April 21, 2021

Africa

CHAD: President’s death raises specter of civil war

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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On 20 April, Chadian army officials announced that President Idriss Deby had succumbed to injuries sustained while commanding his troops repelling a rebel incursion in the north of the country. The army subsequently declared a provisional military government with Deby’s son, General Mahamat Deby, as interim head of state. As the way the army has chosen to handle the succession constitutes a coup d’etat, assurances that “free, democratic and transparent” elections will be held in 18 months seem farcical. Yet the swift move to ensure regime continuity may reassure Chad’s international partners – France in particular – that they can continue to rely on a key military ally in the fight against jihadist militants across the Sahel. As such, France will likely opt to prop up Deby junior’s regime as a power vacuum would raise the specter of a prolonged civil war.

While the circumstances of Idriss Deby’s death are naturally subject to much speculation, the way the army went about his succession clearly constitutes a coup d’etat. According to the constitution’s article 81, the president of the national assembly should take over and organize presidential elections within 90 days if the president dies in office. As an aside, 37-year-old Deby junior also falls short of the constitutional minimum presidential age of 45.

Be that as it may, President Emmanuel Macron’s initial reaction suggests France will side with the new regime. Hailing Idriss Deby (1990-2021) as “a brave friend” and “a great soldier and president who labored ceaselessly for three decades for the security of his country and the stability of the region”, the statement goes on to express France’s “strong attachment to Chad’s stability and territorial integrity” before “taking note” of the establishment of the military transition council.

In fact, France has continued to rely on the battle-hardened Chadian army as part of its regional security architecture throughout Deby senior’s 30-year rule, and after facilitating his violent takeover as commander of a rebel army in 1990. This reliance has increased over the past decade amid the proliferation of militant jihadist groups operating in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.

While France’s ability to meddle directly in Chad’s politics appears limited, its military support may prove decisive for the survival of the new regime. Recall that France frequently came to the rescue of Deby senior, most recently by carrying out air strikes against an insurgent group in February 2019.

As with most countries across the region, Chad is a highly artificial creation drawn by French colonial administrators and has been beset by conflict between its constituent parts throughout its post-independence history. It is therefore by no means a foregone conclusion that Deby junior will prove able to sustain his father’s rule, which relied on concentrating political and economic power in certain sections of his Beri ethnic group. As such, while an incursion of the Libya-based Front for Chance and Concord in Chad is already underway, the current transition phase may encourage other groups to take up the hatchet as well.

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