Chad's dictator was killed by rebels. Why does France care?
The death of long-time leader Idriss Déby Itno has cast uncertainty not only on Chad’s future, but also for the greater Sahel region, as neighboring West and Central African countries battle terrorism and internal instability.
| Dakar, Senegal
The killing of President Idriss Déby Itno has left his son in charge of Chad, the first change of power in more than three decades for the central African nation that borders some of the world’s most volatile countries.
The military’s decision to make Mahamat Idriss Déby the interim leader provoked an immediate outcry from both the Chadian political opposition and the rebel forces blamed for his father’s assassination.
Here is a look at the uncertainty in Chad and the potential threats for the region in the weeks to come:
What exactly happened to Chad’s longtime president?
The military announced April 20 that Mr. Déby had been mortally wounded during a visit to the troops north of the capital, who were battling an anti-Deby rebel group. The exact circumstances are murky, though. The military publicly acknowledged only five casualties in battles that reportedly killed 300 rebels.
Mr. Déby, a former army commander, was known for making visits to the front lines. However, security analysts have questioned how such a high-profile person could have been killed in a battle that was supposed to be to the military’s advantage.
So who’s in control of the country now?
The military appointed a council to lead an 18-month transition to new elections and put Mr. Déby’s son in charge.
The transitional council also announced that the interim prime minister post would go to a former opposition presidential candidate, Albert Pahimi Padacke, who finished second in the April 11 vote. The move appeared to be a concession aimed at placating political opponents, who maintain that, per the constitution, the president of the National Assembly should have been the one named interim leader.
Mahamat Idriss Déby has insisted that he has no long-term political ambitions, though many Chadians have noted that he is about the same age his father was when he overthrew then-President Hissene Habre – and then stayed in power for more than 30 years.
Could these rebels really attack the capital?
Chadian rebels groups have made it to N’Djamena before: In 2008, they even reached the presidential palace before being repelled back toward the Sudanese border.
These latest rebels are from a group known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, which has been threatening to advance on the capital for more than a week now. Initially the rebels said they would wait to do so until after Mr. Déby’s funeral on Friday, but there has been no sign of them now for several days.
Chad’s military spokesman alleged Sunday that some of the rebels had instead retreated to neighboring Niger and were nowhere near N’Djamena.
However, a representative for the rebel group denied that claim, telling The Associated Press that they still intended to move on the capital in the coming days if no agreement is reached with the interim government.
An agreement appeared unlikely. Military spokesman Gen. Azem Bermandoa Agouma said Sunday that now is “not the time for mediation or negotiation with outlaws.”
Who are these rebels exactly?
The group, known by its French acronym FACT, is led by Mahamat Mahdi Ali. He formed FACT in 2016 after breaking away from another Chadian armed group based in Libya known as the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development.
FACT’s stated objectives to date have been purely political: First they sought to depose Idriss Déby Itno, and now they vow to unseat his son.
Chad’s transitional government, though, accuses the group’s leader of making dangerous alliances with Islamic extremists and traffickers operating near Chad’s border with troubled Niger.
A military spokesman also claimed that Mahamat Mahdi Ali has been charged with war crimes in southern Libya, where the group trained for years before crossing back into Chad earlier this month.
International Crisis Group says that FACT reportedly has 1,000 to 1,500 fighters in its ranks. It is unclear how many rebels from other armed groups may have joined forces with FACT in recent days.
What role is France playing in all of this?
Chad was a French colony until 1960, and the French military has headquartered its regional counterterrorism forces there.
France considers Chad to be a key ally, as the country has contributed critical troops toward the dangerous United Nations peacekeeping force working to stabilize Mali after a French-led military intervention there in 2013 ousted Islamic extremists from power in major towns across the north.
French officials called Mr. Déby a “courageous friend” in the days after his death and then dispatched President Emmanuel Macron to the funeral despite the rebel threats of violence. While the French government has encouraged a swift transition toward a civilian government, it seems to be embracing Mr. Déby’s son in the interim in a bid to avoid destabilizing a critical ally in the fight against extremism.
France also appears to be providing intelligence to the Chadian military. The rebels say French reconnaissance flights have already given away their positions. France denies carrying out any airstrikes as it did when another armed group posed a similar threat back in 2019.
What does this all mean for Chad's neighbors?
Under Mr. Déby’s tenure, the Chadian military was a major contributor not only to the peacekeeping efforts in northern Mali but also to a regional security force battling extremism known as the G5 Sahel. Earlier this year, Chad announced that it was sending 1,200 troops to an embattled corner of the Sahel where Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger meet.
Some fear that a protracted conflict in Chad could force the diversion of Chadian soldiers elsewhere, weakening the regional fight against militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.