SIM REPORT: Growing risk of instability in wake of Chadian president’s death and coup d’etat

SIM REPORT: CENTRAL & WEST AFRICA, ISSUE 12

The death of president Idriss Déby Itno on 20 April and the coup d’etat that followed has thrown Chad into a period of high risks of political instability, armed hostilities, civil unrest, and a remote but probable prospect of civil war. This is due to a general lack of support in and legitimacy of the interim administration subsequently put in place, underlying factionalism and ethnicisation of the armed forces, and poor socio-economic conditions.

Military council takes control

Shortly after Déby’s death, the armed forces announced the formation of a Transitional Military Council (TMC) which would lead a political transition of 18 months after which elections would be held. In its charter, the TMC also said the transitional period may be extended beyond the initial 18 months. The council is headed by one of the late president’s sons, 37-year-old Mahamat Idriss Déby Into, and is composed of 79 members, most of whom are allies of Déby senior.However, the new authorities lack support from important stakeholders. Many government critics, including opposition parties, civil society organisations, and parts of the armed forces, see Déby junior’s ascent to the apex office as dynastic, and an attempt by the ruling elite to cement its hold on power. Their suspicions towards the armed forces and the Déby regime stem from the late president’s three-decades-long autocratic rule. Such sentiment fuelled deadly protests on 27 April in N’Djamena and other cities. Over the past 30 years, democratic freedoms have been repressed, and many members of Déby’s Zaghawa minority group amassed significant wealth and filled key positions within the armed forces and security-related ministries and agencies.

Factionalism and ethnicisation of the armed forces

The nepotism under Déby senior’s time in office has effectively created two broad factions of the armed forces. The first is well-trained, well-equipped, allied to the government, and benefiting from quick promotions within the hierarchy. The other is increasingly demotivated, in large part due to low pay and grievances over a lack of meritocracy within the ranks of the army. The two dividing lines are also reflected in members’ ethnic group affiliation, as well as their origin within the country, creating perceived divisions along regional divides. The divisions may further increase over the appointment of Déby junior as the head of the TMC, due to his young age and own rapid progression within the hierarchy.

With Chad being one of Africa’s most militarised states based on the ratio between soldiers and inhabitants, such divisions are important to note and may pose serious barriers towards a peaceful transition over the coming three to six months. Between 2004 and 2014, the state budget for the armed forces quadrupled, in large part due to hostilities in the country’s northern and eastern regions, on the border with Darfur in Sudan. Defence expenditure now consumes between 30 and 40 per cent of the national budget.

Nevertheless, this has also benefitted the country on the international scene. Chad has become a strategic partner in the Western-led ‘war on terror’, involving countries such as France and the US, benefitting from large financial and material support to strengthen its armed forces in exchange for its troop contributions to fighting Islamist non-state armed groups in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin.

Facts about FACT

Opposing the TMC and armed forces is a potentially highly capable militant force. The Front pour l'alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) – the rebel movement that launched incursions in the central Kanem region from Libya earlier this month which led to Déby’s death in battle near the town of Mao – was formed in April 2016. FACT emerged following a split in the Union des Forces pour la Democratie et le Développement (UFDD), another rebel group composed primarily of members of the Gorane ethnic group based in the north of the country which joined forces with dissident members of the armed forces. Friction between the Gorane and Zaghawa go back decades. Hissène Habré, the former president  who was overthrown by forces led by Déby senior in 1990, was himself Gorane (also known as Daza, Dazagada, or Toubou).

FACT is led by Mahdi Ali Mahamat, a long-time rebel leader who has attempted a series of rebellions against Déby’s regime; his falling out with Mahamat Nouri – the founder of UFDD and a former defence minister under Déby – led to FACT’s formation. Mahamat himself is from the Dazagada ethnic group, originating from the Barh El Gazal region in central Chad. While precise estimates of its material and financial resources are unclear, FACT has repeatedly demonstrated access to heavier weaponry and has launched impressive incursions with large, motorised convoys into northern Chad. While FACT in 2016 claimed to have 1,500 fighters, a UN panel of experts on Libya, where the group has its rear base and has been engaged in armed operations during Libya’s civil war, estimated its numbers to be about 700. More recent reports suggest the rebel group has increased its recruitment pool following the sustained incursion into northern regions of Chad over the past months. While its total capacity likely pales in comparison to that of the armed forces, the divisions within the military and reportedly increased recruitment by the group indicate that further fracturing of the armed forces is a realistic possibility over the stated timeframe. Other rebel groups, also based in Libya or northern Chad, have expressed support for FACT, stopping short of formally joining their ranks or formalising an alliance. 

Geopolitical ramifications 

Foreign military intervention is plausible should FACT make good on its threats to march on N’Djamena to remove Déby junior by force. N’Djamena serves as a strategic base for both French and US forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel and hosts the headquarters of France’s Operation Barkhane. French President Emmanuel Macron and his government remain supportive of the Déby administration and have urged that the stability of Chad must be maintained. Furthermore, French forces intervened in 2019 when they launched airstrikes against another rebel movement Union des forces de la résistance  as it attempted a large incursion from Libya. This precedence indicates likely continued support for the TMC. Nevertheless, such political backing is likely to quickly dissipate should Déby junior lose more support among key security officials.

ASSESSMENT

While negotiations between FACT and TMC stakeholders appear as the most likely outcome over the coming months, large-scale hostilities in northern Chad remain a realistic possibility. Defections among the armed forces, as well as potential alliances between anti-government rebels, will be important flashpoints to monitor due to their likelihood in swaying the conflict. Equally important is the level of civil unrest. Such incidents may be marked by mutinies in N’Djamena and other bases across the country, and preceded statements of senior-ranking officials. In light of this, security managers should consider evacuating non-essential staff by commercial means and as a precaution, and test their emergency evacuation procedures for other staff should hostilities intensify and move closer to N’Djamena over the next three to six months.

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