The Chadian strongman's demise is set to have major implications for global security and the struggle against extremist groups in Africa.
Earlier this month, Chadian president Idriss Deby was in the northern part of his country leading Chad’s armed forces in the fight against Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). Clashes with the rebel group resulted in Deby suffering wounds which he succumbed to on April 20. Until his death, Deby ruled Chad for over 30 years as an authoritarian who kept his landlocked country closely allied with Western governments.
Leaders in Washington and Paris always viewed him as a dependable leader. Charismatic, experienced, and highly influential across a host of African countries, Deby was a critical figure in the so-called Global War on Terrorism that began during George W Bush’s presidency. The former French colony has been the base for the French military’s African operations.
At this juncture, much uncertainty surrounds questions about the resource-rich, oil-exporting country’s future. The rebels responsible for Deby’s death are offering to negotiate with the government. But the government, which is now officially led by Deby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Deby (Mahamat Kaka), is refusing this offer. Azem Bermandoa Agouna, the spokesman of Chad’s military council, declared that “the time is not for mediation, nor for negotiation with outlaws.”
Now there are good reasons to worry about an exacerbation of violent instability not only inside Chad but also across the Sahel. Such chaotic dynamics are ones which extremists such as Daesh and Boko Haram can easily exploit.
Regardless of what unfolds in these upcoming weeks, the period in which Chad can present itself to the West as a regional power which successfully combats terrorist groups across the Sahel while maintaining peace and stability at home is certainly over - at least for a considerable span of time.
FACT’s invasion from Libya and the French factor
FACT has approximately 1,000 members and its political objective is to topple the Deby-led system in Chad. The rebel faction has been based in Libya as a participant in that country’s civil war under General Khalifa Haftar despite the renegade general’s good relationship with the former Chadian president.
Since fighting in Mistrata in 2017, Haftar kept FACT protected on Libyan National Army (LNA)-ruled land. In southern Libya, FACT protected oil installations for the LNA.
But Haftar and FACT had an “ambivalent” relationship which has not always been so amiable. When it came to the LNA’s assault on Tripoli, which began in April 2019, FACT was neutral. At times, Haftar’s forces bombed FACT to “discipline” the Chadian organisation.
As explained by Wolfgang Pusztai, the former Austrian Defense Attache to Libya who currently serves as the Chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Council on US-Libya Relations, there was essentially a non-aggression pact between the LNA and FACT with Haftar believing that his forces lacked the strength to forcefully eject the Chadian rebel group from Libya.
Regardless of all the nuances of FACT’s relationship with the LNA, the rebel group’s relatively successful invasion of Chad has much to do with the support that Haftar gave them.
The Abu Dhabi-backed Libyan commander gave FACT arms, protection, and useful combat experience which made a difference this month in northern Chad. Although there is no evidence that Haftar ordered or pushed FACT to do what the group did in northern Chad this month, more governments with stakes in southern Libya and the rest of the Sahel will likely further question Haftar’s ability to rein in the various mercenary forces that fought under the LNA’s umbrella during Libya’s civil war.
Despite having supported Haftar, officials in Paris are likely angry and frustrated with him. But there is no reason to expect the French government to change its relationship with Haftar because of his indirect role in Deby’s death.
“This notion that people are going to [punish] Haftar because of what he did, which is to recruit and pay a group that effectively is responsible for the destabilization of Chad in the month of April 2021…is absolutely ludicrous,” argued Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, in an interview with TRT World. “We’ll see [Washington and Paris] not only fail to punish Haftar but even become more sensitive to his story that he’s a decent actor when it comes to combating jihadist groups...It’s really, in my view, counterintuitive.”
Where was France’s military when Deby was wounded? At that point, the French were able to help the Chadian military but did not do so. For eight days it was clear to all where FACT fighters were located and “everybody knew that France’s planes were ready to take off and bomb [FACT], they just didn’t [because of a] political lack of desire,” said Harchaoui. “If France had decided to pulverize the convoy, it would have done so within five hours…The only reason FACT still exists is because France hasn’t destroyed it. It could have destroyed it before the death of Deby and be done with it.”
In April 2022 there will be presidential elections in France, thus domestic politics are relevant to President Emmanuel Macron’s reluctance to intervene militarily in Chad for reasons not directly related to the fight against jihadist groups.
Beyond domestic politics, another reason why has to do with the fact that such military action by the French would demonstrate how easily they could have acted to protect Deby. Nevertheless, despite seeking to avoid doing so, the French might still take military action against FACT, especially if N’Djamena (where France has a military base) seems at risk of falling to the rebels.
The chaotic Sahel
In recent years, Chadian forces have been involved in operations against terrorist groups in a host of African countries such as Cameroon, Central African Republic, Niger, Nigeria, and Mali.
Chad’s armed forces, however, have been returning to northern Chad amid the government’s ongoing fight against FACT rebels. Experts warn that the vacuums created by Chad’s forces coming back home could lead to worsening regional instability.
There is no doubt that there are major implications for global security and the struggle against extremists in Africa. Daesh, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and other such groups could prove to be the main beneficiaries of the Chadian leader’s death.
These jihadist militias will now operate with more leeway because of Chad having lost its capacity to project itself so extensively and expansively across the Sahel.
Considering the recent developments in Chad, the odds are good that this country and others in the Sahel will make many global headlines. But how long will the world pay attention to this largely lawless and impoverished part of Africa that many terrorist groups and transnational criminal organisations see as their haven?
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