PARIS–French president Emmanuel Macron has paid tribute to slain Chadian leader Idriss Deby Itno calling him a “courageous friend” and “great soldier”. He also urged stability and a peaceful transition in the African country after Deby’s shock death within hours of winning a sixth presidential term.
“Chad is losing a great soldier and a president who has worked tirelessly for the security of the country and the stability of the region for three decades,” the office of President Emmanuel Macron said in statement, hailing Deby as a “courageous friend” of France.
The statement also emphasised France’s insistence on the “stability and territorial integrity” of Chad as it faces a push by rebel forces towards its capital, N’Djamena.
Defence Minister Florence Parly praised Deby as an “essential ally in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel” while emphasising that the battle against jihadist insurgents “will not stop”.
Chad is observing 14 days of mourning for the late president, the circumstances of whose death apparently on the frontline where his troops were fighting a rebel column, remain unclear. His 37 year-old son General Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, had overseen his father’s security as head of the elite presidential guard and had often appeared alongside him.
He has now been named transitional leader as head of a 69-member military council and will “occupy the functions of the president of the republic” while also serving as head of the armed forces.
Chad’s generals said that the move was in accordance with a 95-article Transitional Charter which they unveiled shortly after Idriss Deby’s death. Among other provisions the charter is reported to guarantee “freedom of opinion, conscience and worship.”
However, the death of Chad’s veteran strongman leader has thrown the future of the country and the wider battle against jihadist groups in the Sahel region of northern Africa into doubt.
How did Deby die?
According to the army, Deby died from injuries sustained on the frontline while commanding his forces in the north of the country as they attempted to repel an incursion by anti-government rebels based in Libya.
Such behaviour from Deby, a veteran soldier, was not unusual for a man whose power and mystique was founded on his military prowess, observers say.
“My understanding from talking to people on the ground was that he was deeply concerned that rebels were advancing on the capital,” Cameron Hudson, a Sahel expert at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington, told AFP.
“He went to the front… to motivate and speak to his troops,” he added.
The Jeune Afrique magazine also reported this version of events.
Given the tribal and intra-family rivalries in Chad, coupled with a culture of secrecy in the army, an assassination was initially viewed as a possibility.
The transfer of power has sidelined other political institutions in the country and was denounced as a “coup d’etat” by exiled opposition groups in a statement on Tuesday.
Washington reaction has been equivocal. “We support a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution,” said the US State Department.
“Anything is possible, including the worst,” said Marielle Debos, a leading French expert on Chad at the University Paris Nanterre. “It’s a very tense situation.”
Some observers say that Deby’s son will have difficulties stepping into his father’s shoes.
“If this had happened a year ago, the outcome might be different, but coming on the heels of a fraudulent election that was about to return Deby to power for another decade or more, there’s a level of anger and resentment and frustration among the population now,” said Hudson from the Atlantic Council.
What about the rebels?
The rebels who the army said killed Deby are from the FACT group, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), which launched a major incursion on the day of the presidential election.
The rebels are based in Libya, which is awash with weapons after years of a civil war that has drawn in world and regional powers.
The location of the Deby’s death, in the Kanem region, indicates they had advanced hundreds of kilometres inside Chad from the northern border, travelling in heavily-armed pick-up trucks, so-called “technicals”.
The Chadian army claimed it had “destroyed” the rebels after more than a week of fighting.
But the rebels issued a statement on Monday saying they were moving on to the capital N’Djamena.
“An immediate ceasefire is crucial,” said Thibaud Lesueur from the International Crisis Group think-tank.
How will France, the West react?
France is the leading international power locally due to its colonial history in Chad, while the United States has a more limited military presence in the wider region.
Paris has 5,100 troops as well as air power stationed permanently in the Sahel region as part of its operation Barkhane, which is headquartered in the Chadian capital.
France has used its air power to back up Deby’s forces on multiple occasions, most recently in February 2019 when it carried out air strikes against UFR rebels advancing from Libya.
Paris will now have to weigh up whether to intervene again to support the new regime if FACT rebels continue their advance.
What about the wider region?
The Sahel, comprising Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, is a vast semi-arid region that stretches along the southern rim of the Sahara desert.
It is a haven for armed groups from Boko Haram in Nigeria to offshoots of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, ISIS.
Deby’s troops were crucial and effective firepower in both a UN peacekeeping effort and a still shaky force made up of soldiers from the the five Sahel countries, known as the G5 Sahel.
“In the event of internal trouble, Chad will be obliged to call back all of its soldiers overseas. and this could destabilise the whole region,” said Amadou Bounty Diallo, a professor at the University of Niamey in Niger.