Déby’s Spring Fall: How an Unlikely Rebellion Toppled Chad’s Dictator

By: Jérôme Tubiana

The first time I saw Idriss Déby was in 2014 at the first Dakar Forum, the now yearly event organized by the French Defence Ministry in Senegal’s capital to strengthen ties with African allies, in particular the-then brand new G5-Sahel coalition (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. The Chadian army’s reputation as the best in the lot allowed the unusually jovial Déby to tease both the older Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from Mali (since then toppled by a military coup), calling him by his initials, and French Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian (now Minister of Foreign Affairs). The latter didn’t laugh much when the Chadian ruler half-jokingly suggested that, since the ongoing chaos in Libya and its repercussions on the Sahel were due to the removal of Qaddafi by a NATO-operation largely inspired by France, Paris now needed to ‘provide after-sales service’ and send troops to Libya again. No matter how embarrassed his French guest felt, Déby was running the show.

I saw him a second and last time in 2016 — the crucial year of his penultimate, and possibly most disputed, re-election. Growing worries on his longevity and controversies over succession plans undermining balances within both his political support base and his own Zaghawa tribe, were about to begin a five-year period where divides were exposed more publicly than ever. That second sighting took place in the symbolic heart of Déby’s power, in Am Djéress, his small ‘capital’ in barren, north-eastern Chad. The odd and short stretch of paved road from the local airport to town was patrolled by armoured vehicles and the whole area appeared to be surrounded by military camps. In fact, there seemed to be more military than civilians in town, although the locals driving me around told me that there were more people than usual. Most didn’t like to live here, they said, but many were coming back at times, when ‘the boss’ was in town — both so that he would see them there and so that he wouldn’t leave with the illusion that it was a ghost town — from where he increasingly seemed to manage the affairs of the state. My guides were frustrated, accusing the president of having done nothing tangible to develop their desert homeland and ironized the ‘international airport’ as well as the two-storey columned palace of the president, which he rarely seemed to leave.

Idriss Déby’s palace in his desert capital Am Djéress, January 2016. Source: Jérôme Tubiana

The occasion of my visit was a festival of the ‘Saharan cultures’, but the festive showman I had seen in Dakar was almost invisible. He only left the palace for the horse race; not a huge surprise as he was said to be truly fond of horses, often spending time riding when he was in Am Djéress. Wearing a cowboy hat — an accessory adopted by various African leaders — he stood up to give medals and cash to the winners, many of whom were riding horses belonging to the stable of ‘His Majesty the Sultan of Dar Bilia’ (none other than the president himself, having self-proclaimed as sultan in 2010). But this time, ‘His Majesty’ didn’t make jokes and his limited appearance only exacerbated longtime rumours that Déby was seriously ill. The atmosphere was tense. At a makeshift exhibit on the local culture, handwritten panels vainly praised the president’s clan as the best of all. ‘These flatterers are not doing any good’, one of Déby’s relatives commented to me.

A History of Discontent

Idriss Déby ruled Chad for thirty years, during which the country suffered many violent episodes, including regular rebel attacks on the capital, of which two managed to reach it. However, the political changes that many Chadians were calling for (change of type of regime, change of ruler) didn’t take place — thus allowing for Chad to be systematically praised internationally as a ‘stable’ state. Déby took power as a rebel leader in 1990 and, as it was the end of the cold war, many expected him to soon relinquish control to a civilian, democratic regime, as he had promised. Instead, he held onto power thanks to rigged elections and changes to the constitution.

Almost immediately after Déby took control, the first rebels against him appeared — many of whom were dissatisfied brothers-in-arms from the group that had led him to the presidency: the Mouvement patriotique du salut (MPS; Salvation Patriotic Movement). After peace talks with Déby, his former chief-of-staff-turned-rebel Abbas Kotty was assassinated, leaving a lasting impression that Déby only understood the language of weapons and that the agreements he signed were not to be trusted, in turn feeding continuous rebellions. Unarmed opponents long called for peaceful change through fair elections or dialogue, but were not taken seriously by Chad’s main foreign backer, France, who kept describing both armed and unarmed opponents as ‘immature’. On the contrary, Déby’s first election, in 1996, was rigged, with the support of French ‘experts’. Ten years after, he changed the constitution to be able to run again.

