President Idriss Déby Itno, who has governed Chad since 1990, was killed in northern Chad on Tuesday. The exact circumstances are currently unknown, but the army has stated that he died from injuries sustained in combat with the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), a Libya-based rebel group that entered the country two weeks ago. However, significant doubt remains, and it is possible that Déby was killed in a coup or other internal political struggle. His son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno (known as ‘Mahamat Kaka’), will now lead the government through a 15-man transitional military council (TMC), an undemocratic break from the constitution, which stipulates that the speaker of the Legislative Assembly should take over as interim president.
The Continuity of the Déby Regime
Since its first post-independence presidential election in 1960, every Chadian regime has taken power through violence. Déby took control in 1990 by overthrowing Hissène Habré, a rebel commander with whom he had sided in a previous rebellion in 1979. He did so as founder of the Salvation Patriotic Movement (MPS, now the governing party), with support from Libya and France, and the use of rear-operating bases across the border in Sudan’s Darfur region (Déby is ethnically Zaghawa, a pastoralist group whose land straddles the Chad-Sudan border).
The Déby regime survived a number of internal and external rebellions, and its continuity was based on several key factors. Firstly, Déby, his family and his ethnic group maintained firm control over the military. The Chadian National Army (ANT) developed in the 1990s largely out of the MPS fighters who helped Déby overthrow Hissène Habré, and the Déby regime has staffed its leadership with loyal officers. However, its rank-and-file has become more diverse over time. To protect the regime from a military coup, Déby created the General Direction of the Security Services of the State Institutions (DGSSIE), a presidential guard unit funded directly by the president, which is better equipped than the rest of the army, and has combat experience in Mali and elsewhere. It was estimated in 2017 that 50-60% of the DGSSIE were ethnic Zaghawa, and it has been commanded by Mahamat Kaka since 2013.
Secondly, Déby’s military intervention in the Sahel afforded him French protection against rebellions. In 2013, he deployed 2,400 troops in support of the French Operation Serval in Mali and in 2014, the French headquarters of Operation Barkhane was moved to N’Djamena. His support to French operations in the region reaped its benefits in 2019, when the French Air Force destroyed a rebel convoy approaching N’Djamena.
Thirdly, Déby and his family have retained control over Chad’s oil revenues, which comprise 73% of all state income. Extraction of oil first began in 2003, with Déby’s widow Hinda appointing members of the extended Déby family to positions within the Chad Hydrocarbons Company and the N’Djamena Refinery Company. Tight control over oil revenues has given the Déby regime the resources to buy internal loyalty, co-opt members of the opposition and fund military operations abroad.
Causes of Instability
Given the length of Déby’s tenure, the central role he personally played in the regime and the unexpected nature of his death, there is a high likelihood of instability in Chad over the coming weeks.
The key factor for preventing any conflict will be Mahamat Kaka’s ability to maintain the loyalty of both the military and the broader Zaghawa. This already seems unlikely: General Idriss Abderamane Dicko, an influential member of Déby’s own Bideyat sub-group of the Zaghawa, called for the dissolution of the TMC on Wednesday. Not only does this suggest fissures within the Zaghawa, but his claim to represent the ANT indicates that army officers are using this opportunity to challenge the long-term dominance of the DGSSIE. There is therefore a possibility of conflict between competing factions within the security services, and potentially between different Zaghawa commanders.
Conflict within the military will be shaped by the activities of rebel groups. Currently, the most prominent is FACT, which entered Chad on 11 April, took the towns of Zouarke and Mour in the north and is allegedly responsible for the president’s death. The group is mostly ethnically Goran (from northern Chad), but has recently received support from the National Front for Democracy and Justice in Chad (FNDJT) and the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), two groups with sizeable Zaghawa memberships. Although FACT’s assault last week has thus far been repelled by the ANT, its Zaghawa support suggests that high-ranking defections from the army could occur should Mahamat Kaka be perceived as losing control.
Simultaneously, the political opposition is using the undemocratic nature of the TMC to leverage pre-existing public discontent with the Déby regime, in an attempt to get supporters out onto the street in protest and push for a national dialogue and political transition. Succés Maras, leader of opposition group The Transformers, which staged large street protests prior to the election on 11 April, has publicly called the TMC a “coup” and vowed to mobilise support against it. Not only are large-scale protests likely to be met with lethal force by the DGSSIE, but the language General Idriss Abderamane Dicko has used in criticising the TMC – calling for an inclusive dialogue that represents the people of Chad – suggests that members of the military may use opposition groups as a platform for their own political ambitions.
