FILE - Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno meets with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power in N'Djamena.
FILE - Chadian President Idriss Deby is pictured in N'Djamena, April 20, 2016. Deby died April 19, 2021, from injuries sustained while visiting troops fighting a Libya-based rebel group, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad.

The death of Chad's President Idriss Deby could be a major setback for counterterrorism efforts in Africa's restive Sahel region, according to Chadian activists, African politicians and security experts.

The 68-year-old longtime leader died Monday from injuries sustained while visiting troops fighting a Libya-based rebel group known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT. The group had advanced the previous week from the north toward the capital, N'Djamena.

Following Deby's death, generals set up a military council to run the country and named Deby's son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, 37, as interim president.

Local observers said the political turmoil could lead to more serious challenges in the Central African nation.

"The country has many security challenges to face right now," said Delphine Djiraibe, a human rights lawyer and the founder of the Public Interest Law Center, who is based in N'Djamena.

"In the fight against terrorism, President Deby was a close ally to France and other foreign powers, so his death will definitely create a vacuum," she told VOA in a phone interview. "Despite his dictatorial rule, his effectiveness in the campaign against terror in the region was the main factor why these countries supported him."

Deby had ruled Chad since coming to power in a military coup in 1990. In recent years, he and his military had become a major actor in counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, where Boko Haram and other Islamist extremist groups have been active in several countries.

"He managed to keep our country largely secure from terror threats while also helping other countries in their struggle against terrorists," said Kaltuoma Makaila, 41, a resident of N'Djamena.

"With Deby gone, I'm not sure how our security situation will be, but we will definitely go through a period of uncertainty," she told VOA.

FILE - Soldiers of the Mauritania army wait in an armed vehicle at a G5 Sahel task force outpost in the southeast of Mauritania, along the border with Mali, Nov. 22, 2018.

Regional stability

The repercussions of Deby's death could also be felt in other countries in the region, some politicians said.

Deby was "somebody who contributed greatly to regional stability. … I think his passing will be a source of instability in the subregion," said Alexandre-Ferdinand Nguendet, a former president of the National Transitional Council of the Central African Republic.

Chad's military has played a significant role in the 5,000-strong force of the G5 Sahel, which includes Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The G5 force cooperates with French troops, who have been present in the region since the outbreak of an insurgency in Mali in 2012.

"It is a hard blow for Chad, Mali and for the Sahel in its entirety, because he recently sent 1,200 Chadian troops to reinforce security" in the border zone between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, said a resident of Mali's capital, Bamako, who declined to be identified.

In neighboring Niger, a local resident said that Deby's death "will have unavoidable consequences in the subregion."

"A man who supported us is gone," he told VOA. "What should we do in order to replace the efforts he has done against terrorism?"

'Worrying moment'

The FACT rebel group said it rejected the transitional military council that will take charge of Chad for the next 18 months. This means, experts said, the rebel threat in the country remains real.

"This is a really worrying moment, because we don't know what's going to happen," said Daniel Eizenga, a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.

He said the regime crafted by the slain president was "highly authoritarian, very autocratic, and so all political power was consolidated under Deby and his ruling party."

"When you have these moments where there is political instability, everything is kind of up in the air," Eizenga told VOA. "It is that instability that is inherent to authoritarianism that is really problematic, and now we're in a situation where Chad may not be able to be a crucial partner because everything in Chad could collapse."

FILE - Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, 37, the son of the late Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, is seen during a military broadcast announcing the death of his father on state television, April 20, 2021.

Son's role

A four-star general, Deby’s son has led multiple military operations against Islamist insurgents, including one in 2013, when Chadian soldiers deployed to northern Mali to help support the French Operation Serval.

"He's held very high positions within the defense intelligence world for Chad, and that suggests that he has connections to the broader diplomatic and defense corps that would be based in N'Djamena," Eizenga said.

France's anti-terror Operation Barkhane and the regional Multinational Joint Task Force are headquartered in Chad.

"I think that the fact that he's kind of emerged as the lead for the transitional military council suggests that there's an effort by some, at least in N'Djamena, to try and maintain some continuity and to stem whatever instability that may have otherwise erupted in the wake of Deby's death," Eizenga added.

VOA French Service's Freeman Sipila in Bangui, Central African Republic, Abdoul-Razak Idrissa in Niamey, Niger, and Mohamed Dagnoko in Bamako, Mali, contributed to this report.