Déby’s Dead. What’s Next for Chad and the Sahel?

Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno, who grabbed power in 1990 in a rebellion, died this past weekend from wounds incurred during a battle with rebels, injecting uncertainty and turmoil into the key U.S. and European counterterrorism partner. Following announcement of his death on Tuesday, the Chadian military installed Déby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Déby (also known as Kaka), as the head of an interim military council for 18 months. The Chadian constitution, which has been suspended, required that the president of the National Assembly take charge in the case of the president’s vacancy or incapacitation. 

President Déby ruled Chad with an iron grip for three decades, relying on his small Zaghawa ethnic group, oil receipts, and Western support, chiefly from France, to remain in control. This month’s rebel incursion, led by the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), was only the latest armed rebellion that Déby faced during his time in office. Just before his death, Déby provisionally won his sixth election and claimed to have repelled the rebels’ march toward the capital.

Q1: Which actors will shape Chad’s near-term future?

A1: While Déby’s son is ostensibly in charge, his continued rule is far from certain. Only age 37, Kaka will have to navigate internal and external opponents to retain his grip on power.

  • Zaghawa ethnic group. Déby’s tiny Zaghawa ethnic group, which dominates the security and intelligence services, may bristle at the son’s ascension. The Zaghawa—Deby’s main base of support—have paradoxically also been a constant source of opposition. As Déby elevated his sons, daughters, and brothers-in-law into top positions, he incurred the wrath of other Zaghawa who wanted their turn at power; last decade, the Erdimi brothers launched a rebellion against their co-ethnic leader. There is also mounting friction between Chadian Arabs and the Chadian government, which have become increasingly discontented with Déby’s rule.
  • Chadian public. The Chadian public, which has suffered under Déby for decades, has become emboldened in recent years and could rally against this unconstitutional seizure of power. In 2015, unprecedented protests broke out when several sons of army officers and senior politicians were accused a raping a 16-year-old girl. The opposition has led several demonstrations and boycotted this month’s election.
  • Rebels. The FACT, which came within 150 kilometers of the capital in its latest incursion, could restart operations to seize on the current uncertainty. The government has faced constant rebellions during the past three decades, and other disgruntled groups could emerge to challenge the interim military council.

Q2: What is at stake for counterterrorism operations in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin?  

A2: Chad’s interim military council probably will struggle to sustain its critical role in regional counterterrorism operations. The country—a top contributor to the UN mission in Mali and part of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)—is overstretched and has suffered significant causalities in recent years; in March 2020, Chad lost almost 100 troops from an extremist attack in Nigeria, prompting Déby to briefly threaten to withdraw his forces. 

While Déby before his death deployed a battalion to the Sahel’s Liptako-Gourma region at the behest of France, the government recently recalled troops back to Chad to help fend off the FACT rebellion. It is likely that this trend will intensify under the new interim government, which may pause further deployments to focus on regime security.

Chad’s foreign patrons, notably France, probably will back the new government—consistent with its support for Déby—to protect its security interest under the assumption that operations, if paused, will resume when Kaka consolidates control.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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