The death of Chad's President Idriss Deby this week has raised concerns about stability in the country and throughout West Africa. While critics point out Deby's authoritarian, 31-year rule, security experts say he was an essential ally in the fight against terrorism and are worried about what comes next.
Déby presided over one of the largest and most well-resourced militaries in West Africa. His forces provided crucial support to international security efforts in the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel, where Islamist militant groups have wreaked havoc in recent years.
That’s likely why Western powers such as France and the U.S. turned a blind eye to the ever-mounting accusations of human rights abuses and to his habit of suppressing political opposition.
“In terms of the struggle against jihadism, his death is a distinct setback,” said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank. “The Chadian army was probably the most efficient fighting force in West Africa, again, with the exception of the French. And the question will be whether the regime continues the effort or not.”
Déby was killed by a Libyan-based rebel group while visiting troops on the front lines Monday. The event took place shortly after he was declared the winner of the April 11 elections, which were boycotted by opposition groups over accusations of political sidelining. The win would have marked the start of Déby’s sixth term.
A transitional military council appointed Déby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, as interim leader until democratic elections can be held in 18 months.
“There is uncertainty about the immediate future of Chad,” said Paul-Simon Handy, a senior regional advisor with the Institute of Security Studies in Dakar. “There’s uncertainty about the stability of the current interim arrangement by the military council. There’s uncertainty about unity within the ranks of the army. Islamist insurgents can actually use these opportunities to further destabilize Chad.”
This could have ripple effects across West Africa.
If Déby’s son does not earn the loyalty of Chad’s armed forces, the region could lose a key player in the fight against Islamic extremists.
“There’s the possibility that command and control over the armed forces may falter,” said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow with the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Defense Department research institution. “The fact that the military council has tried to take up control suggests that there’s a great deal of instability that may, in fact, lead to having a harder time contributing troops to those kinds of regional efforts in the Sahel or Lake Chad Basin.”
Violent events linked to jihadist groups in the Sahel have increased sevenfold since 2017, according to the center, while the Lake Chad Basin saw a 60% increase in 2020 over the year prior.