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Vol 62 No 9

Published 29th April 2021


Death on the front line, a coup, and then an about turn

Having endorsed a takeover by General Mahamat Déby after his father's death, France and the African Union are having second thoughts

Within a week of the killing of President Idriss Déby Itno on the front line in the early hours of 20 April, his international allies had twice changed their policy stance.

Until then, thanks to the late President, Chad was stable, nearly free of any terrorist threat, and able to deploy forces to help regional states manage their borders and curb the jihadi groups. 

Then the first U-turn. After the killing of President Déby, Chad was so fragile that his erstwhile international allies accepted that his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby 'Kaka', should seize power, backed by a junta and suspend the constitution.  This move confirms the view that the Déby family with its tight grip on the military and security is unwilling to cede power, let alone hold credible elections (AC Vol 62 No 9, Regional leaders pay homage to Déby at funeral summit).

U-turn number two came after at least five civilians died in a day of clashes on 27 April in Ndjamena and Moundou, the second largest city, between protestors, demanding a return to constitutional rule, and security forces. France and the African Union changed their stance again, condemning Mahamat Déby's succession plan and the military's violent suppression of the protests. 

Underlying these policy shifts are the myriad questions about the circumstances of Déby's death. Were French forces with Déby at Nokou, some 300 kilometres north of Ndjamena, when he died? When and how exactly did he die? When and how was the Conseil militaire de transition (CMT) set up? Were French officials, military or civilian, consulted? 

General Stephen Townsend of the United States Africa Command (Africom), testified at the United States Congress on 20 April that French troops were involved in the fight near Nokou (North Kanem) where President Déby was killed. Although the official version says he was flown to Ndjamena where he passed away, sources close to the family told Africa Confidential that he was dead before the plane landed. 

A news blackout on the killing gave the Itno clan time to plot the regime's future. Close associates, all military generals who had been with Déby, attended.

Two options were debated. One was to allow Haroun Kabadi, Parliamentary Speaker and a close friend of Idriss Déby, to become the Transitional President and hold elections within three months as set out in the constitution (AC Vol 56 No 10, Winning battles, losing wars). 

This option was opposed by many, mostly military, who thought that they should be in full control to take revenge on the rebels who had killed the President, and to safeguard their status.

Kabadi was called in. It was claimed that his poor health precluded him from assuming the presidency but he had never complained before and had led Parliament for the past decade. He suggested they call the President of the Supreme Court, Samir Adam Annour, who did not contest the legality of this gathering deciding the fate of the country. 

The setting up of the CMT reflects this haste. Only the top officials at the meeting were included. Mahamat Idriss was selected as the leader as the President's son and the Head of the Direction générale des services de sécurité des institutions de l'Etat (DGSSIE), Chad's elite force and Presidential Guard.

Rival ambitions
Two other sons could have played a leading role. Abdelkerim Idriss Déby spoke at the meeting and is better educated (having trained at the United States West Point military academy), but he is younger than Mahamat and his aggressive manner risks antagonising foreign allies. Zakaria Idriss Déby was not considered for the same reasons and because he missed much of the discussions having travelled from Abu Dhabi. Both brothers have ambitions that will emerge sooner rather than later. 

Apart from being close to his soldiers, Mahamat Idriss has another key advantage: both his mother and his wife are Gorane. This means that he can get the support of the Gorane who belong to the DGSSIE, the Armée Nationale Tchadienne (ANT) and the Agence Nationale de la Sécurité (ANS). The Gorane are the second biggest faction in the DGSSIE after the Zaghawa. Added to which many of the rebels recruited in Libya are Gorane; the Front pour l'alternative et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) that killed Idriss Déby is mostly made up of Gorane. 

The CMT members encompass leaders from the different military and security units. They are the closest associates of the Déby regime: some, such as General Abakar Abdelkerim Daoud and Taher Erda fought alongside Déby in 1989.

Others, such as Souleymane Abakar Adoum, showed their loyalty in the 2005-2009 crisis when many Zaghawa close to Déby shifted to the opposition led then by Tom and Timane Erdimi. In terms of military and security, the same people will be in charge in the transition. And there is no reason to expect changes from them in the management of the Chadian State. 

