Chad: The Sahel’s Last Domino to Fall

Audio Brief

A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Cameron Hudson on his commentary, “Chad: The Sahel’s Last Domino to Fall.”

Audio file

It is no understatement to say that Africa’s arid Sahel region, occupying a 4,000-mile stretch of North African Sahara from the Atlantic to the Red Sea coasts, is likely the most dangerous and unstable stretch of territory in the world today.

The region has always been crushingly poor and pockmarked by bad governance. But in recent years, the region has been buffeted by a rash of democratic backsliding, nine coups, high levels of terrorist violence, a civil war, and the overall displacement of more than 15 million people. Despite this bleak scenario, the Sahel has a new risk on the horizon as one of its last dominoes risks falling from internal stability and spreading the regional contagion of instability even further.

Chad, the landlocked country in the heart of the region, has largely escaped getting drawn into the chaos that surrounds it on all sides. But it is on a knife’s edge internally and the direction it tilts will affect the fates of tens of millions of people in what is now also the fastest-growing population center on earth. Wedged between a raging civil war to the east in Sudan and an unchecked terrorist insurgency in the western Sahel, Chad’s collapse could open a bridge that merges the flow of fighters, weapons, and violence between these two regions embroiled in conflict: a virtual Pandora’s box clear across Africa.

The view from this side of the Atlantic has always been that Chad is a French problem. Paris’s former colony has continued to remain close to the fold, hosting France’s largest military base on the continent, and now serving as the rally point for French troops retreating out of Niger, where a military coup last July dethroned the region’s last remaining bright spot and democratic partner. In exchange for its loyalty, France has continued to confer its legitimacy on successive Chadian military leaders.

When the country’s longtime military dictator, Idriss Déby Itno, died commanding his troops on the battlefield in 2021, it was President Emmanuel Macron who presided over Déby’s funeral and, in a move so well practiced by generations of French leaders, anointed Déby’s son, Mahamat, as the country’s new leader.

But two years later, Déby is now learning that it is harder to hold power after being handed it as opposed to earning it, either at the ballot box or on the battlefield, as his late father did. Since being thrust into the pink palace, Chad’s presidential residence on the banks of the Chari River, the young leader, at 38, has struggled to consolidate his rule, keep happy the Zaghawa tribal elites who installed him, or manage the country’s complex foreign relationships. Wisely, he has continued his father’s counterterror operations across the region, which has kept him in good standing with foreign backers.

But major cracks in his rule at home are emerging, which could ultimately spell Déby’s demise and usher in a new period of transition and violent instability for the country and the wider region. News in recent months that Déby has turned over use of an airport in the far eastern city of Amdjarass, his father’s ancestral home and burial place, in exchange for financial promises from the United Arab Emirates is angering Chad’s Zaghawa generals, who oppose the Emirati effort to arm the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia in neighboring Sudan’s civil war.

The elders of this minority Arab tribe that has ruled Chad since 1990 see RSF leader Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo—who comes from his own mixed Chadian-Sudanese parentage—as a potential pretender to the throne in Chad and a threat to their rule. Concerns have long circulated in Chadian circles that if Hemedti were ever chased from Sudan he would most certainly retreat westward out of Darfur and into Chad where he would continue to seek power for himself and avoid accountability for his many atrocity crimes. Similarly, Hemedti’s recent efforts to recruit Zaghawa tribesman and draw them into his war has been resisted by most of the Chadian Zaghawa community, many of whom view his ethnic cleansing of the non-Arab Masalit community in West Darfur, with whom they share many cultural and familial ties, as a threat to them.

Reported discussions with Russia over the use of private military companies to help Déby subdue northern rebels and begin to exploit significant gold reserves in the Tibetsi mountain range near the country’s border with Libya have further stoked the ire of the country’s generals, who take pride in their reputation as the region’s most effective fighters. They bristle at the notion of needing outside assistance like their Malian and Burkinabe neighbors. The recent news that Hungary would offer military forces to nominally aid in Chad’s counterterror and human trafficking interdiction efforts is suspected by many of being a thin cover for the creation of a Praetorian guard to protect Déby from the types of palace coups that have recently plagued other heads of state in the region.

