Chad: the end of an era

The recent events

At 11.00 on 20 April 2021, the spokesman for the Chadian army, General Azem Bermandoa, announced the death of President of the Republic Idris Deby Itno. According to local authorities, Itno died as a result of injuries sustained during clashes between the armed forces of Chad and the rebel group Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) near the town of Mao, the capital of the western region of Kanem.

However, there are conflicting reports and assumptions regarding what really happened to the former president (it is also rumoured that Deby was actually attending a meeting with the FACT itself that degenerated into a gunfight). We may become aware of new revelations in the short to medium term, and ascertaining facts will probably take a long time.

Just the day before, on 19 April, the Electoral Commission had announced the victory of Deby (with about 79% of the votes cast) in the 11 April presidential election. Born in Berdoba in 1952 and an ethnic Bideyat (the Bideyat people is part of the Zaghawa community), during his military career he led the rebellion against Presidents Felix Malloum and Hissene Habre and was forced to seek refuge in Cameroon, before returning to Chad and seizing power in a coup in 1990. Subsequently, he won several elections and was about to begin his sixth term.

Figure 1: Idriss Deby Itno casting his vote on the occasion of the 11 April 2021 election. Source: Bloomberg

The April election was held amid socio-political unrest that culminated – on the election day – in FACT moving from its bases in Libya to launch an offensive in the north-western region of Tibesti; the aim was to reach the capital N’Djamena (located in the central western part) and overthrow the Chadian institutions. For the offensive, FACT relied on the support of other armed groups, such as the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR), and the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD). After heading south, the rebels were bombed by the Chadian air force in Zouarké on 15 April. On 17 April, clashes broke out in the Mao area; according to Chadian authorities, those were the clashes that cost the life of Deby. On 18 April, FACT’s leader Mahamat Mahadi Ali admitted that, following the losses suffered, his militants retreated, with some of them taking refuge in Tibesti region and Niger. On 24 April, FACT said it was ready for a ceasefire and negotiations with the transitional institutions to reach a political agreement. Despite the FACT statements having sparked interest among Chad’s political representatives, the Chadian armed forces have rejected all calls for dialogue and called on neighbouring countries, in particular Niger, to assist them in hunting for the rebels.

In the meantime, N’Djamena created a Transitional Military Council (CMT), made up of 15 soldiers and chaired by General Mahamat Idriss Deby (known as General Kaka), the thirty-seven year-old son of the late president and head of the Directorate-General of the Security Services of State Institutions (DGSSIE). The constitution was suspended and the National Assembly (the unicameral parliament of Chad) and the government dissolved. On 21 April, the CMT released a statement of intent (its ‘charter’) with plans to manage the transition phase (which will last 18 months, can only be extended once, and will end with authorities scheduling a free election), during which a new constitution will be enacted. The CMT will be backed by a National Transitional Council and a Transitional Government. The National Transitional Council is designed to represent legislative power and will be composed of 93 members from all social classes. The Transitional Government is planned to implement legislation. The members of the two bodies will be appointed by the head of the CMT. The judiciary will remain independent. On 26 April, Albert Pahimi Padacké, former prime minister under Deby from 2016 to 2018 and then a rival of Deby (he ranked second with 10.32% of the vote in the 11 April presidential election), was appointed by the CMT as head of the Transitional Government and tasked with creating a new government by next 10 May. Two of Chad’s main partners, France and the US, have expressed their support for the CMT.

Figure 2: Mahamat Idriss Deby. Source: CGTN

The opposition parties and various civil society groups, which denounced persecution under Deby’s regime, have criticised the CMT and the suspension of the constitution and institutions, speaking of a new military coup. They argue that the legislation in force (promoted by Deby himself) provides that the president of the National Assembly must take over as interim head of the government if the president of the republic can no longer perform presidential duties. Demonstrations have been held since 27 April by different civil society groups and the Wakit Tamma opposition parties in various cities of Chad, including N’Djamena (in particular, in arrondissements 6, 8 and 9), Moundou (the economic capital), Sarh (the third largest city), Mondo and Doba. Especially in the capital, the protests have often escalated into clashes, and, according to reports from the press, at least three people have died. In addition to the police, the army has also been deployed to forcibly disperse rallies. In addition to shouting pro-democracy slogans and criticising the CMT, the protesters have accused France of interference and looted a Total petrol station in N’Djamena.

The ethnic issue

The offensive launched by FACT on 11 April 2021 and which led to Deby’s death is the culmination of the Chadian rebels having grown stronger and stronger in recent years.

Chad is an ethnically heterogeneous country, with over 200 ethnic groups. The main one, Sara (with both Christian and animist members), lives in the south and accounts for just under 30% of the Chadian population. Among the other Muslim ethnic groups are the Zaghawa (as mentioned, they are headed by the community of the Deby family) and the Teda, from the northern region of Tibesti. The political opposition accuses the Deby family and (indirectly) the ruling party Mouvement Patriotique du Salut (MPS) of favouring their own ethnic group to the detriment of other ethnic groups, particularly within the armed forces.

