What Chad’s Crisis Means for Fighting Jihad in Africa

The impoverished country of Chad used to be derisively referred to as a “nil state.” It shook off that label eight years ago, according to the then-foreign minister, when its military became a major player in the fight against jihadists in the Sahel, a semi-arid stretch of West and Central Africa, south of the Sahara desert. Now, however, Chad is facing an escalation of its own security and stability crises after the death in April of long-time President Idriss Deby, the result, according to the army, of injuries sustained in a rebel attack. His sudden demise -- followed by a military takeover -- have raised questions about the continuation of Chad’s role as an ally of France, the U.S. and other powers in the battle against violent Islamism.

1. Who was Deby?

A herder’s son from the minority Zaghawa ethnic group, Deby joined the military and climbed through its ranks to become its commander-in-chief. He assumed the presidency in 1991 after leading a rebellion against autocratic leader Hissene Habre -- who was later convicted of crimes against humanity by a special court in Senegal. Initially hailed as a liberator, Deby’s popularity slipped as his rule grew increasingly authoritarian. Despite Chad’s oil wealth -- its daily output of 127,000 barrels is the seventh biggest in sub-Saharan Africa -- it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with about 80% of its 16 million people reliant on subsistence farming and herding to survive. Military spending took precedence over health and education, a major contributor to Chad’s appalling living standards. A third of the national budget went to the defense force in 2009, although the proportion had dropped to 14% by 2019, World Bank data show.

What Chad’s Crisis Means for Fighting Jihad in Africa

2. What role has Chad played in fighting jihadists?

Chad committed at least 1,200 troops to a regional task force known as the G5 Sahel that’s being deployed to the border zone between Niger and Mali, where a separatist insurgency that began in northern Mali in 2012 first enabled jihadist militants to gain a foothold. Chadian soldiers are also part of a multinational effort to counter attacks by groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda elsewhere in the Sahel. Chad hosts about 1,000 of the 5,100 soldiers that France has deployed to the region. But attacks have continued despite the efforts to quell them. Djimadoum Tiraina, the junta’s vice president, has reassured diplomats that Chad remains committed to military operations in the Sahel.

3. So why is Chad’s role in doubt?

Its military -- some 35,000 troops in all -- is looking increasingly overstretched. Domestic rebels have accumulated heavy weaponry and fighting experience in neighboring Libya. In the April incursion they got to about 300 kilometers (190 miles) from the capital, N’Djamena, before they were repelled. A renewed rebel offensive could see the junta repatriate some of its troops from the Sahel. The junta may also need to bolster the ranks of its security forces domestically should widespread discontent over poverty and the Deby family’s continuing political dominance erupt into social unrest. A Chadian troop withdrawal would be problematic for the French government, which wants to scale down its own operations. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has warned that Deby’s death will “create a big vacuum” in efforts to counteract terrorism.

4. Who are the rebels?

Several groups opposed Deby, none of which are currently affiliated with the jihadists. The Front for Change and Concord in Chad was responsible for the incursion that the army says claimed the president’s life when he visited the battlefield. Based in Libya and known by its French acronym FACT, it was founded in 2016 by Mahamat Mahdi Ali and is mainly comprised of army dissidents. The group splintered from the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development after infighting, largely along clan lines, when Mahdi tried to take control. The UFDD almost toppled Deby in 2019 before it was repelled by French forces. (Deby also survived bids to overthrow him in 2006 and 2008.) An expert report to the U.N. Security Council in 2019 estimated FACT had about 700 men, and the UFDD 100.

5. What do the rebels say they want?

Mahdi, who studied law and politics in France, has said that, unlike the UFDD, his group doesn’t want to seize power for itself but to clear the way for a democratic transfer of power in Chad. After Deby’s death, he told Radio France Internationale that FACT was ready to accept a cease-fire and find a political solution to the crisis. “Chad needs new leaders,” he was quoted as saying. The junta has ruled out negotiations.

6. How did Deby hang on so long?

The late president had positioned himself and his army as key players in the fight against jihadists, helping to deflect international criticism even as he clamped down on the opposition and civil rights groups and muzzled the media. He appointed members of his family to head the security services, state oil company and other key institutions. A 2018 constitutional change would have allowed the 68-year-old, already one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, to remain until 2033. While regular elections have been held since 1996, their credibility has been repeatedly questioned. Provisional tallies from the April 11 ballot -- which excluded seven opposition candidates -- showed him winning a sixth term with 79% of the vote. His death was announced on April 20, just hours after the results came out.

What Chad’s Crisis Means for Fighting Jihad in Africa

7. Who’s in charge now?

A transitional military council comprising 15 army generals and led by the late president’s 37-year-old son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby. The junta says it will rule for 18 months, even though the constitution clearly states a successor should be elected in 90 days. It has reappointed as prime minister Albert Pahimi Padacke, who had held the job until Deby abolished it in 2018, and told Cabinet ministers to keep going to work. Opposition parties, religious and civil rights groups and others -- including the rebels -- have called the military takeover unlawful. But aside from rebel military victory, there are no real options other than street protests and lobbying the international community. The former colonial power France has backed the junta, citing a need for stability, but called for a short transition. The African Union expressed deep concern about the military takeover, saying the situation threatens regional “peace, security and stability.”

What Chad’s Crisis Means for Fighting Jihad in Africa

8. How is the fight in the Sahel going?

At least 1,000 soldiers, militants and civilians died in attacks in the first quarter of 2021, with Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali the worst affected countries. While French forces have killed several top Islamist militant commanders, local troops have struggled to hold onto territory. Analysts argue that it’s time for a more development-focused strategy to counter the insurgents and make it more difficult for them to recruit disaffected youths. Civil rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have meanwhile accused western and regional troops of abusing civilians and exacerbating the conflict, in part due to their to frustration about being overstretched.

9. How could the crisis affect Chad’s creditors?

While the government doesn’t have outstanding foreign bonds, it is indebted to banks, other nations and some private lenders, including Glencore Plc, which is owed $347 million. The commodity trader was forced to restructure its loans to Chad in 2015 and 2018 after oil prices fell. The price of Chad’s debt has plummeted on the secondary market, indicating that investors are clearly nervous that junta will default or seek a restructuring.

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