In the meantime, the regime became increasingly rife with corruption, culminating in Déby caught red-handed in a massive case involving printed counterfeit Bahraini dinars, in 1998. This did not prevent the World Bank from, around the same time, promoting an Exxon-operated oil project in southern Chad — whose royalties would be dedicated to the country’s development — as a model for others. Yet, as dissensions surfaced within the regime, and as Déby’s cousins, the Erdimi brothers (one of whom had been Chad’s oil negotiator with Exxon) formed a rebellion, Déby began using the oil money to buy weapons against them — in a perfect illustration of the oil curse.

Idriss Déby (third from left) and traditional chiefs at a horse race in his stronghold of Am Djéress, northeastern Chad, January 2016. Source: Jérôme Tubiana

Déby’s main curse, however, may have been his own Zaghawa tribe. In 2003, some of his Zaghawa army officers began to support or join the early Darfur rebels in Sudan, whether in a bet of replicating Déby’s takeover on the other side of the border, or simply to protect their kin from the Sudanese government’s counter-insurgency. Khartoum’s reaction was to arm not only the infamous Sudan-based janjawid militias, many of whom were recruited among Chadian Arabs, but Chadian rebels of all tribes. Two successive rebel raids, in 2006 and 2008, nearly toppled Déby, but he was ultimately saved by the rebels’ disagreements and French military support. The 2010 reconciliation between Chad and Sudan ended these rebellions and saw Déby fight the Sudanese Zaghawa rebels instead, as well as pressure them into making peace with Khartoum.

The Zaghawa community resented the boss’ shifting loyalties. In 2016 in Am Djéress, while not wishing to comment on Déby’s health, a relative acknowledged to me that no one was eternal and the family was trying to discuss scenarios for succession, in case anything happened. Several sons’ names were mentioned, including that of young General Mahamat ‘Kaka’. But there were disagreements, and Déby systematically cut short such discussions, seeing them as attempts to remove him.

It had not always been like that, the relative told me, claiming that in 2005, the family (and allegedly France) were the ones that had to pressure Déby so that he would amend the constitution to be allowed to run for a third mandate (he ran three more times since). But now, the relative said, the situation was not good. As we were talking, Am Djéress inhabitants were claiming the festival’s money had disappeared at the hands of some officials from elsewhere.

The teeth grinding I had heard in Am Djéress became louder during Déby’s fifth term (2016–2021). In recent years, in particular since that crucial 2016 election year, Déby’s power circle became tighter, so that dissidents appeared within his own Zaghawa community, within the army, and within his own family — all of whom may have seen themselves in power positions prior to this. His power grip culminated in 2020, when he celebrated his thirty-year rule by elevating himself as Chad’s first and only Field Marshall. The opposition crystallized in the lead-up to the 2021 election for which one of his cousins, Yaya Dilo, decided to run against Déby. In February 2021, Déby sent forces, even tanks, to arrest him, but Dilo resisted and although his mother was killed, he managed to escape, likely thanks to complicity within the army

Idriss Déby (clapping in the green armchair) at a horse race in his stronghold of Am Djéress, northeastern Chad, January 2016. Source: Jérôme Tubiana

An Unlikely Success

After the Dilo episode, Déby’s popularity was rather low but in April, he still ran for election a 6th time. This brought Chadian rebels, believing Déby’s re-election should not happen quietly once again, back to the picture. Both Chadian and Sudanese decades-old rebel movements were based in Libya, surviving there as guns-for-hire serving different Libyan factions fighting each other. One of these Chadian rebel groups was the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT — Front for Change and Concord in Chad). Its leader, Mahamat Mahadi, was the typical first generation Chadian rebel. He told me he had first joined the rebellion in 1978, when he was only 14, ‘imitating the elders’. ‘Today, I would be called a child soldier’, he joked. Interestingly, he did not join the group of his Goran kinsman Hissène Habré.[1] Since then, he alternatively led the lives of a rebel in the Sahara and an asylum seeker in France.

In April 2021, FACT decided to attack on election day, and rushed toward the capital. They were intercepted by the Chadian army 300 kilometers from N’Djaména. Déby went to the frontline to make sure his troops would not demobilize. It was then announced that he had been killed — officially by the rebels. Another version of the story is that he was killed during a shoot-out between his guards and a frustrated general from his own tribe.