A January 2021 report by the International Crisis Group listed a number of issues the Chadian security forces are faced with. Among others, there has been a rise in ethnic tensions within the military. There are increasing reports of soldiers refusing to participate in military operations against members of their own ethnic group, including operations to put an end to clashes between clans. This is causing discipline problems, in particular in the fight against tribal violence. In the central regions of Kanem and Bahr el-Ghazel (BEG), tensions are on the rise between the Zaghawa people and other groups close to the former president on one side and local communities on the other. Clashes between the semi-nomadic population and ethnic Arab communities are ongoing in the eastern regions of Ouaddai and Sila. Similar tensions are also affecting Salamat region on the border with the Central African Republic. Furthermore, after Idriss Deby’s death, tensions between the different Zaghawa clans could grow against a backdrop of power struggle.

The economic and political dominance gained by the Zaghawa people during the long Deby era is one of the key reasons for the rebel groups’ offensives. The rebels argue that the Deby family has progressively marginalised the other ethnic groups.

Although the recent foray on Kanem region (April 2021) has been the most signicant war operation carried out by the Chadian rebel groups in the past 13 years, it is not unprecedented in the country’s recent history. Coup attempts by rebel groups had already occurred in 2006, 2009, and 2019. The first two were hatched by the main insurgency movement of the early 2000s, the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad (MDJT – active between 2005 and 2010 and officially dissolved in 2011), with offensives moving from the eastern regions to the capital (since the group was based in Sudan). With the dissolution of the MDJT, its armed militants merged into the UFR, led by Timan Erdimi, nephew of the late president. Following an offensive by the Sudanese forces, since 2013 the UFR has set up its bases in the border regions between Chad and Libya, encompassing 9 minor groups.

In 2016, due to internal disagreements, the groups in Tibesti region fragmented into three different entities: Erdimi’s UFR, the UFDD, and Mahamat Mahadi Ali’s FACT. Ali, already known to the Chadian security forces for having served in the MDJT and the UFR, created FACT in April 2016 in Tanova, recruiting his fighters mostly from the Teda ethnic group.

FACT is estimated to rely on around 1,500 militants, 150-400 armoured vehicles, and light and heavy artillery. In terms of number of members and weapons, FACT is the biggest Chadian terrorist group. The group’s emergence has been helped by two factors. First, the UFR, which later became FACT, had long been active in the Libyan conflict since 2011 in support of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). During the war in Libya, FACT was supplied with military equipment and weapons to protect the LNA’s southern positions. Secondly, Mahamat Mahadi Ali has won almost unanimous support from the Teda population, thus gaining access to the huge gold resources in Tibesti region.

The Teda, or Tubu, are a population of about 88,000 currently living between Chad (Tibesti region) and southern Libya. After having long been considered as peripheral, Tibesti region has sparked renewed interest among the Chadian institutions since 2012 following the discovery of abundant gold and uranium deposits. The mutation of local economic patterns and trade has affected the region’s security environment and caused tensions between the Teda (backed by FACT) and miners from other regions (supported by the government and the Zaghawa) to escalate. Lastly, FACT has taken control of gold trafficking in the region, securing a considerable economic advantage. Resources and broad support have allowed Mahamat Mahadi Ali’s group to become stronger in Tibesti region and then prepare for the April 2021 offensive aimed at overthrowing the institutions in N’Djamena.

Boko Haram and the terrorism threat

Despite moving a lot between Chad and neighbouring countries, FACT and other Chadian organisations are basically homegrown groups. Relying on the support of the local population, these groups opt for military-type confrontations and guerrilla warfare.

However, the terror threat in the country is twofold, and is also connected to the operations (gun and bomb attacks, kidnappings, etc.) transnational jihadist organisations have carried out since 2015 in Chad, especially in the Lake Chad region bordering Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. Jihadist attacks are mostly the work of the Nigerian group Islamic State West Province-ISWAP and Jamaat Ahlussunnah lid-Dawa wal-Jihad (JAS), also known collectively as Boko Haram.

Boko Haram is a jihadist terrorist movement created in north-eastern Nigeria by ethnic Kanuri people mostly. Over the years, the group has become a quango taking control of parts of Nigeria and managing resources, especially food, in the Lake Chad region. On 7 March 2015, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). In 2016, IS officially welcomed the group among its affiliates, renamed it ISWAP, and made Abu Musa al Barnawi its leader. This has led to a rift within the group, with one faction remaining loyal to Abubakar Shekau and one referring to Barnawi. In March 2019, al Barnawi was partially removed from the ISWAP leadership in favour of Ba Idrisa. However, the latter, too, was dismissed in March 2020, and two new leaders were appointed; the two report to the ISWAP shura council. ISWAP mostly targets the army and government institutions with the aim of preserving its popularity among the locals.