Meanwhile, the nationalization of the Chad’s oil sector, along with the impetuous expulsion of Germany’s ambassador for his “discourteous attitude,” all point to a reckless vanity that has rightly caused many around him to question the young leader’s judgment. Déby’s retirement of Chadian generals who had served his father, along with the promotion of childhood friends, like Youssof Boy, seen as the enabler of some of Déby’s worst instincts, as advisors has further catalyzed the country’s political and military elite to question his hold on power.

Despite these many missteps, Déby is still seeking ways to consolidate his rule, with or without the generals he relies on. Last month Déby cut a deal with his principal political opponent, Succès Masra, to return to the country after a year of exile, stemming from a bloody crackdown on his party and pro-democracy protesters last October. In the episode, now referred to as “Black Thursday” by civil society, scores were killed and hundreds more arrested and detained in the country’s most significant pro-democracy protest.

Later this month he will attempt to put in place the second element of his power play. After organizing a national dialogue last year that excluded prodemocracy and armed groups, he will soon ram through a new constitution that lowers the age requirement for the presidency from 40 to 35, thus enabling his candidacy. At the same time, the vote will enact a new restriction requiring candidates to have both parents be Chadian born, a bar that neither of his two main opponents, Masra or Hemedti, can clear. Once legitimized by an election-like process next year, likely to be signed off on by Washington and other capitals still requiring his security services, Déby’s assumption of power will be complete. If he can survive that long.

Chad is today rife with rumors of an impending military coup. But a look at how the West has responded to coups in neighboring Niger and Sudan, neither of which saw sanctions imposed in response, suggests that would-be coup-makers do not have much to worry about, so long as they quickly pledge to make good on previous CT commitments and keep France’s military base operating.

Except this myopia obscures an understanding of Chadian history that suggests the coming coup will not resemble the quick and bloodless episodes that have defined recent power grabs in the region. Since its independence, Chad’s power transfers have been anything but peaceful. Most have been coups, coming in the context of larger civil conflicts. In this sense, past is almost certainly prologue.

Last year, Washington alerted Déby to an aborted coup attempt by forces of southern Christians, supposedly receiving military training in neighboring Central African Republic. This suggests at least an awareness in Washington of the threats Déby faces, if not a willingness to see him maintain power. Similarly, the same armed rebel groups that succeeded in killing Idriss Déby recently declared that they were restarting their armed struggle with his son.

And yet, neither Washington nor France has done much to either push Déby into genuine reforms or to support the demands of the struggling democratic forces in the country. For his many transgressions, Déby has felt not much more than a slap on the wrist in the form of critical statement from Washington calling for accountability for his attacks on protesters last year and a stern talking-to from Macron. But today the stakes are far higher.

Facing ongoing threats to stability across the region and a showdown in Chad, a coup is likely to unleash a wave of violence in a region already beset by instability, creating even more opportunities for extremists to flourish, democracy to fail, and civilians to suffer. Instead of watching passively as either a constitutional coup or a military coup unfolds in Chad, Washington needs a more active plan of engagement that acknowledges the deep divisions in Chadian society as well as the broader risks to internal and regional stability a coup entails. Underpinning this approach must be a clear-eyed strategy that balances the tensions and tradeoffs inherent in seeking to align Washington’s genuine security interests with the demands of a population desperate to rid themselves of dynastic rule.

For nearly 30 years, Chad has presented the outside world with a mirage of stability held in check by a powerful ruling minority whose internal repression was excused because of its utility to Western security interests. Western powers allowed that mirage to persist when Idriss Déby was killed and his son assumed his place. But as Chad faulters, welcoming Déby’s consolidation of his hereditary rule with another slap on the wrist, for fear of exacerbating the country’s internal fissures, will no longer work. Instead, Washington would be better served by getting ahead of the curve and helping to foster a genuine transition in Chad under conditions it can influence before forces beyond anyone’s control impose.

In a region beset by political, security, ethnic, and even demographic threats, where coups d’état are no longer a thing of the past, continuing the charade that Chad is still a stable and reliable security partner only undermines Chadians’ hope for genuine reform and puts at risk the United States’ long-term security interests. It is time to end that charade before the dam breaks.

Cameron Hudson is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.