EXPLAINER: What’s going on in Chad and Why?

The presidential election was held in Chad on 11 April 2021, and the incumbent president Idriss Déby, who served five consecutive terms since assuming power in 1990, ran for a sixth term alongside other six candidates, including his former Prime Minister, Albert Pahimi Padacké.

The official results of the election were delayed following an effort from top opposition leaders in the country against Déby’s move to extend his 30 years in power. The results were later released on Monday (April 19, 2021) by Chad’s Electoral Commission (Ceni) which announced Idriss Deby as the winner of the April 11th election with 79.32 percent of the votes.

Sequel to his election victory, Déby was expected to give a victory speech after receiving the provisional results but opted instead to visit Chadian soldiers on the front lines. Shockingly, however, an announcement from the national army of Chad on Tuesday 20th April 2020 declared the newly re-elected president dead.

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According to Chad’s national army, Déby died of wounds he sustained while leading his army in combat against northern rebels advancing on N’Djamena, the country’s capital.

“​The president of the republic, head of state, supreme chief of the army, Idriss Déby Itno, just drew his last breath while defending the nation’s integrity on the battlefield,” said Gen. Azem Bermandoa, a spokesman surrounded by soldiers, in a broadcast.

Who are the Rebels?

The rebels are fighters of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), a political-military group mainly based in Libya and the northern part of Chad. The group was founded in 2016 by dissident army officers, politicians, and freedom fighters who had accused the deceased president of authoritarianism and repression, thus they clash regularly with the Chadian army in their efforts to rid the country of Déby’s 31 years of power.

According to a report, the militants had arrived from their base in Libya and had entered Chadian soil on election day. Before advancing south in heavily armed pick-up trucks. They assaulted a border post, and the Chadian armed forces appeared to have slowed the FACT’s advance over the weekend, some 300 kilometers (185 miles) from the capital, Ndjamena, after intense fighting.

Mahamat Mahdi Ali, leader of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT)

“Chad is not a monarchy. There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country. The forces of the Front for Change and Concord are heading toward N’Djaména at this very moment. With confidence, but above all with courage and determination,” the rebels said in a statement released by the late Tuesday.

The nature of the killing of president Déby is yet not clear to many experts, and the move been taken by the Chadian military has given the development different dimensions. The situation also raised concerns about potential violence on the power struggle in Chad, and security issues in the region due to Chad’s strategic position in the fight against armed and terrorist groups in the Sahel and Chad basin.

Former president Hissène Habré, who is serving life sentence in Senegal for crimes against humanity, seized power in Chad with the support of France and the United States and ruled from 1982 until he was deposed by Idriss Déby through a 1990 rebellion.

While Chad has witnessed successful and failed rebellions since its independence from France in 1960, Déby himself, in his three decades rule, faced different threats of being overthrown – rebel forces came close to capturing the capital in 2006 and 2008 before being forced to retreat, and they came close again in 2019.

What is next

Having been a powerful figure in the region’s politics, and an ally of France and the West in fights against terrorism, Déby’s death leaves more questions than answers.

The constitution stated that the speaker of parliament should take over when a sitting president dies before organizing elections, but to the surprise of Chadians and many observers, the Military issued a charter on Wednesday saying the president’s son, General Mahamat Debby will take over in place of his father.

The charter stated that “General Mahamat Idriss Deby, 37, who on Tuesday was swiftly named transitional leader as head of a military council following his father’s death, will occupy the functions of the president of the republic and also serve as head of the armed forces”. He will also lead the country for 18 months until elections.

Some political analysts believe that what happened was a coup d’état. Chad’s main opposition parties have also condemned the army’s appointment of Déby’s son as the nation’s new president, describing it as an “institutional coup”.

Despite the charter, there are concerns regarding the sustainability of the transitional council and the functionality of the Chadian strongman system in Déby’s absence. Some believe that the younger Mr. Déby faces many threats to his rule from the same armed rebels accused of killing his father. In fact, social media were filled between Tuesday and Wednesday with rumors and theories about the killing of Déby’s son during gunshots in the presidential palace.

The move against installing Déby’s son has led to different calls from the likes of Saleh Kebzabo, a leading opposition political voice, for dialogue to discuss a route forward and for immediate fresh elections in place of the transitional council inaugurated by the military.

However, while the U.S. government has emphasized that a transition that is consistent with the Chadian constitution must be inaugurated, the military move has also led to debates on the role of France in Chad and the French government’s position towards installing Déby’s son as the leader of the country’s transitional Council.

Although, the death of Idriss Déby, to France’s top politicians, is a loss of an old friend and ally they had come to depend upon over decades. According to a spokesman for President Emmanuel Macron, France lost a “courageous friend” in Mr. Déby. And for the foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Deby is “a reliable partner who worked relentlessly for the security of his country and the stability of the Sahel.”

And for Nigeria and other neighboring countries, the political turmoil in Chad could hamper the fight against Boko Haram and other insurgencies, hence the most important step, for now, is to fill the place of power and regain control of the county. “We don’t want a power vacuum,” Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama told BBC Focus on Africa radio.

 Who is General Mahamat Déby?

Mahamat Idriss Déby was born on the 1st of January 1984. He was raised by his father’s mother and inherited the nickname “Kaka” (“grandmother” in Chadian Arabic). He is France-trained military personnel and previously served as the second in command of the military for the Chadian Intervention in Northern Mali.

Mahamat’s first combat experience came in April 2006 when rebels attacked Chad’s capital city. He later fought alongside General Abu Bakr al Said, the then director of the Chadian National Gendarmerie which is in charge of judicial, administrative, and military policing. Mahamat was promoted to major after that. He also led forces when he oversaw Chadian forces during the Battle of Am Dam, where his army defeated the rebels.

General Mahamat Deby, son of late Chadian President Idris Deby Itno on state TV in N’Djamena, Chad on April 20, 2021. (Credit: AA)

Mahamat was later named second in command of the Chadian special forces in Mali in January 2013. He led his army against rebels in Northern Mali’s Adrar al-Ifoghas mountains on February 22, resulting in the Battle of al-Ifoghas. They destroyed a “significantly important” rebel base, inflicting heavy casualties on the rebels while also losing twenty-six men, including Abdel Aziz Hassane Adam, a special forces commander.

Mahamat assumed full command of the military for the Chadian Intervention in Northern Mali (FATIM) and has been leading operations against northern rebels since then until his recent appointment as the interim president of Chad.

The current situation in Chad could be summarized into the Nigerian saying, “soldier go, soldier come, but barrack remains”. Or as Kelma Manatouma, a Chadian political science researcher at Paris-Nanterre University put it: “He [Mahamat Deby] has always been at his father’s side. He also led the DGSSIE. The army has gone for continuity in the system.”

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