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President Idriss Deby’s death on the battlefield leaves Chad with an uncertain future

It’s not often that a President travels to the frontlines of his army’s clashes with rebels. Idriss Deby, the 68-year old President of Chad did and paid with his life.

The exact circumstances of his death are still unclear, but Deby appears to have been shot on April 17 as his troops battled a rebel group in the desert north of the capital N’djamena.

A military statement said he “took control of operations during the heroic combat led against the terrorists from Libya. He was wounded during the fighting and died once repatriated to N’Djamena.”

The rebels say Deby was airlifted back to the capital. One highly placed intelligence source told CNN that Deby was wounded after plans to negotiate with northern rebel leaders rapidly collapsed into ferocious fighting which “left four of his generals dead on the spot.”

The intelligence source, who specializes in Libya, was citing a source in the rebel faction who had been briefed on the incident.

CNN cannot confirm that claim, but both sides reported heavy clashes around the town of Mao in the Kanem region on that day — about 185 miles north of the capital.

The rebels — the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) — had entered Chad from southern Libya the previous week and already seized much of the Tibesti region. They’d declared their intention to march on the capital.

It was perhaps no surprise that Deby was at the frontlines of battle. Before he seized power, he received military training in France and was the chief military adviser to his predecessor, Hissene Habre, whom he overthrew in 1990.

Just last year, he went to the frontlines around Lake Chad as the army battled against the terror group Boko Haram. Deby was above all else, a military man.

In 2006, when Chad was overrun with refugees fleeing the Darfur conflict in Sudan, Deby told CNN’s Nic Robertson: “I’m the only President who says that we need to impose war to bring peace. It was done in Bosnia. Why not Darfur? If needs be let’s bring peace by means of force.”

When Deby traveled north at the weekend, he had just won a sixth term in office, in an election boycotted by much of the opposition, to extend his 30-year grip on power.

Accounts from N’djamena since his death was announced Tuesday describe the atmosphere as somber and anxious, with many stores closed.

Most Chadians have known no other leader. Before this year’s election, Deby said: “I know in advance that I will win, as I have done for the last 30 years.”

A study of his rule by the United States Institute of Peace concluded that Deby’s contribution to his country’s history “has been to resist both negotiated and violent regime change, build military muscle, and impose political continuity, but he has done so at the price of hopes for a democratic and inclusive society.”

The fight against jihad

Deby’s death deprives France — the former colonial power — of one of its most dependable allies in Africa, and a cornerstone in combating the spread of Islamist terror groups in the Sahel.

French president Emmanuel Macron’s office paid tribute to him Tuesday saying France had lost a “brave friend.” Macron will also attend Deby’s funeral on Friday, according to the French government.

But his death also ushers in uncertain times for the country itself.

The French military has some 5,000 troops battling Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other terrorist groups in the Sahel region in what is called Operation Barkhane.

Chad has been its main ally in the long-running conflict in Mali and has been at the forefront of the conflict with Boko Haram around Lake Chad, which borders northern Nigeria.

Nigeria’s president, Muhammad Buhari, tweeted Wednesday that “The late President played a very active role in our regional joint collaboration in the military campaign against Boko Haram terrorists.”

Chad has borders with six countries, including the Central African Republic, Niger, and Sudan.

It’s a volatile neighborhood, and incursions into Chad from beyond its borders are frequent. Some analysts believe the Chadian military is overstretched with both its regional role and facing down frequent revolts at home.

The military transitional council that will now lead the country is headed by Deby’s son, Mahammat Kaka, who is already a general at age 37.

He has been in the military since his teenage years and seen service in northern Chad, according to a biography published by the council. On Wednesday, the younger Deby signed a declaration naming the fifteen members of the council — all military figures,

According to a charter published Wednesday, the transitional council will lead Chad for 18 months — but that can be extended.

The charter replaces Chad’s constitution, under which the president of the National Assembly should have become interim president. The younger Deby has promised “free, democratic, and transparent elections.”

France has moved swiftly to support the transition, saying in a statement on Tuesday that it “expresses its strong attachment to the stability and territorial integrity of Chad.”

The United States took a different approach, saying it supported “a peaceful transition of power in accordance w/ the Chadian constitution,” according to the Twitter account of the State Department spokesman.

A mountain of challenges

Some Chadians say the appointment of the younger Deby is unconstitutional, among them Mahamat Saleh Annadif, a former Chadian diplomat who is also head of the United Nations Office for West Africa, as well as political opposition parties.

Whether the younger Déby has the political skills to manage Chad’s many rival constituencies — ethnic and military — is open to question.

His father faced down several rebellions during his three decades in power, often with the help of France.

On at least two occasions, rebel forces reached the capital. French aircraft were involved in February 2019 in targeting a different rebel group — led by Deby’s own nephew — that entered Chad from Libya, the first such intervention by France since 2008.

Some commentators believe that French military support for Déby became almost unconditional.

Chad watcher Marielle Debos wrote in 2019 that French attacks on Chadian rebels were a “sign that France is now supporting Deby at all costs while ignoring the regime’s authoritarian practices and human rights violations.”

The younger Déby faces a mountain of challenges. Four years ago, the United States Institute for Peace warned that whoever succeeded his father, “whether democratically or otherwise, will need to ensure as a priority not only the security forces’ loyalty but also their capacity to intervene in difficult theaters.”

Add to that an economy hit by depressed oil prices, and rebel movements re-energized by his father’s death.

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