On 20 April, Chadian military officials announced that President Idriss Déby had died of wounds sustained in conflict with militants in the Kanem region on 19 April. It was also announced that a transitional military council (CMT/Conseil Militaire de Transition) headed by Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, had taken over governance of the country suspending the constitution and dissolving both the legislature and the cabinet. The CMT has also declared a two-week mourning period, imposed a 18:00 to 05:00 curfew, and closed all borders indefinitely.
The details surrounding Déby’s death are currently unclear. The late president had travelled to the Kanem region to meet with military leaders who were fighting an incursion of forces from the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT/Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT). FACT forces crossed the border from Libya on 11 April and managed to overwhelm military forces stationed in the Tibesti region before entering the Kanem region en route to the capital N’Djamena. FACT’s advance was halted by security forces in large part due to Chad’s superior air capabilities and, on 17 April, military officials released a statement claiming to have defeated the militant incursion.
According to unconfirmed reports, Deby attended negotiations with FACT’s leaders on 19 April in Kanem region but tensions escalated and the meeting devolved into armed clashes during which Deby was fatally wounded. It appears as if the late president was struck with shrapnel after an explosive detonated.
Regardless, Deby’s unexpected death has forced Chad into an uncertain future. The strongman has ruled the country ever since rising to power via a military coup in 1990. In the following 31 years, Deby exerted absolute control over the state and entrenched his Zaghawa ethnic group as the dominant force in the government and military. Concern about a power vacuum and uncertainty within Chad is palpable and reflected in the actions of the CMT. The military has essentially deployed coup tactics to ensure regime continuity and stability. By installing Mahamat Déby as the interim leader, the CMT is signalling continuity to the country and seeking to ensure continued loyalty from Déby’s supporters within the state.
However, the CMT’s takeover will escalate the ongoing political tensions in the country. These tensions were already elevated after the recent 11 April election, the results of which still need to be finalised, but provisional figures indicate that Déby secured the expected landslide victory and sixth presidential term. These elections were boycotted by most opposition parties and candidates citing a lack of transparency and oppressive tactics by the regime. Related tensions saw frequent anti-government protests in recent months and similar demonstrations are expected in the near future opposing the CMT and the suspension of the constitution which calls for elections within 90 days of the president’s death. The countrywide curfew and heightened security presence in N’Djamena are likely partially aimed at limiting the opposition’s ability to organise. However, protests are still likely as the opposition will try to exploit the uncertainty after Déby’s death and the controversial suspension of the constitution to demand fresh elections. Any such demonstrations will likely result in civil unrest as security forces violently disperse protesters and trigger a crackdown on opposition activities.
A more significant security threat is the fact that Deby’s death will likely galvanise the various militant groups in the country to take advantage of the uncertainty within the armed forces to press their advantage. This particularly includes Boko Haram, which is active in the Lake Chad area, and FACT, which will view Déby’s death as a victory. Already officials have warned that FACT appears to be regrouping and may again attempt to move on N’Djamena instead of retreating to Libya as expected. This will lead to violent confrontations in the Kanem region north of N’Djamena.
Déby was also considered to be a significant regional force providing stability in an unstable part of the continent. The long-standing ruler was actively involved in regional security and a major contributor to the G5 peacekeeping force in the Sahel combatting the Islamism militant groups active in the area, including but not limited to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Al-Mourabitoun, and Boko Haram. He was also a reliable Western ally in the region ensuring close political and security ties with France and the United States (US). Given Déby’s personal dominance over Chad’s diplomatic and security relationships, his death has cast these relationships and arrangements into doubt. Accordingly, many of the CMT’s actions, including installing Mahamat Déby as CMT leader, are aimed at signalling consistency to Chad’s partners.
However, despite the CMT’s best efforts, there is a power vacuum in Chad at present and the CMT and Mahamat Déby will need to manoeuvre decisively to entrench themselves in power. The possibility of ethnically motivated uprisings, secessionist movements, or even a military insurrection remains. Accordingly, the CMT is expected to crack down on any perceived opposition or restlessness and a purge of rivals in the ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement (PSM) and the military remains likely. Chad is expected to slide deeper into authoritarianism in the short term at least as the CMT cements its control. This is unlikely to be met with any serious international criticism or opposition due to Chad’s close ties with France and its essential role in regional security. This role is amplified by the unstable region Chad is in, with the country bordered by the Central African Republic (CAR) to the South, Sudan to the East, Libya to the North, and the unstable Lake Chad area to the West. As such, it is essential that Chad remains as stable as possible to prevent a wider regional security collapse.