In fact, this scenario (Déby’s violent death) had been predicted for long, but as mentioned above it seems Déby had prevented people, including his own family, to discuss succession or transition plans. As a result, no plans existed and, in a rush, a group of generals — most of them from Déby’s tribe — proclaimed themselves as a Transitional Military Council (TMC) under Déby’s son General Mahamat ‘Kaka’, one of the possible heirs I had heard of in Am Djéress. A general in his thirties, Mahamat had first come to the fore as deputy commander of the Chadian contingent in Mali. In reality, the TMC’s proclamation was a military coup and a breach of the constitution. France is Chad’s main backer and initially fully supported the TMC, but then had to adjust to criticism and calls, nationally and internationally, for democratic transition and inclusive dialogue. It seems Paris was short of measuring how fed up the Chadians really were — even some army generals appeared to reject the TMC. Since May 2021, the process has been rather quiet and slow.

As a Matter Of FACT

However, the FACT assault could have been just another ‘usual’ rebel attack, and only became a catalyst for a long-forecast succession crisis as a result of numerous and simultaneously unfolding events.

Retrospectively, some of the fighters who took part in the raid described it as a suicide mission — there was no guarantee that they would overpower the Chadian army, and in reality FACT was largely defeated. However, it seems the rebels were hoping, rather than to defeat the army, that it would demobilize — in 2019, as a lighter Zaghawa rebel column entered Chad, the Chadian army (most of whose leadership were also from the Zaghawa group) had refused to fight, so French jets had intervened to stop the rebels. But in 2021, the rebels were from the Goran group and the army appeared ready. In addition, while FACT hoped that France would stay neutral, it did not since French planes were still involved as observers, providing precious intelligence and some logistical support.

Since it is not difficult to cross to and from Libya for Chadian (or Sudanese) combatants, FACT survivors were able to return to Libya, and the group may still be able to reconstitute itself through troops and equipment. But it may not be as easy as it used to be, since the attention they attracted may not only bring them would-be recruits, but also obstacles from actors in Libya keen to avoid new cross-border raids.

Of course, other Chadian rebel groups are present in Libya, and FACT’s failure (even if its defeated troops may still have been responsible for Déby’s death) in its attack may be partly due to a lack of coordination with those other groups. Division has always been a problem in the Chadian rebellion, and it has only increased in the last decade. FACT itself was born as a splinter group and then it generated another splinter group, so that ultimately, three Chadian rebel groups were composed of fighters belonging to the same ethnic group — the Goran — but from different clans. FACT did not really attempt a coordinated process to organize a political-military coalition or alliance — they rather hoped their readiness to attack would convince other rebels to join or follow them, or organize simultaneous attacks. Additionally, since they had fought each other when they splintered, there was lack of trust among the different groups. Trust lacked especially towards the FACT, because it found itself fighting in the Libyan theater, on Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s side, whom both the Déby regime and France have been supporting as the ‘alternative’ to the more hostile UN-backed Tripoli government. Other Chadian rebel groups were in the anti-Haftar camp.

Mahadi told me that Déby’s buffooning speech at the 2014 Dakar Forum had been taken very seriously in Libya, deciding in particular Misrata’s factions to call for Chadian rebel leaders in exile to retake control of Chadian guns-for-hire in Libya, eventually turning them back to rebel movements against Chad. Like all Chadian rebels, FACT was first on the side of the Tripoli-based and Misrata-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), but oddly enough, the group was the only one to change sides and ally with Haftar. Consequently, FACT was fighting on the same side as Chad and France.

Horse race in Idriss Déby’s stronghold of Am Djéress, northeastern Chad, January 2016. Source: Jérôme Tubiana

There are different explanations for why FACT changed sides. One is geographic — based in Jufra, in central Libya, with Misrata’s ‘Third Force’, FACT was not really warned when Haftar took over the area. They decided not to move, rather negotiating a non-aggression pact with Haftar. More politically, while Mahadi initially looked close to Misrata, the Misratis seemed to show an increasing preference for FACT splinters from a different Goran sub-group. No explanation can fully address the question of how this rebel movement could survive, and even strive, on the same side of the government it was supposed to fight. FACT gradually became more active, from fighting Daesh to guarding checkpoints in the Jufra area, then airports in southern Libya taken by Haftar in 2020, and eventually taking part in the (lost) battle for Tripoli. As a result, FACT possibly fought other Chadian rebels in Libya, as proxies for opposed Libyan factions — as it already did during the two successive splits, when they were all together on Misrata’s side.

