Chad: Death of Idriss Déby Itno, Military respect of the constitution, only way forward

di Georges Tadonki, Correspondant de la revue française de géopolitique, Outre-Terre, Washington DC, 23 avril 2021

The president of Chad, Marshal Idriss Déby Itno was killed over the weekend of April 18. Was he fatally wounded in combat, as officially announced, or assassinated? Does it matter? Such mystery reflects the complexity and uncertainty of politics in Chad, a large nation of Central Africa, more than twice the size of France and three times the size of California. Chad has never fully experienced democracy since its independence in 1958 from colonial France. What appears as a military tells the drama of fragile States in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also a credibility test for the African Union. Is history of coups repeating itself in Africa? Is the military status quo the solution for stability?

Complex geopolitics of Africa

Powerful actors fuel protracted conflicts, often along ethnic lines. Autocratic regimes capture the State pretexting the need for security but maintain a deadly cocktail for poverty. Civilians and businesses pay the highest price for this neglect. Privately, many politically correct observers concur, the brutal military transition in Chad is just another coup in the Africa saga. After all, the continent is notorious for its lack of democracy and stable institutions. Is this the fatal death of another strong man backed by Western superpowers? We beg to say it is not. Instead, it is a complicated story. The Lake Chad region is pivotal to global security, considering the threat of terrorism. The geopolitical theater of Chadian and Libyan instability is of continental size. A formidable challenge to military strategists. The world must ensure that peace returns to that geographic area. Failure to do so may lead to a terror crisis way greater than Afghanistan, where US troops are preparing to leave.

The Lake Chad region is pivotal to global security, considering the threat of terrorism.

Although not a surprise, the news of president Idriss Déby Itno was a great shock. I have been studying Chadian history and geopolitics for decades. I have developed a long-term relationship with Chad, where I have many African brothers and sisters from all ethnic groups, including in the presidential family. I felt their loss and fear with great sympathy. We are continuing to ask ourselves when will this stop in Chad? I had the privilege to work with the Chadian military, as United Nations Technical Adviser at the presidency. I noted Idriss Déby’s unique character as a leader. He was the simplest African president I have ever known. Humble, straightforward, a soldier, and always a rebel fighter, but an astute politician. He was both an incredible negotiator and a ruthless enemy. Idriss Déby Itno was respected and feared. He always assumed it.

A fighter and a true Pan-Africanist

Against odds, Idriss Déby Itno made peace with the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Bashir of Sudan. He was a true PanAfrican leader, who raised Chad to a respected position in African Affairs. Under him, the Chadian constitution promoted African unity, and beyond words. He was a listener, instrumental in negotiating peace deals in many African countries, where was often consulted. After the death of Gaddafi, he took leadership of the Sahelian region. Fully deploying his stature of rebel chief turned general and head of state, he helped mobilize African countries against the threat of terrorism, even deploying his army without hesitation and earning praise for great abilities on the battlefield.

Western countries rightfully recognize Idriss Déby’s role as an ally in the war against terror in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Without the Chadian involvement, Boko Haram and other terror groups would have caused more devastation. A power vacuum in Ndjamena could lead to chaos in the Lake Chad region. Western forces on the ground are not enough to maintain peace and security in these Fragile States.

Idriss Deby Itno was the strongest ally in the war against terror in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Probably, also the greatest remaining defender of Pan-Africanism.

African leaders will lose with him a strong man who knew how to bring people together in the most challenging situations. Idriss Déby Itno was probably the greatest remaining defender of Pan-African principles.

Chad’s failed democratic dream

However, as the years passed, Idriss Déby Itno left us with deep frustration. While he put Chad on the African map in three decades, our Old Brother missed the opportunity to turn the country into the Pearl of Africa.

Achieving military domination, Idriss Déby Itno was the first Chadian leader to fully benefit from its strategic advantage. Despite its large size, Chad is relatively easy to control. Sparsely populated and mostly desertic in the north and east, the country is a fortress geoformed by France in the center of Africa. From Chad, French military power can reach any place in the Sahara, West, and Central Africa. France maintains an impressive military capacity in Ndjamena and Faya-Largeau, with the ability to detect anything that moves. France’s air superiority is a deterrent to ground assaults from the desertic open fields. However, France needs local cooperation to fully control the position. Therefore, whoever rules Chad from Ndjamena can only do so with French blessing or perish.

The unwritten rule is, whoever rules Chad from Ndjamena can only do so with French blessing or perish.

