Chad's president Deby dies after fighting rebels on battlefield: army

N'Djamena, Chad: Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno has died in combat after three decades in power, the army said Tuesday, opening a period of uncertainty in a country that is a key strategic ally of the West in a troubled region.

His son was immediately named transitional leader as head of a military council and both the government and parliament were dissolved, but the army vowed "free and democratic" elections after an 18-month transitional period.

The army said Deby had died from injuries sustained as he led his troops against rebels who launched an offensive against his regime from Libya last week.

Chad had claimed victory against the fighters, but soon after the announcement of Deby's death, they vowed to pursue their offensive and march on the capital N'Djamena.

The shock news came just a day after the 68-year-old career military man was proclaimed the winner of a presidential election that gave him a sixth term in office.

The army also announced a curfew and border closures, while a state funeral was planned for Friday.

Deby, often called "marshal," had ruled Chad with an iron fist since taking power on the back of a coup in 1990, and often put members of his family and ethnic group in key positions in government and the military.

- 'Essential ally' -

He was nonetheless a key ally in the West's anti-jihadist campaign in the unstable Sahel region, particularly due to the relative strength of Chad's military and its ability to supply weaponry and soldiers.

Former colonial power France hailed Deby as an "essential ally in the fight against terrorism" and called for a peaceful transition over a limited timeframe.

The United States offered condolences and said it supported "a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution."

Following the announcement of Deby's death, presidential guard officers in civilian clothes roamed N'Djamena with walkie-talkies and handguns.

Police in black uniforms and masks were also on the streets, although the military presence was no more intensive than since the rebel offensive began in northern Chad on April 11, the day of the presidential election.

- 'Defending the nation' -

The army said Deby had been commanding his forces at the weekend as they battled rebel group Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT).

Deby "has just breathed his last breath defending the sovereign nation on the battlefield," army spokesman General Azem Bermandoa Agouna said in a statement read out on state television.

He said Deby had died on Tuesday, but the presidency later gave the date as Monday.

The army said a military council led by the late president's 37-year-old son Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, a four-star general, would replace him.

Deby's son oversaw his father's security as head of the elite presidential guard and often appeared alongside him, wearing the force's red beret, dark glasses and military fatigues.

He signed a decree Tuesday setting out a military council with 15 generals, including himself and 14 others known to have been part of the late president's circle of loyalists.

Some analysts expressed concern that Deby's death could unleash new rounds of violence.

On Monday, the army claimed a "great victory" against FACT, saying it had killed more than 300 rebels and captured 150 others, with the loss of five soldiers.

But FACT spokesman Kingabe Ogouzeimi de Tapol told AFP that the rebels would continue the offensive after a short delay for Deby's funeral.

"We categorically reject the transition," he said.

Ministers and high-ranking military brass had said Monday that Deby was in the region on Saturday and Sunday after the rebel offensive.

Deby, who had been among the world's longest-serving leaders, had on previous occasions gone to the frontlines as government forces battled rebels.

Provisional results released Monday showed him winning re-election with almost 80 percent of the vote.

His victory had never been in doubt, with a divided opposition, boycott calls, and a campaign in which demonstrations were banned or dispersed.

- Herder's son -

Deby was a herder's son from the Zaghawa ethnic group who took the classic path to power through the army.

He had campaigned for the latest election on a promise of bringing peace and security to the troubled region, but his pledges were undermined by the rebel incursion.

The government had sought Monday to assure concerned residents that the offensive in the provinces of Tibesti and Kanem was over.

Panic had been triggered in some areas of N'Djamena on Monday after tanks were seen on main roads, an AFP journalist reported.

They were later withdrawn apart from a perimeter around the president's office.

Much remains unclear regarding the rebel action, which had led several nations including the US and Britain to advise their nationals to leave.

One analyst said the country was "entering uncharted territory."

"A damaging succession crisis is to be feared, while government forces and rebels have been fighting each other in the north and centre of the country," said Richard Moncrieff of the International Crisis Group think tank.

A long-serving army ally in turbulent Sahel

Idriss Deby Itno, who was on course for a sixth term as Chad's president before he died from injuries sustained in battle, had carved out a reputation as the West's stalwart ally in the Sahel -- despite accusations of authoritarianism.

The 68-year-old son of a herder would have been one of the longest-serving leaders in the world after provisional results showed him winning reelection this week.

But his shock death cut his 30-year political career short and will likely throw Chadian politics into disarray.

He died from injuries sustained while fighting rebels this weekend in the country's restive north, the army said Tuesday.

His death comes after elections this month that was marred by a rebel offensive launched in the north on election day. The army said Monday it had killed 300 rebels and quashed the offensive.

Deby's long rule in the region's brutal politics has made him a reliable figure in the French-led campaign against jihadist insurgents in the Sahel.

Deby, from the Zaghawa ethnic group, took the classic path to power through the army and relished the military culture.