Yet, installing the son on his father's chair is controversial. Dynasties are not accepted by Zaghawa and neither are they popular elsewhere. Mahamat Idriss is seen as neither charismatic nor impressive. 

Niger's new President, Mohamed Bazoum, advised the generals to appoint civilian figures and launch a national dialogue but the CMT and Mahamat Idriss flatly rejected any compromise. This slight to Bazoum was the new regime's first mistake in the region. Then the military's crackdown on protestors on 27 April was another blow to the CMT's credibility. 

The transition seems to have been shortened to just enough time to prepare Mahamat Idriss to become the chairman of the ruling party, the Mouvement Patriotique du Salut (MPS), and then orchestrate a resounding election victory.

Awkward alliance
The French government's relations with Mahamat Déby will be dominated by its view of Chad's military role in the region. After endorsing Mahamat's coup and the suspension of the constitution, Paris embarked on an awkward alliance with the junta in Ndjamena about which it now appears to have second thoughts.

Another risk for Ndjamena and Paris is that rebel groups based in Libya such as FACT may find fresh support from Russia. Although Moscow has been disappointed by the military failures of its elderly protégé and rogue general Khalifa Haftar in Libya (who had helped arm FACT and other rebel groups), it could emerge as a geopolitical winner in the region. It will be encouraged by the wave of anti-French sentiment in the region, now boosted by Paris's questionable support for Mahamat Déby's succession.


Even before the protests on 27 April and growing international criticism, the Conseil militaire de transition (CMT) was looking fragile. The regional origins of its members is problematic: not all of them are Zaghawa and it is more a Bornu-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) configuration than a Chadian one. Of the CMT's 14 members: 7 are Zaghawa, 2 Gorane, 1 Tubu, 1 Tama, 1 Arab and 2 Sara. 

Although the Arab population is six times larger than the Zaghawa, they have only one General, Bichara Issa Djadallah, who is a Rizeigat/Mahariya and a cousin of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti', Deputy Chairman of Sudan's Transitional Military Council. General Bichara had helped connect Hemeti with President Idriss Déby Itno, building an Arab-Zaghawa alliance in Eastern Chad-Darfur that pressured the Darfur armed groups to sign a peace with Khartoum in October 2020. 

The CMT's legitimacy is widely contested. General Idriss Abdelrahman Dicko, Deputy Director of the late President Déby's Military Office, told Ndjamena Radio that many of the generals had not been properly consulted. Recurring arguments among the leading officers mean there will be soon be a reshuffle of the CMT.

Under the late President, tensions rooted in personal or communal rivalries were high in the DGSSIE. Many of the conflicts that he contained may now play out. 

General Dicko belongs to a Zaghawa family that provided the chef de canton of Billia (the area Idriss Déby came from), only for the late President to take the title for his brother, Timane Déby Itno. Such parochial Zaghawa issues may feed the discontent of those officers marginalised in the haste to set up the CMT. Another problem will be allocating official jobs to the CMT members. Most are brave fighters but few had a formal education and most are interested in the details of economics or running a bureaucracy. 

The CMT's rapid appointment of Albert Pahimi Padacké as Prime Minister shows it wanted to exclude opposition politicians from the transition. Padacké was the last premier for Idriss Déby before the post was scrapped under the 2018 constitution. An ally of Déby's for over two decades, Padacké took the job without discussing what powers he would have.

Another case of the dominance of the first family is the appointment of General Mahamat Idriss Déby's new private secretary, Idriss Youssouf Boy. This position is critical under Chad's powerful executive presidency. Until now it was held by Hinda Mahamat Abderahim Açyl, the influential wife of the late President. The new secretary is the son of Youssouf Boy, the husband of the late Déby's younger sister and the commander of the Presidential Guard before his death during the battle at Massaguet in February 2008, just before rebels reached Ndjamena. By appointing a close Zaghawa relative and a personal friend, Mahamat Idriss and the CMT have got rid of a shrewd rival.

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