Challenges facing Chad after Idriss Deby Itno's death

Libreville, Gabon: With Idriss Deby Itno, Chad's veteran strongman king, killed on the battlefield, his son Mahamat faces immediate and significant challenges as the head of a military junta.

The inexperienced 37-year-old has pledged democratic elections but has named his 15 most trusted generals to help run the desert state for the time being.

AFP examines these challenges:

Is the army cohesive? 

For 30 years, the army has been the backbone of the de facto military dictatorship.

After Idriss Deby seized power in a coup in 1990, he successfully placed his allies in key army positions, the majority of whom were members of his Zaghawa ethnic group.

However, since the early 2000s, and especially in recent months, clan unity has shattered, and some officers have been dismissed, according to palace sources.

Dissensions have emerged in public since the transition council was announced on Tuesday, despite top brass' official display of unity behind Mahamat.

Also read | Chad leader's death deprives West of key security ally

General Idriss Mahamat Abderamane Diko, a close friend of the late president, told Voice of America radio that the council was nothing more than a tiny circle skirting the rules.

"There is no army unity behind Mahamat Idriss Deby, there are internal tensions," noted Kelma Manatouma, a Chadian political science researcher at the Paris-Nanterre University.

"There is a risk of clashes, certain groups may feel marginalized and there could be scores settled, a night of the long knives," said Roland Marchal of the International Research Centre (CERI) at Sciences Po university in Paris.

"He is much too young and is not particularly well-liked by other officers," he said.

What about the insurgents? 

On the day of the presidential election, April 11, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebels launched a major incursion in the north.

Last weekend, fighting erupted 300 kilometers (180 miles) north of the capital, N'Djamena.

Foreign observers and the army confirmed significant casualties among FACT fighters, preventing them from marching on the capital anytime soon.

Other rebel forces, on the other hand, have gathered around Reality and see the president's assassination, as well as alleged divisions within the army ranks, as an opportunity not to be passed up.

The insurgents said in a statement Monday that they were advancing on N'Djamena.

"The FACT rebels can launch an assault but their military capacity is limited," Marchal said.

"Several groups can also join in and cause problems but they will fail because France is well implanted in Chad and will not let it happen."

Chad is an important ally in the fight against Islamist extremism in Africa's Sahel region for France, the former colonial force.

At least twice, French forces rescued Idriss Deby's government from insurgents, once in 2008 and again in 2019.

President Emmanuel Macron, along with the son and new ruler, will attend Deby's funeral on Friday.

Is there a political transition? 

The opposition has decried an "institutional coup d'etat," but they are fragmented and have struggled to mount a viable presidential challenge to Deby.

Opposition street demonstrations were suppressed in the run-up to the election.

" I think an emergency dialogue needs to be set up," Deby's historic rival Saleh Kebzabo told AFP in an interview.

The dominant ruling Patriotic Salvation Movement, which has dominated politics for 30 years, is, however, in favor of the military transformation.

"There is today an implicit alliance between the movement, several satellite parties, and the council," Manatouma said.

Significant economic challenges 

According to the United Nations, Chad is the world's third-least developed region.

According to the World Bank, 42 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2018, despite high oil revenues that account for 40 percent of GDP and more than 60 percent of state profits.

However, the opposition and foreign aid organizations accuse Idriss Deby and the Zaghawa community of robbing state coffers over the last three decades.

"Many educated youngsters who cannot find work end up as taxi drivers and this social discontent is dangerous for the powers that be," Manatouma said.

The death of Chad's leader raises concerns about regional stability

The unexpected death of Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno has sparked concern about how a change of leadership would impact a country critical to events in the Sahel and beyond.

According to the official account, Deby died on Tuesday from wounds suffered in a fight with rebels, a day after provisional election results gave him a sixth term in office.

The Chadian king, who had been in power for 30 years, was a former rebel leader and educated military man who had become an important piece on the African chessboard.

He participated in regional conflicts either directly or by Chad's military, which has one of the most powerful armed forces on the continent.

According to Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, leader of an armed group in northern Mali, he had "undeniable weight" in the Sahel.

Ag Acharatoumane remembered the events in Libya following the assassination of Moamer Kadhafi in 2011: outside powers intervened and arms poured into the country, sparking a war that continues to this day.

"We can only hope that this does not happen in Chad," he told AFP.

The big question, he says, is the security of the desert country's military, which is now in control following Deby's death.

Mahamat Idriss Deby, Deby's son and former head of the presidential guard, was quickly elected as president and head of the new military council.

Chad and its army are a cornerstone on which foreign partners have depended in the Sahel and Central Africa.

The threat of a regional "collapse" 

According to Severin Tchokonte, a Cameroonian academic, Deby's death, who often took a hands-on position battling jihadists, would undoubtedly be interpreted as a sign that Chad will "ease off in the struggle."

When confronted with a domestic challenge, N'Djamena has never been shy about informing its allies that its international deployments are on hold.

Deby recalled a group of 1,200 soldiers deployed under the G5 Sahel, a five-nation regional initiative, in early 2020, instead of sending them to combat a jihadist assault on Lake Chad.

The battalion arrived in Niger in February of this year, where it was stationed in the flashpoint "tri-border" zone, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso converge.

Fewer than two months later, many sources have told AFP that the Chadian contingent might be packing their belongings.

Whether or not the Chadian troops depart, "efforts to 'Sahelise' counterterrorism... have just taken a hit," according to Yvan Guichaoua, an English researcher at the University of Kent.

France has been attempting to increase the participation of Sahel countries in the anti-jihadist war while reducing its own deployment of 5,100 men, known as Barkhane.

"If Chad brings its soldiers back and the troops in Barkhane leave at the same time, I believe Mali will collapse, and Burkina Faso and part or all of Niger will collapse," said Amadou Bounty Diallou, a former paratrooper, and professor at the University of Niamey in Niger.

'Rusty lid' 

Chadian troops are also part of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali and play an important role in the war against jihadists in northeastern Nigeria.

"Chad helped keep the lid on regional security — it was rusty, but it was there," a Sahel conflict observer said in Bamako, Mali's capital. "Does it, however, remain so?"

Another repercussion of Deby's death could be felt in southern Libya, a vast, lawless desert area that sparked the revolt in northeastern Chad.

According to researcher Jalel Harchaoui, if it becomes the site of an "overflow of Chadian rivalries or a revival of Daesh," "nobody can interfere to protect it."

The term Daesh refers to the so-called Islamic State party, also known as ISIS.

Deby's death may have ramifications in Sudan to the east and the Central African Republic (CAR) to the south.

For decades, N'Djamena and Khartoum have had a tumultuous relationship, and fighting has often erupted along the Chad-Sudan border.

Concerned about the fragile nature of his borders, Deby established relationships with leaders of armed groups in northern CAR, while Chadian mercenaries are common in Central African militias.

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