Chadian leader Idriss Deby Itno died Tuesday, April 20, allegedly from wounds he sustained while fighting rebels of the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) in Kanem, northern Chad.
The leader of FACT, Mahamat Mahadi Ali, revealed that President Deby had been on the battlefield on Sunday and Monday April 18 and 19, where the fighting was taking place at Nokou, Kanem, in the Centre-west of the country.
He was wounded in the battlefield on Sunday and was then flown to the capital N’Djamena, 400 kilometres away by helicopter, before dying early Tuesday morning.
The death was confirmed Tuesday morning by a military communique read on national radio by Azem Bermandoa Agouna, a General and army spokesperson.
Fourteen days of national mourning have been declared throughout the country and a curfew has been imposed from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. CAT.
The constitution was immediately suspended and a military council was put in place to rule the country for 18 months. The air and land borders have been closed till further notice.
The military says the 68-year-old leader who had ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years but was a key ally of the West in its anti-jihadist campaign in the troubled Sahel region, would be replaced by his 37-year-old son, four-star General Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno.
Meanwhile, in a communique signed by Dr Djibrine Kajiam, the National Council for the Liberation of Chad, one of the groups fighting to overthrow the Chadian government, has “forcefully rejected” the military council headed by Idriss Deby’s son saying it does not recognise the “illegitimate council.”
The communique called on the rebel forces to remain mobilised and prepared to continue the fight to liberate the Chadian people from the yoke of the Idriss Deby regime.
What Deby’s death means to neighbours
The death of the Chadian leader has been received with mixed feelings within the Central African sub-region where Idriss Deby had been playing a key role both politically and militarily.
President Paul Biya of Cameroon, declared that the death of “Marshall Idriss Deby Itno is an immense loss for Chad, Central Africa and our continent which he served without rest.”
Biya’s haste in sending a message was to build a partnership with the new administration, as Idriss Deby had rescued the Biya government in the past, by sending troops to halt the advance of Boko Haram terrorists from the Far North region towards the capital Yaounde.
Chad went to the rescue of Cameroon in 2015 at the height of Boko Haram attacks in the northern parts of the country. At the demand of the Yaounde authorities, Chad sent an estimated 2,000-man contingent of soldiers in 400 trucks to fight alongside the Cameroon army as well as the Nigerian army in Northeast Nigeria.
While the Cameroon government which explicitly asked for military assistance against Boko Haram welcomed the Chadian intervention at the time, Nigeria stayed relatively quiet, unwilling perhaps, to admit the extent of the Boko Haram problem and its government’s inability to deal with it alone.
“Any support to our operations will be welcome, but it has to be properly channeled to key into our own ongoing operations, considering the fact that place is a territory of Nigeria,” was all then Nigerian defence spokesperson Chris Olukolade had said on the subject.
Crowds at the border towns between Cameroon and Chad had to stay late into the night waiting for the arrival of the Chadian troops as they were seen as saviours against the repeated and increasingly deadly Boko Haram attacks in the country. And when the Chadians finally arrived, they were greeted by cheering crowds right into the early hours of the morning.
The stemming of the Boko Haram onslaught on Cameroon with the help of Chadian forces gave the government in Yaounde reason to hope for some normalcy which was only shattered by the Anglophone armed separatist insurrection in 2017.
Cameroon relied almost exclusively on the military assistance of Chad during its dark days with Boko Haram, to the exclusion of France, which had a military pact with the Yaounde authorities that provided for French military assistance in times of threats to the Yaounde government.
In this particular case in 2015, France did not support Cameroon; it would appear this was because of the Biya government increasingly opening its doors to other global north countries to invest in Cameroon, robbing France of their monopoly over doing business in Cameroon.
Any fears the Yaounde government had over France’s foot-dragging in coming to its aid militarily were allayed by the Chadian intervention on the side of Cameroon.
With Deby gone now and doubts as to whether the military council set up in N’Djamena would succeed in staying in power, President Biya and his government have every reason to be dishevelled.
The same fears go for other Central African countries such as Gabon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Congo Brazzaville etc.