Potential Outcomes: Conflict or Continuity
The current spectrum of political outcomes in Chad ranges from complete fragmentation of the regime and ensuing civil war on the one hand, to military consolidation around Mahamat Kaka and continuity of the regime on the other.
The reality will likely be a combination of the two. As evidenced by the dissenting comments from General Idriss Abderamane Dicko, there are clearly factions within the Zaghawa military inner circle who are not convinced that Mahamat Kaka’s leadership of the TMC is viable. The Zaghawa is far from a monolithic group and some discord is to be expected, however given Mahamat Kaka’s current vulnerability any dissension is a serious threat. If Mahamat Kaka is unable to pressurise or pay off these dissenting elements, they will likely either launch a rebellion themselves or join forces with FACT. In addition to widespread political violence, this could create a power vacuum, enticing other militant groups from Darfur, the Central African Republic and Libya into the country. Fighting in this scenario would likely be concentrated in the Zaghawa heartlands, and in the west around N’Djamena. It would also cause large refugee movements into neighbouring states, and there have already been some preliminary reports of Chadians arriving in Cameroon.
A consolidation of power around Mahamat Kaka is also feasible, not least because the TMC contains several key Zaghawa generals including his uncle, Mahamat Youssouf Mahamat Itno, and the previous head of the National Security Agency, Mahamat Ismail Chaïbo. The Zaghawa will not want to sacrifice their control over the oil sector, and Mahamat Kaka will have the strongest resources with which to buy loyalty. In this scenario, political violence would be minimal, with fighting limited to the peripheries against FACT, and to the suppression of protests in major cities.
Regardless of the outcome within the regime, civil unrest in major urban centres and deadly clashes between protestors and security forces can be expected. Opposition groups understand that the Déby regime is vulnerable, and they are using this opportunity to call for a (highly improbable) national dialogue and political transition. As seen in February in N’Djamena, security forces are highly likely to employ tear gas and firearms in order to quell any perceived challenge to the government.
A Complicating Factor: Outside Intervention
Should Chad descend into widespread conflict, there is a strong possibility of intervention by outside forces. France and Sudan are the most likely sources; the former has significant military and political interests in the region, and the latter is intertwined with Chadian politics through cross-border ethnic ties and personal connections.
France’s 5,100-strong Operation Barkhane force is headquartered in N’Djamena and the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has already issued statements publicly backing the TMC. It was announced in February that Chad would be deploying 1,200 soldiers to the tri-border area (between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso), and the French military is reliant on this deployment going ahead to allow them to re-orientate their own operations to central Mali. Given the vital importance of Chadian troops for French counter-terrorism operations in the region and France’s history of intervening militarily to support allied regimes in Chad, the use of French forces to prop up the TMC cannot be discounted. French airstrikes in 2019 proved decisive in protecting the Déby government, and should a similar operation occur again it would likely shorten any conflict in Mahamat Kaka’s favour.
Sudan shares a 1,403km border with Chad and therefore has an inherent interest in the outcome of any conflict; a rebellion in 2008 that very nearly toppled Déby was largely financed by Sudan’s government. A Sudanese intervention in Chad at the current moment would likely be driven by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as ‘Hemedti’), the deputy chairman of Sudan’s ruling body, the Sovereign Council, and commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a large paramilitary force that serves Hemedti’s own sectional interests. In the context of a civil war in Chad, Hemedti could potentially use the RSF to install a friendly ruler in N’Djamena, possibly someone from his own Mahariya Arab ethnic group. Relations between Hemedti and Déby were cordial over the last three years however, and Bichara Issa Jadallah, a member of the TMC, is Hemedti’s cousin. Given the complexity of the region’s ethnic politics an RSF intervention in Chad would have extremely unpredictable consequences, not least because the group has been responsible for numerous massacres and human rights violations, notably in Khartoum in June 2019.
Author: Ben Hunter, Analyst, NORTHCOTT GLOBAL SOLUTIONS
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