Unlike the joint leadership of ISWAP, the JAS faction revolves around its leader Shekau. In addition, JAS hits civilian and religious targets (including Muslim ones), often resorting to suicide bombers (including women and children) and mines. These strategic and operational differences underlie similar objectives that have often led – and more frequently in 2019-2020 – to violent clashes between the two factions.

The first jihadist attacks in the country took place between 2015 and 2016, with terrorist incidents also occurring in the capital N’Djamena. Specifically, on 13 February 2015, Boko Haram militants stormed Ngouboua, burning two thirds of the city. On 15 June 2015, two attacks hit the central police station and the police school in central N’Djamena, with a death toll of 33.

Figure 3: Boko Haram’s areas of influence. Source: ICG

Attacks sharply decreased between 2016 and 2018, to then peak again between 2019 and 2020. Overall, Boko Haram (later ISWAP and JAS) has carried out 114 terrorist attacks since 2015, of which 35 in 2019 and 38 in 2020. 108 (91.5%) have been reported in Lac region, which is therefore the main terror threat hotspot. However, among the states bordering the Lake Chad region, Chad is the one that has suffered the least number of attacks by Nigerian terrorist groups. In addition, Chad, after Nigeria, is the country in the area with the highest rate of defections from jihadist groups (about 2,400 since 2016). These statistics show that the Chadian security forces, also thanks to logistical support from external actors, have implemented a more effective counter-terrorism action than their neighbours.

Figure 4: jihadist attacks in Chad between 2015 – 2021. Source: ACLED
Figure 5: jihadist attacks in Lac region (Chad). Source: Africa Center for Strategic Studies

Nevertheless, the Jihadist insurgency in Chad has started showing signals of change since the March 23, 2020 attack, which still represents the most tragic Jihadist attack ever perpetrated in Chad as well as the most devastating asymmetric action throughout the country’s history. The attack was performed against a military compound in the Boma peninsula, on the Chad Lake. Assailants targeted the military position via the lake itself from 4 different directions on 5 motor boats. During their nearly 8-hour onslaught, insurgent militias massively fired rockets murdering 98 officers and leaving 44 wounded. On 31 March 2020, the Chadian Law enforcement officially launched the ‘Boma Anger’ operation, reportedly killing approximately 1,000 militias.

The attack, originally believed to be ISWAP group’s doing, was later claimed by Shekau, who stressed out JAS’s capability to carry out complex actions against local security forces. Furthermore, the ‘Boma events’ assessment has also highlighted a significant detail in the frame of the Jihadist insurgency across the region, i.e. the surge in JAS attack in Chad’s Lac region, far away from Shekau’s strongholds in Nigeria. Such increase was also confirmed by women-led suicide attacks in Lac in August 2019 and January 2020, in JAS’s typical operational style. Actually, the escalation in activism by Shekau’s group in Niger and Chad was substantiated by rising social discontent within the Buduma population. The Buduma society consists of nearly 138,000 Muslim people, settling on the Chad Lake shores and islands. 95% of Buduma live on Chadian soil. It is a semi-nomadic society, also known as ‘Yedina’, living essentially off sheep farming in the rainy season and fishing in the dry season. The ongoing security crisis has brought about shifts in commercial and food routes in the Lake Chad region, practically isolating residents on the lake shores and islands.

Figure 6: commercial and food land routes in Lake Chad region. Source: ISS

The Buduma have apparently gained support from the ‘Bakura Faction’ armed group, named after their leader Ibrahim Bakura, a Boko Haram member aligning with Shekau after the group split, although he operates quite far away from the JAS territories in Nigeria. Bukura formed his own militia between 2016 and 2019, seemingly based on Buduma recruitment.

In light of the above, especially in relation to the threat posed by both Chad-based groups, ISWAP has become overall more active in the region. However, should the 2020 trend in Bakura’s group’s operations be confirmed, a surge in JAS attacks in Chad might take place accordingly.

In addition to ISWAP and JAS, there is another jihadist actor in the region, the Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), but the risk it poses to Chad is moderate for the time being. The only attack indirectly claimed by the group occurred on 30 November 2016, when a men fired at police officers on duty near the US embassy in N’Djamena before being arrested. Evidence suggests that the man had sworn allegiance to IS and had ties with the ISGS. However, since 2019, ISGS attacks across the Sahel and Lake Chad areas have reportely been claimed by ISWAP. Although linked to ISWAP’s propaganda objectives, this dynamic does not allow the threat posed by the Sahelian group to Chad to be accurately assessed.