“Besides Cameroon, the demise of Idriss Deby would be seriously felt in countries where he combined forces to fight terrorism, be it Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Mali and others,” declared Professor Victor Ngoh, President of the Catholic University Institute of Cameroon, who is a leading historical/political expert in Cameroon.
“It once more provides an opportunity for African countries to understand the international political game because it is hard to place in a reasonable context, the fact that international terrorists could cross borders and move freely without those countries such as France and Russia etc which claim to provide military assistance to Chad and others doing anything to help.”
“What do the military accords signed with these countries really represent? The Idriss Deby demise is a hard blow to the fight against terrorism in Central and West Africa.”
Prof. Ngoh said Paul Biya had very good relations with Deby and Cameroon and Chad had strong social, economic, cultural and political links.
“Deby’s death will also have negative repercussions in the Central African Republic which is fighting multiple rebel groups including jihadists and where the situation is not as good as would be expected,” he said.
“It is a blow not only to Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria but also to the entire Central African sub region. Terrorists in these countries would now be emboldened to embark on more adventures as their main nemesis is gone.”
With the death of the Chadian strongman, the Libyan renegade General Khalifa Haftar who has been the prime mover behind this new rebel attempt to topple the N’Djamena regime would be encouraged to push through his expansionist agenda.
“General Khalifa Haftar has been seriously weakened by Turkish military support to the internationally-recognized regime in Tripoli and even continued French support to him has not helped improve the situation of his fighting forces,” a Gabonese political scientist who declined to be identified declared.
“In supporting the Chadian rebels, he hopes to establish a launching pad in Chad to continue his fight to take over complete power in Libya should the rebels succeed in seizing power in N’Djamena and the death of Idriss Deby gives him more reason to hope for the success of his military adventures with the Chadian rebels.”
The demise of Idriss Deby is bound to send negative ripples throughout most capitals in West and Central Africa.
“No matter how they pretend that they are not concerned about how the death of Idriss Deby would affect them, there are all indications that Biya and his Central African sit-tight colleagues are having white nights right now,” said George Ekokobe, civil society activist.
“Deby’s intimidating presence in Chad helped intimidate jihadist groups from much more expansionist adventures in the sub region,” opined political scientist Ngondo Gustav of the Republic of Congo in Brazzaville.
“Now that he is gone, there is every reason to be concerned over an escalation of jihadist attacks in Central Africa.”
“Following Chad’s military intervention in the Central African Republic, Mali as well as on the Cameroon/Nigeria border as a partner in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), Chad has established itself as a stabilising factor in the West and Central African sub regions.”
“All this was at the impulsion of the late Chadian leader. His disappearance now poses the spectre of increased and generalized jihadist military actions that could lead to a further destabilization in the regions which have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic,” Chad’s civil society activist Kebzabo Hassan.
Chad under Deby has always had the military and political will to make things happen – driven by self-interest, of course. Chad borders Nigeria’s problem areas, and has been nervously watching Boko Haram’s expansion into Cameroon.
If left unchecked, it is almost certain that Boko Haram will start taking a more active interest in Chad too.
Besides the military aspects, Cameroon already hosts thousands of refugees from Chad, and within the last few days that there has been panic in N’Djamena, hundreds of Chadians have been crossing from the Chadian capital to Kousseri in the Far North Region of Cameroon.
Weakened by the Boko Haram insurrection and marauding criminal gangs, the Nigerian army and Nigeria itself, which were seen as a stabilising force especially in West Africa had seen its role being gradually eroded by Chadian military intervention in Nigeria’s zones of influence.
Following Chad’s intervention in the Central African Republic, Mali, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria, the Chadian army became not only an army consolidating the country’s internal unity by combating armed groups opposing the Deby regime, but it is also seen as an army that can be deployed thousands of kilometres away from the country and still maintain its cohesion and fighting power against diverse threats to regional security.
Chad’s accolades were due to the domineering influence of President Idriss Deby whose bullying presence served as an intimidating force against the expansionist aspirations of jihadist organisations aiming to destabilise and conquer West and Central Africa for Islam.
It is almost certain the death of Deby would give jihadist groups a new push into further adventurism especially in the Central African sub region.