Last August, the National Assembly named him field marshal, the first in Chad's history, after he led an offensive against jihadists who had killed nearly 100 troops at a base in the west of the country.

Dressed in a dark-blue silk cape embroidered with oak leaves, and clutching a baton, Deby dedicated the tribute to "all my brothers in arms."

As a young man, Deby enrolled at the officers' academy in the capital N'Djamena before heading to France, where he trained as a pilot.

He returned in 1979 to a country in the grip of feuding warlords.

Deby hitched his star to Hissene Habre and was rewarded with the post of army chief after Habre came to power in 1982, ousting Goukouni Weddeye.

In the following years, Deby distinguished himself fighting Libyan-backed rebels over mountainous territory in the north of the country.

But in 1989, he fell out with his increasingly paranoid boss, who accused him of plotting a coup.

Deby fled to Sudan, where he assembled an armed rebel group, the Patriotic Salvation Movement, which rolled into N'Djamena unopposed in December 1990.

In 1996, six years after he seized power and ushered in democracy, Deby was elected head of state in Chad's first multi-party vote.

He won again in succeeding elections.

The main opposition withdrew its participation in 2006 and 2011, irked by a change to the constitution enabling the former soldier to renew his term, and the elections in 2015 were marked by accusations of fraud.

French friend

Deby was solidly backed by former colonial power France, which is 2008 and in 2019 used military force to help defeat rebels who tried to oust him.

"We safeguarded an absolutely major ally in the struggle against terrorism in the Sahel," French Defence Minister Florence Parly told parliament in 2019.

Deby supported French intervention in northern Mali in 2013 to repel jihadists, and the following year stepped in to end the chaos in the Central African Republic.

In 2015, Deby launched a regional offensive in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger against Nigeria-based Boko Haram jihadists, dubbing the Islamic State affiliate "a horde of crazies and drug addicts".

One of Deby's political rivals, Saleh Kebzabo, had protested against France's backing and urged the world to recognize the regime's "dictatorial nature."

Deby's power base, the army, comprises mainly troops from the president's Zaghawa ethnic group and is commanded by loyalists.

It is considered one of the best in the Sahel. According to the International Crisis Group think tank, defense spending accounts for between 30 and 40 percent of Chad's annual budget.

Rights accusations

In 2018, Deby scrapped the position of prime minister to assume full executive authority.

"Everything is centralized around the presidency -- he uses all the weapons of absolute power while bullying society," said Roland Marchal at the Centre of International Research at the Sciences Po school in Paris, speaking before Deby's death.

Marchal said Deby had a reputation for a hot temper and notorious mood swings, although a close aide said he had "great listening ability and analytical skills".

Deby was been accused of iron-fisted rule during his long reign. Banned opposition demonstrations, arbitrary arrests, and severed access to social networks raised regular objections from human rights groups.

Another common complaint is that Deby has named relatives and cronies to key positions, and failed to address the poverty that afflicts many of Chad's 13 million people despite oil wealth.

The country ranks 187th out of 189 in the UN's Human Development Index (HDI).

Chad's Deby: A life in dates

Key dates in the life of Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno, who died on Tuesday at the age of 68 from what the army said were wounds sustained in the battle against rebels.

- 1952: Born Idriss Deby in Berdoba, in the northeast, to a herder. A Muslim, he hails from the Zaghawa ethnic group.

- 1976: After enrolling at the officers' academy in the capital N'Djamena in the early 1970s, he heads to France, where he trains as a pilot. Returns in 1979.

- 1982: Becomes army chief after Hissene Habre comes to power.

- 1989: Accused by Habre of plotting a coup, he flees to Sudan, where he assembles an armed rebel group, the Patriotic Salvation Movement.

- 1990: Seizes power when his troops roll into N'Djamena.

- 1996: After six years of democratic transition, Deby is elected head of state in Chad's first multi-party vote.

- 2001: Deby is re-elected amid mounting criticism from the opposition over alleged electoral fraud and rights violations.

- 2005: Army mutineers gather in the east of the country, where they form several armed groups.

- 2008: Rebels storm the capital, reaching the gates of the presidential palace before being repelled with help from French troops.

- 2013: Deby sends troops to support French intervention in northern Mali to oust jihadists.

- 2015: He launches a regional offensive in Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger against Boko Haram jihadists.

- 2016: Deby is re-elected for a fifth term amid opposition cries of electoral fraud.

- 2019: He escapes with the help of French bombardment an attempt to overthrow him led by rebels who have come in from Libya.

- 2020: Deby is named field marshal, the first in Chad's history after he leads an offensive against Boko Haram.

- 2021: Re-elected to a sixth term after elections on April 11.

- April 20, 2021: The army says he dies from wounds sustained when commanding his forces as they fought rebels who had launched a major incursion into the north of the country on election day.

Share this story