Idriss Déby was the longest-serving Chadian president by smart use of his status as “Friend of France”. Probably, he so much dominated the landscape that he felt invincible. A few facts corroborate the derive, such as rewriting the constitution to ensure an unlimited number of mandates through unfair elections and recently granting himself the title of Marshal. A title he did not need, as he was the supreme commander of the Chadian military, often referred to as “his army”. President Mobutu of Congo and Bokassa of the Central African Republic followed the same path and failed.

Idriss Déby was the longest-serving Chadian president, a “Friend of France” and a product of the “Francafrique”.

While holding full military power over Chad, Idriss Déby Itno oversaw the country becoming an oil producer. He could use his power and oil resources to transform the country. He could follow the example of Jerry Rawlings in Ghana or Obasanjo in Nigeria. At some points, Idriss Déby Itno held the keys to establish and defend strong democratic institutions in Chad, organizing his exit to transfer power to civilians. In the early 2000s, the moment was right, and the resources were available. Nobody in Chad would have successfully threatened a democracy established by Idriss Déby Itno. Had he retired after two last mandates, he will be enjoying the greatest respect in his country, Africa, and the world. Certainly, he would be absolved from the ruthless aspect of his regime.

President Idriss Déby Itno missed the historic opportunity to turn Chad into the Pearl of Africa.

For three decades Chadians hoped Idriss Déby Itno will change their lives by building the foundations of democracy and using the blessing of oil resources to take the country out of poverty. Instead, he entrenched himself in the presidency and bought weapons. These two mistakes resulted in history repeating itself. Another military coup now threatens to take Chad aback at least fifty years. Chad cannot afford such a descent into darkness. Already, Chad Human Development Index (HDI) is the 187th in the world.

Immediate transition to civilian rule is imperative

To my brothers and sisters in Chad, as we grieve the passing of President Idriss Déby Itno, may it serve as a lesson to all. In his memory, let us build better from his legacy. The absence of constitutional legitimacy is darkness. Absolute power fools any leader who put himself above the Law and people by force. When the army suspends the constitution and decides to rule a country, it is a military coup. Without the constitution, Chad is in greater danger than the supporter of the status quo may imagine. Despite pessimistic views, Africa is changing. The abuse of military power is no longer tolerated. Instead, it is a just a temporary hold on liberties and people’s aspirations for a better life. Everywhere in Africa, the social pressure for change is such that the current status quo in Chad is a time bomb. Yet, the country has a constitution that sets the rules for a democratic transition, especially in the case of the sudden death of the incumbent president.  The constitution of Chad does not allow a single person or a group to amend or suspend it. An authoritarian capture of power by the military is a coup and illegal. If the force of weapons is the rule in a country, it makes it de facto a jungle. Chad is not such jungle, and the African Union should not allow it to happen, or even tolerate it for any reason. 

The absence of constitutional legitimacy is darkness. A dangerous step back in African geopolitics, and a credibility test for the African Union.

General Mahamat Déby Itno, should not make the same mistake as his father. Marshall Déby Itno did not know it will cost him his life, so early for such a strong man. Mahamat Déby should learn and know better that placing himself above the constitution of his country is a costly mistake. This will only put the country and his own life in great danger. No military power can save a despot from the chaos of a country where the constitution is not respected.

We learned that only democracy can defeat darkness. It is confirmed by facts. France and the United States of America will continue to defeat terror on their territories because they are democracies. Their democracy provides the strong will and institutions that will defeat any terror threat from the darkness. Their military power is not all. Instead, it is a product of democracy, which also guarantees strong economies and societies. I advise my brothers and sisters of Chad, not to allow in your country what is not possible in France. The French society will never accept a military coup in Paris. Do at least the same in Ndjamena.

Only democracy provides the strong will and institutions that will defeat any terror threat from the darkness.

The respect and protection of the constitution is the only way forward out of the darkness in Chad.

General Mahamat Déby Itno has the great historic opportunity to restore democracy in Chad by returning power to civilian institutions immediately. If he seizes that moment, he will forever be remembered for making Chad stronger, more respectable, and a place for business, where the rule of law prevails. It is not too late. There are three steps that Mahamat Déby should follow, with the support of the African Union, France, and the international community, without further delays:

  1. Immediately, restore the constitution of Chad, proclaim the allegiance of the army to civilian institutions. Mobilize the army to protect the institutions and the constitution of the republic.
  2. Allow the parliament to seat, and constitutionally proceed to transfer the presidency to the vice-president of the parliament if the president is incapacitated. Allow the parliament to organize rapidly a new presidential election. This is possible as the recent election is the facto annulled since the winner died before taking office (as stipulated in Chad’s constitution).
  3. Mobilize the nation to regain constitutional legality without further delay. Protect the new civilian institutions, make Chadian people feel safer and protected, without the fear of their own national army.