eye to Déby’s rights record, seeing him as an important military partner. Chad is the base of France’s Operation Barkhane, a roughly 5,100-strong military intervention that since 2014 has been fighting jihadist groups in the Sahel.

A potential French withdrawal from its politically unpopular military intervention hinges on regional forces carrying a larger share of the burden – and Chad had recently contributed 1,200 troops to the G5 and its counter-insurgency action in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

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