The complexity of jihadist terrorism in the Sahel and Lake Chad regions has resulted in equally complex anti-terrorism mechanisms, in which Chad plays a key role. The fight against terrorist groups is based on multiple international missions involving external actors (above all France), international organisations (United Nations and African Union), and, above all, the countries in the Lake Chad region and the Sahel. The Lake Chad countries (Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad) are involved in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) mission, which Benin has recently joined. The MJTF was officially approved by the African Union on 3 March 2015 and currently relies on around 8,000 troops deployed in the Lake Chad region. Overall, N’Djamena claims to have deployed 6,000 troops in the Lake Chad region, 3,000 as part of the MJTF, and 3,000 Chadian security force members.

The Sahelian countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad) are instead engaged in the G5 Sahel mission, created in 2014 and approved by the African Union in 2017. G5 Sahel relies on an annual budget of approximately $130 million and 5,000 staff. Chad contributes to the mission with 550 soldiers and 100 gendarmes, in addition to the approximately 1,500 troops engaged in the UN mission active in Mali (MINUSMA). As for the MJTF, N’Djamena hosts one of the three headquarters of the mission. While the MJTF has shown effective coordination between the countries involved and achieved some of its goals, G5 Sahel’s counter-terrorism action has not been as effective as the founding countries wanted it to be.

Since 2015, and especially following Deby’s death, Chad seems to have exposed itself too much in terms of mitigating external risk factors, without its military capabilities and resources being fully adequate. Should the developments of the Chadian crisis require that troops be sent back to Chad to combat homegrown armed groups, then the MJTF and G5 Sahel missions could be faced with a decrease in the number and quality of its personnel, with significant repercussions for regional security.

Outlook

Deby’s sudden death has triggered a stage of political and social insecurity in Chad. The lack of clear instructions from Deby on how to manage his succession has made the current situation extremely unstable, and sudden escalation is possible in the coming weeks.

One of the main instability factors – especially due to the fact that very little is known about him – is the man that will replace the deceased leader, that is, his son Mahamat Idriss. Over the years, Idriss has actually played a growing role in the country’s security system alongside his father, but he has been away from the public eye; therefore, little or nothing is known about his political ideas or his management skills. Among other things, his (relatively) young age could make him unpopular with the older army officers.

One more factor to consider is the tensions within the different security force factions, which the CMT’s future policies will be a sign of. The key issue is keeping institutions united, in light not only of a possible new FACT offensive, but also of the growing ethnic tensions in the country.

The rapidly established CMT and the late president’s son designated as leader have been seen by the various ethnic groups as a strategy by the Zaghawa to retain control of the country. Rifts within the security forces will, therefore, be possible in the short to medium term, resulting in newly-formed armed groups, clashes between soldiers from different factions, and arrests and purges of officers deemed hostile to the new leadership.

In regard to the domestic socio-political situation – it being understood that we do not know what the CMT’s stance will be after the 18 (or longer)-month transition – the opposition and civil society organisations will likely hold protests and strikes resulting in violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces and looting and acts of vandalism targeting production activities. Similar past initiatives have not weakened the Deby regime, and it is assumed that any future protests will not jeopardise the stability of the CMT and related bodies, that will use the security forces to repress dissent. However, social unrest developments should be assessed in light of the above-mentioned tensions. Specifically, the political protest movement, dissident army factions, and some rebel groups might even join forces. The appointment of Albert Pahimi Padack, which has sparked criticism among the public and the political class, raises doubts about Padack’s ability to actually have a bearing as head of the CMT-sponsored government.

In addition to having serious domestic repercussions, the death of Idriss Deby risks triggering a change in the already precarious military and political balance of the entire Sahel area.

First of all, Deby was one of the cornerstones of the French policy in the area, and the military and political support offered by Paris to the late president over the decades had helped make him one of the main players in the region. However, Paris’s support for the CMT does not mean that France will not search for new partners among the local heads of state, with the aim of preserving its strategic plan in the area.

Furthermore, Deby’s death could make (at least temporarily) Chad a less significant actor in the Sahel region. Given the political transition phase that has begun with Deby’s death and security instability due to the rebels, Chadian authorities might reduce or completely (at least temporarily) stop sending troops to other countries of the region in the short term, indirectly favouring jihadist groups. In addition, Chad’s instability could further benefit extremists following the movement of troops from the country’s borders to other areas of Chad, such as the northern regions or the capital. This would help insurgency groups rely on greater freedom of movement, particularly in the Lake Chad basin area.

Lastly, the changing balance of power in Libya has also weighed on the recent events in Chad. The difficulties experienced by FACT in Libya have, indeed, prompted the organisation to regroup in Chad and launch the April 2021 operation against the N’Djamena institutions. Against this backdrop, other Libya-based Chadian groups may decide to intensify their activity in Chad in the short term, causing a spike in violence and clashes with the security forces.

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