Idriss Déby’s death, a Chadian affair, not a Russian plot
Jalel Harchaoui & Rémi Carayol
President Idriss Déby Itno was killed on April 19, 2021 in unclear circumstances.
The American ambassador in Libya evokes a possible Russian involvement and a French intelligence officer confides that “Chad is only one stage [for the Russians who] would like to gain a foothold in the Democratic Republic of the Congo“.
What is it really?
The events of mid-April which plunged Chad into an acute political and security crisis do indeed have a Russian facet. However, this should not be exaggerated.
To present the Russian government as a conspiratorial maneuvering, as French parliamentarians and diplomats do – most of the time on condition of anonymity – is to deny the main reasons which led to this situation, and which remain largely part specific to Chad.
Insisting on the Kremlin’s complicity also makes it possible to hide the complacency of Western countries, starting with France, and to silence the contribution of the United Arab Emirates.
The Déby System: A Fragile Autocracy
The crisis in N’Djamena, still moving and uncertain, is first and foremost a Chadian-Chadian crisis whose ingredients have been brewing for years. Since independence obtained in 1960, power has never been transmitted peacefully.
There are dozens of rebel groups that have taken the bush. And all the successors of the first president, François Tombalbaye, seized power by force.
In December 1990, benefiting from an ephemeral alignment in his favor of French President François Mitterrand and his Libyan counterpart Muammar Gaddafi, Idriss Déby Itno overthrew Hissène Habré, whom he had served for years, after having launched a lightning offensive since the Sudan.
Recycling the same strategy, many of its opponents have attempted, over the past three decades, to put an end to Déby’s reign by launching rebellions from neighboring countries (Libya and Sudan).
France, for its part, has, in the name of stability, almost always lent a hand to the dictatorships of N’Djamena, as if this nation were inherently incompatible with any form of political pluralism and peaceful transition.
“Déby will never let go of power. The only way to take it from him is by making war on it,” explained the leader of a rebel group in exile shortly before the autocrat’s death.
Another dissident, also abroad, indicated for his part to have long hoped for change through the ballot box, before changing his mind: “Deby only understands force. This is the only way to make him leave power”.
This is also what Mahamat Mahdi Ali, the leader of the Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad (FACT), thought, the movement which launched the offensive on April 11 from southern Libya and which precipitated the death of Deby.
He too decided that he would achieve nothing without arms in February 2008, when his political mentor, opponent Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, a leftist like him, disappeared after being arrested by the forces of security in N’Djamena.
He was probably executed in the regime’s jails. When the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT) took action on April 11, the day of the presidential election in which Deby was running, several other rebel movements based in the Central African Republic, Libya and Sudan were biding their time.
But for the autocrat, the most serious threat to his reign – and which still hangs over that of his son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, who succeeded him after a coup d’état on April 20 – came from within. Of his army. And of his own clan.
The Chadian army has been cut in two for years. On the one hand, there is the regular army: poorly paid, poorly trained and poorly equipped soldiers.
On the other, there is the General Directorate of Security Services of State Institutions (DGSSIE), considered as a real praetorian guard, and whose men, mostly from the community of Déby (the Zaghawa) benefit from better remuneration, better equipment and better training.
Until April 19, the DGSSIE was commanded by Mahamat Idriss Déby. This inequity arouses persistent frustrations within the armed forces, up to the rank of generals. Some of them have also publicly opposed the seizure of power by Déby fils.
Among the Zaghawa themselves, there is a bitter questioning of the Déby system. “Today, the regime is very weakened, there are many divisions within the power” , confides a rebel leader enjoying solid contacts in N’Djamena.
Over the years, Déby had made many enemies among his own people, especially from 2009, when he made peace with Sudan, a strategic choice that required abandoning the Zaghawa rebels in Darfur who had been supported until then by N’Djamena.
Another subject of tension is linked to the last wife of the president, Hinda Déby Itno, an Arab from Ouaddaï who has installed many of her relatives in important positions.
It is thus understandable why the greatest fear of Déby, lately, was not an insurrection launched from a neighboring country, but indeed an internal betrayal.
According to several Chadian and French sources, he did not immediately perceive the threat posed by FACT at the start of its offensive, and neglected its strike force.
The FACT, A Rebellion Born in Libyan Soil
Although officially created in the city of Tanoua in northern Chad in March 2016, FACT has spent its entire existence in Libya.
Immediately after its creation, resulting from a split within the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD), a rebel movement led by Mahamat Nouri and of which Mahamat Mahdi Ali was the right arm, the front knows its turn a burst: the dissidents create a new movement, the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR).
