Chad facing hard choices as anxious allies ill-prepared

Leaders of the G5 Sahel West African countries and their ally France confer over efforts to stem a jihadist offensive unfolding in the region. Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.
Leaders of the G5 Sahel West African countries and their ally France confer over efforts to stem a jihadist offensive unfolding in the region. Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Chad’s ‘Après-Déby’ moment has been the subject of intense speculation and discrete scenario-planning for years by the country’s external partners and stakeholders as no-one seriously entertained the possibility he would ever step down peacefully.

But such prior reflection did not cushion the shock in N’Djaména and foreign capitals when the military announced his death on the battlefield – as his army confronted a rebel incursion from across Chad’s Libyan border – immediately dissolved the National Assembly, and declared 18 months of rule by a Transitional Military Council headed by Déby’s own son Mahamat.

With Déby gone, the future of Chad is in doubt, as well as its role as a military actor across a huge region of Central and Sahelian Africa, as a key partner for Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger in the struggle to contain Boko Haram, and as a strategic ally for France.

Chadian complexities and challenges

The domestic security position looks unclear as government forces seem to have retained control, but information is patchy and the rebels of the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) may prove more resilient than those who mounted armed challenges to Déby over his three decades in power.

Despite the abrupt dissolution of civilian government, N’Djamena’s streets remain quiet, reflecting the extent to which political opposition to Déby had been hollowed out by years of repression. Although Chad wore the trappings of a democracy, the reality of governance under Déby was that of a heavily militarized authoritarian power, built on opaque and fractious alliances, and accommodations between factions, clans and kinship networks from the communities of the country’s remote northern and eastern fringes – above all Déby’s own Bidayat-Zaghawa ethnicity.

Challenges to his position at the apex of this pyramid were regular but massaged away through the distribution of cash from Chad’s oil production – often delivered in person by Déby himself – the handing out of lucrative public positions and, when necessary, the blunt application of force.

Déby faced multiple coup attempts during his period in office, some even led by members of his own family. Chad’s stability was only ever skin-deep, heavily dependent on the president’s force of personality and adroit exercise of power. Now that stability could prove hard to sustain and assessments of the ‘Après-Déby’ moment have always been bleak.

Key actor in regional security

Although inevitable that one day this era would come to an end, Chad was never subjected to serious external pressure for better governance, for development focused on the needs of the poor, or for a greater respect of human rights that international partners have applied to some – albeit not all – African ‘strongmen’ leaders.

This was clearly a reflection of Deby’s role as an increasingly close and trusted strategic partner of major international players, notably France and the US. For Paris and Washington – and arguably London – the fundamental priority in recent years was containing the threat to regional stability posed by jihadist violence in the central Sahel and north-east Nigeria.

While acknowledging the influence of local social, inter-ethnic, and economic factors, in tandem with trying to sustain development programmes, Western governments, their African counterparts, and the wider international community have built their responses around hard-edged security – an approach which positioned Idriss Déby as a partner of primordial importance.

During his decades in power, fighting off rebellions at home and pouring oil money into military procurement, Chad’s president forged a military machine with significant fighting capability and a battle-hardened readiness to use force. Chad was one of the few countries both willing and able to put effective troops on the ground in some of the world’s most difficult conditions. And this bought Déby a lot of political and diplomatic leeway.

When African troops deployed in Mali alongside the French in Opération Serval to free northern towns from jihadist occupation, the Chadians assumed much of the toughest frontline desert fighting roles. And when, after the election of Muhammadu Buhari as president in 2015, the Nigerian military at last agreed to accept the help of its Lake Chad neighbours in tackling Boko Haram, it was the Chadian army units whose intervention was perceived as critical.

As recently as February this year, Déby sent a further contingent of troops to join fellow members of the G5 Sahel alliance in the campaign against militants in the ‘three frontiers region’ where Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali converge.

But Déby’s involvements were not always viewed positively. His passing may be greeted with a measure of relief to the south, and in the Central African Republic, which was repeatedly the subject of N’Djaména’s often opaque meddling. Partly Chadian-recruited – and piloted – militias, both pro-and anti-government, have for decades been a feature of politics and insecurity in this fragile state. And Chad itself was not immune to the impact of interventions from outside, particularly Libya – as the recent dramatic events have shown – and the eastern border zone with Sudan’s Darfur region.

Strategic dilemmas and internal tensions

As Mahamat Déby steps into the Chadian politics arena, he and those around him face an acute strategic dilemma. Managing Chad’s internal tensions and the almost-inevitable challenges to his authority – from FACT, factions within the military, rival clan networks or the street – will generate intense pressure to retrench Chad’s far-flung military commitments and concentrate his resources at home.

But doing so would risk weakening the core appeal to external players and regional powers alike which did so much to reinforce the rule of his father. It is a delicate equation to balance amid the uncertainties of a vastly complex and volatile region.

Hard choices also have to be made in Washington and Paris because, despite the inevitability of the ‘Après-Déby’ moment, little had actually been done to prepare for it by building local resilience in Chad or buttressing its institutions and respect for the rule of law – all of which were sacrificed on the altar of short-term security imperatives.

Déby’s death offers an opportunity to help Chadian civil society and political opponents gain a louder voice in the future of the country, but may be perceived by some partners as risking the destabilization of a key anchor of regional security. For the country, its neighbours, and allies, the road ahead is unlikely to be smooth.

Paul Melly, Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme and Ben Shepherd, Consulting Fellow, Africa Programme.

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