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The death of a dictator: Unrest in Chad and beyond


Source: Wikimedia Commons, Idriss Déby at the 6th World Water Forum

Cassius Hynam


On April 19 2020, Chadian President, Idriss Déby won a sixth consecutive election. The result extended his iron-fisted rule over the central African nation safely into a fourth decade. That same day, while visiting troops fighting rebels in the country’s west, Déby sustained wounds that led to his shocking death.


The response was swift. An interim military council was immediately announced, claiming that it would lead the nation for 18 months until a ‘free and democratic’ election is held. The council, headed by Déby’s son, is an unconstitutional coup d’état. Yet the council immediately received backing from major strategic allies, even in spite of mass protests, arrests, and deaths.


Déby’s sudden death will be significant. Civil rights and opposition leaders have already demonstrated that they are ready to fight for fair and democratic elections. In the meantime, civil unrest and lack of clear leadership will threaten the stability of the region in the fight against Islamic extremists, and Chad’s efforts to hold off rebels approaching the capital. The fallout from Deby's sudden death should also force Western countries to reconsider their blind pegging of ‘security’ on individual leaders who, in most circumstances, are responsible for exacerbating instability in their own countries.


What does this mean for Chad?


Déby’s death will almost certainly bring unrest to the nation. In the long term, political groups long suppressed under Déby will vie to carve out a position in the country’s political future. More immediately, the announcement that an interim military council will lead the country has angered civil groups, leading to mass protests and the accusation of a coup d’état. A fractured government could undermine the integrity of the Chadian military currently holding off rebel groups just 300km from the capital, N’Djamena. It is a volatile situation.


Protests against the unconstitutional takeover have gathered mass support. Demanding an earlier transition to democracy and expressing their anger at the French backing of the regime, protesters have been spurred into the streets. For many, Déby’s death represents a chance to start anew. Under Déby, the country languished economically, performing as one of the worst nations globally in key economic development measures. With the prospect of fresh leadership, protesters are concerned that the military council will not follow through on their promise for free and fair elections. It would not be the first time an African leader overstayed their welcome.


But protesters have been met harshly. Government officials confirmed six people died in clashes in late April, a number which civilian groups suggest is an underestimation. Arrest numbers were also very high, with approximately 700 people arrested in the crackdown. Relative calm has returned to the streets but they are heavily patrolled. An announcement from the interim council of a transitional ministry, which did not include prominent opposition leader, Saleh Kebzabo, will not aid in appeasing protesters' concerns.


While cities N’Djamena and Moundou grapple with unrest, Chadian troops are fighting the Front for Concord and Change in Chad (FACT) in the west, a rebel group based in Libya’s south and the same group likely behind Déby’s death. A fractured government threatens to undermine the military’s efforts to hold off the rebels. A recent battle in Nokou, a town in Chad’s west only 200km from the capital, has emerged as a strategically significant battle. Rebels claimed that they were able to shoot down a military helicopter during the conflict. Chad refutes this claim.


Crucial stability in a sea of instability


Ongoing turmoil in Chad has greater geopolitical implications too. Chad is one of few nations in the region that has experienced relative stability in recent years. Chad borders the Central African Republic, Sudan, Niger, Nigeria, and Libya, nations which have all experienced some form of crises in recent years. Chad’s stability under Déby and its geographical positioning, in the Sahel with close proximity to the Horn of Africa, has made the country an ideal ally for Western nations in the fight against Islamist extremists.


Chad’s military is one of the most effective and well-trained in Africa, and under Déby’s leadership, were willing to support Western counterparts. They were the first country to support the French in their attempts to oust Islamist militants in Mali back in 2013. France has also based its latest anti-insurgent operation against extremists, Operation Barkhane, out of N’Djamena. Chad makes up the majority of forces provided by the G5 Sahel nations.

In return, France has supported the country and Déby’s rule. They aided most recently with bombings against rebels in 2019, and discretely held off threats to his rule in 2006 and 2008. France views the relationship so highly that Macron travelled to Chad for the funeral, calling Déby a “friend.” It is also what led to France’s initial decision to support the interim military council, even in spite of an obvious violation of the constitution and a stifling of democratic freedoms.


Will this force a reflection on policy?


The sudden death of Déby should force Western nations to rethink their attitudes towards strongmen. The terrible fallout from the toppling of Gaddafi in Libya spooked international leaders, who have since come to fear the vacuum brought about by the sudden departure of a dictator. But continuing to opt for political stability when that stability is derived from oppressive and authoritarian behaviour will only exacerbate instability in the long run. The unrest, which could soon grip Chad tightly, should not be seen solely as a result of Déby’s death, but an inevitable outcome when a country’s institutions, people, and democracy are trodden on for decades.


Africans have witnessed first-hand the worrying trend of ‘constitutional coups’, where leaders ease term limits to establish themselves firmly as ‘leaders for life’. Where strategically important, Western leaders have sought to build strong relationships with such leaders, including Déby, even when they are responsible for human rights abuses, corruption, and the suppression of democracy.


When the interim military council was first announced, France first backed the move, citing a need for ‘stability’. They have since backtracked on this and condemned the crackdown on protesters, but their immediate response speaks to a long relationship which formed between France and Déby. By forging strategic relations with one man and not the institutions which govern the country, France is now exposed, and will likely go to many lengths to ensure a stable transition to someone they know will uphold the status quo. France is not alone. It is likely that only international pressure could bring a more immediate transition to free democracy in Chad. Most of the world has remained silent.


Cassius Hynam is the Regional Correspondent for Sub-Saharan Africa. He has previously interned at the Grattan Institute and is currently a Graduate Economist within Victoria's State Government.