A few hours ago, the AFP reported that Idriss Déby Itno, the President of Chad, had died of injuries sustained during a pushback against rebel forces protesting his reelection victory–which would have given him a sixth successive term. A military council to be run by his son, Mahamat ibn Déby Itno has been announced as the country’s provisional government in the interim.
Geographically, Chad is at the heart of a number of conflicts in West and Central Africa. To its west, Déby had been a key ally for Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) operation which was supposed to include cooperation with Niger, Cameroon and Chad, ended up being a largely Nigerian operation with input from only the Chadian army. in 2018. To its north, it acted as an effective buffer against Libya whom Chad has fought several conflicts, Darfur in Sudan which directly impacted his ethnic Zaghawa people and the sectarian crisis that has pitched in the Central African Republic. This, in part, is what made him a favoured clearinghouse on a regional security strategy for foreign power interests, particularly France and the U.S. It was also at the heart of his personality cult at home, becoming a centrifugal political and socio-economic force that was unmatched by any other Chadian political figure. During his three decades in office, 17 Prime Ministers served under him before he dispensed with the office altogether.
In his final push to dislodge Boko Haram jihadists from Chad, he personally led an offensive in early 2020 which killed about a thousand of the insurgents, and declared an end to Chadian involvement in the MNJTF, spelling doom to the collective effort against insurgency in the Lake Chad. Although he had a change of heart later, the operational and psychological damages had already been done, and activities from Chadian forces were largely restricted within the country’s borders, with the bulk of the fighting in Lake Chad done by the Nigerian military.
For Nigeria, Déby’s death is not good news as the battle-hardened Chadian Army has been the only effective check on Boko Haram. While his son, Mahamat Déby Itno is at the moment the de-facto head of the military council, there is no clear successor to Mr Déby as he was effectively the state. The 37-year old Mahamat Déby has been a military brat all his life and has limited administrative or political experience. A succession battle, which is almost certain, would mean that the insurgents will have no worries about their flanks and can attack the Nigerian Army at will.
This will likely mean the consolidation of the Lake Chad Basin as a staging area for the insurgents from where to launch attacks on towns and military bases.
Already, the security situation in Damasak and Dikwa, Nigerian towns close to the Chadian border, has become untenable, forcing UN staff to suspend humanitarian operations.
Déby had survived coup attempts before, usually with support from the French. He visited President Buhari on 28 March for bilateral talks, ostensibly around security issues in the region.
His passing has left a big gap in a neighbouring country that is likely to have a profound impact on Nigeria’s security. Nigeria is still reeling from the southward flow of jihadists and ammunition in the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s death in 2011. The upheaval in Chad is much closer to home and thus potentially much more significant.
The priority now is for an orderly transition to take place, along with a swift consolidation of power by Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, who has been named interim president by the transitional military council. The military must also step up its operational tempo to prevent the rebels from exploiting the power vacuum.
From a strategic point of view, there is a ring forming around Nigeria. Rebels have killed the President of Chad, there has been a coup attempt in the Niger Republic, whose new President was in Nigeria for Iftar with Nigeria’s President Buhari. Benin, following PatriceTalon’s re-election, has become that more unstable as democratic norms and institutions are being dismantled. We believe that another coup in Niger is a strong possibility, and it may succeed, throwing that country which borders Mali into confusion. The ring of instability is closed by Cameroon, which has its own issues, similar to Chad in which Paul Biya has a son who is also inexperienced, and will like Mahamat Déby, be challenged for leadership. Cameroon also has the problem of an ongoing rebellion on its western flank, which borders Nigeria. The final part of that circle is the Gulf of Guinea.
In addition, as Niger becomes more unstable, there is only a small strip of land between volatile Northern Mali and Nigeria via Niger. As Niger gets more unstable, and Northern Nigeria follows, the influx of Sahelian jihadis from this axis into the ungoverned spaces in North West and North Central Nigeria is bound to increase.
This arc of instability can be extended to include the Central African Republic, Libya, Southern Algeria and Burkina Faso which have significant instability issues and/or include the volatile Sahel region. Nigeria sits squarely at the centre of this arc which has already eaten into its northern half.
All these countries are part of France-Afrique, the Francophone countries where French presence, support of despots and military intervention in the past has ensured some form of stability. But as the case of Déby has shown – the French are not coming anymore. The primary strategic concern of Europe these days is to stem migration from African countries and select who comes in, and no longer to extract minerals and prop up dictators. The generation that held France-Afrique as a key strategic imperative of French foreign policy has left the scene, and the new leaders question committing French resources and manpower to hold together remote African countries in ungoverned spaces.
This opens a brand new challenge – Nigeria either steps up in the region and ensures peace both within its borders and in this huge arc of instability, or the strip of relative stability in Southern Nigeria will be engulfed by the collapse of our near abroad. To do this, it must partner with France to ensure that the interim government does not hold power for far longer than necessary. The disputed elections that brought the late Deby to power has to be revisited if stability is to be ensured.
The growing external instability around Nigeria will soon become existential, and based on precedents, Deby’s passing would be blamed (by the Nigerian government) on any reversal of progress in the fight against Boko Haram in the North East It must be treated with urgency it deserves.