The FACT raid also raised questions about Haftar’s loyalties toward Chad and France: how was FACT able to cross from the Haftar-controlled areas of Libya through the country and into Chad without being intercepted and disarmed? Did Haftar not have any control over FACT’s ambitions against Chad despite it being one of his proxy groups? Was Haftar not under Chadian and French pressure to prevent what happened, and did he therefore betray both Déby and France? Or was he gradually shifting to another ally, Russia? The most plausible conclusion is that Haftar is both generous in terms of military equipment and careless with what is made of it. It has also been argued that FACT literally escaped to southern Fezzan in Libya — a part of the country where Haftar has less control and where anti-Haftar Tubu militias are still operating alongside other Chadian rebels.

Among anti-Haftar Chadian rebels, there were also suspicions that FACT would enter Chad to surrender rather than to fight. Until the attack, FACT was seen as the less threatening of the Chadian rebel movements, precisely because of its isolation, as well as the relatively soft stance of its leader. Interestingly, Mahamat Mahadi always kept the door open for negotiations, even in the midst of fighting within Chad. So far, the window for provoking such dialogue during the raid into Chad was missed, but the current situation holds a potential for dialogue and negotiations, should the Chadian TMC be ready for it.

Am Djéress, Idriss Déby’s empty desert capital, January 2016. Source: Jérôme Tubiana

International Roles

Unlike in Sudan and Libya where multiple agendas and actors are present on the ground, France is still the dominant actor in Chad, and it does not view itself as a foreign player but rather an internal player taking decisions impacting and influencing Chad’s internal policies and governance.

With the current status quo, France is at a crossroads to either continue its policy and support a new military regime in exchange for continuing to borrow Chad’s troops in the Sahel, or seize the opportunity to support a genuine democratic change in the country. Moreover, France’s hegemonic role in Chad is making France unpopular in the country which is opening the door for other players to intervene in Chad, with the sole goal of undermining France’s role.

This is obvious by looking at Russia’s policies and role in the region. Russia is now very influential in the Central African Republic (CAR), south of Chad. There are concerns that Russia is also willing to set foot in Chad, and that it may have supported FACT as an end to those means (other conspiracies theories involved support from the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and even France itself…). The FACT attack raised questions on not only Haftar’s loyalties toward Chad and France, but also the slightly odd coexistence of French and Russian forces on Haftar’s side. Mahamat Mahadi’s own reply to those questions — mentioning that he has been cooperating with both French and Russian forces in Libya for years — reminds us that Libya is the only place where Russia and France (and many other foreign players, with the notable exceptions of Turkey and Qatar) are on the same side.

Whether Russia supported the FACT attack is not confirmed, and it is possible that Russia was not involved at all. It is however obvious that Russia is trying to benefit from Déby’s death, and from France’s growing unpopularity, to gain influence in Chad — but much less through Libya than CAR. The competition between France (or more generally the West) and Russia on central Africa or other regions at the UN Security Council level hinders local ability, including for the Chadian people, to decide on their own fate and their national aspirations.

[1] Alongside the closely related Tubu and the Zaghawa, the Goran, also called Dazagada, are one of the main communities of the Chadian Sahara. Chad’s former president Hissène Habré (in power from 1982–1990) was one of them, and his authoritarian regime became increasingly tribal until he was toppled by his former chief of staff Déby. Hissène Habré died on 24 August 2021.

Jérôme Tubiana is an independent researcher and SANA expert. For more than twenty years, he covered conflicts in Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Niger and Libya, notably for the Small Arms Survey. He is the author of Guantánamo Kid: The True Story of Mohammed El-Gharani (SelfMadeHero/Abrams, 2019).

This blog post is published as part of the Small Arms Survey’s Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) project — made possible through the generous support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

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