The death of Chad’s president Idriss Déby Itno reportedly from injuries sustained on the battlefield just days before he was to start his sixth term in office has been met with shock and incredulity. The Chadian military announced immediately that it would form a transition government headed by Déby’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, for the next 18 months. Like his father, Mahamat is highly ranked in the military.
This decision already conflicts with the constitution, which provides that, on the death of a president, an election should be held within 90 days.
Idriss Déby was born to a herder in the northern Chadian desert in 1952, eight years before the country gained independence from France. Chad was torn apart by civil wars shortly afterwards and the country never has seen a peaceful change of regime.
Déby grew up to become a military man, completing part of his training in France in 1976. This cemented what was to be an enduring close relationship with the former colonial power.
In the 1980s, he served as commander-in-chief under former president Hissene Habré, Chad’s brutal ruler from 1982 to 1990. In December 1990, Déby led a coup that deposed Habré. On taking power, Déby promised to create a democratic society and his reforms were greeted with relief. For the first time, political parties and a free press could be established. Six years after he came to power, Chadians voted for a new constitution in a referendum.
Chad became a presidential republic with a multiparty system. The first elections took place in 1996. But even these foreshadowed potential problems. They were marred by allegations of fraud, a pattern that has repeated itself in all future elections, including those held earlier this month. Déby and his ruling party, Patriotic Salvation Movement (MPS), won all of these. The opposition has never had the slightest chance.
Internationally, there has hardly been any external objection. Other countries and multilateral institutions have simply watched and applauded. But within Chad, different groups have engaged in political and military rebellions to challenge Déby’s power. The more he cemented his power, the more members of his inner power circle, like his nephews Timane and Tom Erdimi, have gone into rebellion and formed different movements and alliances. There have been repeated rumours about failed coups. The last alliance reached the capital N’Djamena from Sudan in 2008. Since then, battles have taken place in the north of the country.
On a knife-edge
With Déby’s death, Chadians are bracing themselves for trouble. Even as the first rumours about the wounded president started making the rounds, citizens of the capital saw the power of the Chadian military, which is dominated by Déby’s Zaghawa clan. About to lose its leader, it was getting ready to defend the city against the rebel Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT) led by Mahamat Mahdi Ali.
Tanks blocked crossroads and some citizens immediately headed across the river for refuge in Kousseri in neighbouring Cameroon. Fear has dominated the city since. The country’s borders are closed.
What happens next is open to question. The military has announced a military transition regime for the next 18 months. But the constitution calls for elections within 90 days. This means that the military’s decisions go against the Chadian constitution, as well as democratic principles. It also means that power continues to be concentrated in the hands of Déby’s clan. The Zaghawa make up only about 3%-4% of the population, though strategic alliances, like marriages, enabled him to build alliances with other ethnic groups. Some past rebel groups have been mobilised by clan affiliations, but FACT doesn’t appear to be based on ethnic affiliation.
What went wrong
The new century had begun so hopefully: Déby promised to be the right person to help Chad develop as a democracy and improve its economy. Help was at hand. International organisations and institutions stepped up to the plate. The World Bank provided a loan to support the construction of a pipeline to transport oil into neighbouring Cameroon. The expectation was that, with the help of oil revenues, Chad could improve its poor and undeveloped education and health systems, build infrastructure and supply jobs. Ordinary Chadians dreamed of a way out of poverty.
But careful observers could already detect Déby’s will to consolidate his grip on power. He invested the first World Bank loan in a military helicopter to defend against rebels. Reports began to emerge that his former allies as well as relatives wanted part of the country’s riches. Déby used the oil revenues to secure his leadership: a big portion of the revenue from oil went into the pockets of his Zaghawa clan and close allies who took central positions in military and society. The hopes of ordinary Chadians that their lives would improve came to nothing. The poor became even poorer, health and education system are among the worst worldwide.
Déby had great tactical skills. He tied people to himself, often with monetary or other favours. He also blackmailed and humiliated even close collaborators. And he was very adept at playing people, ethnic groups and religions off against one another to finally present himself as the reconciler. Former rebel leaders were repeatedly convinced to join government ranks.
Part of the oil revenues also went into strengthening security forces. This enabled Déby to become a loyal ally of the French army on the Sahel battlefields against Islamist terrorism. Chad’s military successfully defeated rebel attacks in 2006, 2008 and 2019. This was in no small part due to his own capacities as a good military and political strategist as well as the loyalty and support of the French government.
As commander-in-chief of the army Déby used to lead the battles against rebellions, as well as against alleged Boko Haram attacks. He was joining his troops on the battlefields against FACT when he was mortally wounded in northern Chad.
A painful legacy
The few Chadians who have benefited from Déby’s rule will mourn. Like his wife Hinda, many of them might have already left the country and taken their fortune with them. But ordinary Chadians cannot leave. They will cry out of fear.
FACT and other rebel alliances will not just accept the Zaghawa clan’s continued grip on power and resources. It is most likely that these movements will continue their advance on N’Djamena. At the moment they seem to be about 500km to 800km from the capital, though FACT’s spokesperson promised to respect the period of mourning.