Challenges ahead for France in navigating Chad’s post-Deby transition

France called Tuesday for the creation of a civilian national unity government in Chad, an apparent shift in stance and a sign of the delicate balancing act Paris must perform as it seeks to ensure stability in the region following the death of veteran strongman Idriss Deby last week. Chad has been a key French ally in the fight against jihadists in Africa’s troubled Sahel region.

Soon after the death of Chad’s president Idriss Deby Itno – reportedly due to wounds sustained as he visited soldiers fighting insurgents in the country’s north on April 20 – his son Mahomet Idriss Deby Into, a four-star general, was declared president and the head of a military council taking charge of the country. 

Mahomet Idriss Deby vowed to oversee an 18-month transition before elections are held. The African Union expressed its “grave concern” about a military regime. Opposition figures called the move a coup.

The Élysée Palace lamented Idriss Deby’s death with a statement describing him as a “courageous friend” of France who “worked tirelessly for the security of the country and the stability of the region for three decades”.

President Emmanuel Macron was the only Western head of state to attend Idriss Deby’s funeral on April 23, where he vowed that France would continue to stand with Chad. “France will never let anyone, either today or tomorrow, challenge Chad’s stability and integrity,” he said at the ceremony.

Protesters ‘see France as part of the problem’

France initially backed Mahomet Deby’s transition plan involving the military’s leadership – with Macron saying at the funeral: “The transition will have this role to play: stability, inclusion, dialogue and democratic transition. We are and will stand alongside you.”

Ahead of the funeral, Macron held talks with the military council led by Mahomet Deby on April 22. Diplomatic and defence sources have suggested that French armed military intervention would be on the cards if the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (Front for Change and Concord in Chad) – the rebel group responsible for Idriss Deby’s death, which is not linked to jihadist insurgencies in the Sahel – were to get close to the Chadian capital N’Djamena.

But Paris appeared to change its position on the military council’s role in the transition on Tuesday, calling instead for a “civilian national unity government” to lead “an inclusive transition process open to all Chadian political forces” that “should lead to elections within an 18-month delay” in a joint statement by the Élysée Palace and the DR Congo government.

Macron said in separate remarks on Tuesday that he advocates a “peaceful, democratic, inclusive transition” and is not in favour of a “succession plan” – adding that “France will never support those who pursue such a project”, apparently referring to Mahomet Deby.

The French president also said that he “emphatically condemned the repression of the demonstrations” in Chad on Tuesday. At least two people were killed and at least 27 injured as security forces cracked down on protesters demanding a return to civilian government and contravening a ban on demonstrations during the period of national mourning for the late president.

Reuters journalists in N’Djamena saw protesters targeting businesses connected to France, including a petrol station run by French oil firm Total.

Many Chadian protesters “see France as part of the problem”, FRANCE 24 correspondent Cyril Payen reported on Tuesday – noting that he had seen “a lot of French flags burned” that morning in N’Djamena. Much of the Chadian opposition and civil society perceived Macron’s presence at Idriss Deby’s funeral as a “show of support” for the military council led by Mahomet, Payen explained.

This is the kind of situation Paris is keen to avoid in Africa: Successive French governments have been determined to free France’s Africa policies from any reminiscence of the Françafrique paradigm of clientelist relations with ex-colonies.

France ‘very dependent on Chad’

France had been Idriss Deby’s main international ally since he took power more than three decades ago. Paris offered reconnaissance and intelligence assistance to his forces in the fighting against northern rebels that saw Deby killed on the front line – after providing direct military aid to Chad in 2009 and 2013 to defeat rebels trying to overthrow him. In doing so, France “safeguarded an absolutely major ally in the struggle against terrorism in the Sahel”, French Defence Minister Florence Parly told parliament in 2019.  

Indeed, Deby was a major supporter of France’s anti-jihadist military operations in this vast, sparsely populated African region just to the south of the Sahara Desert, where governments find large swaths of territory difficult to control.

In early 2013, France launched a military campaign aimed at helping Mali regain territory seized by Islamist extremists who had hijacked a Tuareg rebellion in the country’s northern desert the previous year. The French military succeeded in routing the Islamists but the jihadist insurgency soon spread throughout Mali and across the border to Niger and Burkina Faso.

Experts consider the Chadian military the strongest in the G5 Sahel – the regional bloc transformed into a military alliance at Paris’s behest in 2017, bringing together forces from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

“France has no real economic interests in Chad apart from selling weapons; it’s all coming from a military and strategic point of view,” said Thierry Hommel, director of French research organisation Forum prospectif de l’Afrique de l’Ouest Futuribles (Forum on West Africa).

“France’s military policies in Africa are very dependent on Chad; it’s the centre of departure for so many of its operations,” Hommel continued. “And when you look at Chad on a map, you see a landlocked country with instability all around – across the borders in Niger, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya – and France sees in Chad a very central position that it wants to occupy.”

France saw Deby as a force for stability from this geostrategic perspective – but statistics suggest that he was not a force for economic development. Despite oil reserves estimated at 1.5 billion barrels in 2019 by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative NGO, Chad ranked 187 out of 189 on the UN’s 2020 Human Development Index. Chad also has the world’s fifth-highest infant mortality rate, according to the CIA World Factbook.

“Regardless of who runs the country, future stability in Chad will require a much enhanced development effort,” said Paul Melly, a Sahel expert at Chatham House. “There are some very big challenges: The fact that it’s landlocked makes it hard to produce certain goods competitively. Economic resources [are] inconsistent or patchy, and oil prices have been either depressed or volatile in recent years.”

Encouraging democracy in Chad may well encourage development, Hommel said. “Strongmen tend to do little to promote development. Chad needs strong and good governance – and nobody said that good governance has to be anti-democratic.”

Dialogue ‘difficult but not impossible’

It remains to be seen whether Chad’s military council will smooth the path to a democratic model of governance. In response to the protests on Tuesday, Mahomet Deby vowed an “inclusive national dialogue”, although Chad’s constitution and parliament remain suspended. The previous day, he appointed civilian politician Albert Pahimi Padacke as prime minister – but opposition figures cried foul, arguing that Deby had no right to pick the head of government.

“The prospects for dialogue are difficult,” Melly said. “Idriss Deby spent much of the past 30 years taking a tough line against much of the opposition; there’s a very deep sense of grievance in regions supporting much of opposition such as south of Chad.”

“But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” he continued. “It may be that, if Mahomet Deby and other elements of military come to conclusion that the old system can’t easily be sustained in the absence of Idriss Deby – who had great force of personality that his son seems to lack – they will be prepared to show genuine movement.”

“France of course was very close to Idriss Deby,” said Melly. “But it would be a mistake to automatically assume that France thinks the best way to sustain stability in Chad is to facilitate the continuation of authoritarian rule based largely on the military under the leadership of Mahomet Deby beyond a brief transitional period,” Melly added.

He noted that – while much attention was focused on Macron’s presence at Idriss Deby’s funeral – France played a major role in instigating dialogue behind the scenes as regional leaders gathered for the ceremony. The presidents of Niger and Mauritania spoke to a wide range of Chadian figures while in N’Djamena for the funeral, with France “positioning itself as guarantor of these efforts”.