The latter attempted an incursion in August 2018 towards Kouri Bougoudi, in the gold-rich north of Chad. Once the attack repelled by the Chadian army, the group slowly weakens. Elements of CCMSR will reconcile with Déby in March 2021 while others will join FACT .
At the time of its creation, FACT was based in the south of Waddan, in the district of Joufrah, in central Libya. It benefits from its close political proximity with Misrata, a revolutionary citadel then represented militarily by its “ Third Force ” in Joufrah and in Fezzan (south-west Libya).
The Chadian rebels sell him their services. Some notably helped Misrata to block the organization of the Islamic State (OIS) south of Sirte during the 2016 anti-terrorist campaign.
At the same time, the planes of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, enemy of Misrata, strike FACT camps. Chadian rebels are even collaborating with the Benghazi Defense Brigade, a radical group that would later be suspected of the Brak Al-Shatti massacre, where more than a hundred unarmed pro-Haftar soldiers were executed in May 2017.
When, the following month, the Third Force of Misrata leaves Fezzan and Joufrah, the FACT finds itself without its sponsor. At that time, it seemed obvious that any Chadian armed group was necessarily on the side of the Libyan revolutionaries and Islamists.
But the FACT , made up of around 1,000 combatants often scattered in small clusters, and sometimes engaged in criminal activities in order to survive, opted for a different posture by gradually weaving, between 2016 and 2018, a kind of non-pact aggression with Marshal Haftar.
After asserting himself in Joufrah, the latter was seeking to increase his networks in Fezzan.
Created in 2016 by Oulad Souleymane (a Libyan Arab tribe) near the coast, east of Sirte, the 128 th Battalion quickly joined Haftar’s coalition.
To swell its ranks, the Libyan unit incorporates not only Fezzan Mahamids and hundreds of Sudanese mercenaries from Darfur, but also some elements of FACT .
Their remuneration is often in kind, in the form of donated vehicles or contraband fuel tanks which are then resold further south, notably in Niger.
The Offensive on Tripoli Redistributes the Cards
Everything accelerated at the end of 2018. The brigades linked to Haftar and positioned in Joufrah and Benghazi are preparing a major maneuver towards the southwest aiming to “take” the Fezzan . Part of the FACT is also active: it will accompany the commander’s disparate armada.
After the announcement that Sebha Fezzan largest city, is now under the authority of Haftar, the 128 th Battalion and other Libyan brigades as well as hundreds of Darfuri proxy darker towards the city of a little more murzuk South.
“The operation in Mourzouq, in February 2019, was ethnic violence: Oulad Souleymane and Zouaï [Arab tribes] against Toubous,” recalls a city dweller from Sebha, according to whom “members of the FACT , themselves Toubous for the most part were alongside Haftar’s brigades”. But it also appears that Chadian army officers were there.
The simultaneous presence of FACT anti-Deby fighters and a few agents loyal to the autocrat may seem surreal, but “at that time FACT was not seen as a problem, as many thought Haftar was going to win and take control of the country,” adds the same South Libyan witness.
At the beginning of March 2019, the main brigades linked to Haftar suddenly left southern Libya to position themselves in the north and concentrate on the imminent march towards the capital Tripoli – a decision that displeased Deby.
During the attack on the Libyan capital, FACT fighters are present in the southern suburbs. They allegedly took part in the fighting and several died there.
In the first months, some FACT members were stationed in the town of Gharyan, Haftar’s rear base, where the Tripoli militias later discovered abandoned anti-tank missiles from the French army.
The Tripoli camp, notably General Oussama Jouaili, also employs a few hundred Chadian mercenaries, but not FACT members .
In 2019-2020, several foreign states provided military resources and diplomatic benevolence to the Marshal in the hope that he would take Tripoli by force, to no avail.
Too few young Libyans were willing to risk their lives on the front line for Haftar, forcing him to employ thousands of foreign mercenaries.
The affiliation of the FACT to the great Haftar caravan allowed the group to be in contact with an operation which was certainly a failure, but was generous in war material.
The Wagner Group Enters the Scene
Almost a year before the arrival in early September 2019 of Russian mercenaries on the Tripolitan front, the Wagner group was already playing a role in logistics, protection and training within the Haftar coalition, whose equipment came before everything from a crucial godfather: Abu Dhabi.
According to Mahamat Mahdi Ali, Wagner’s Russians were not particularly enthusiastic when they had to live with his men in central Libya. “At first they saw us as enemies. They saw me as a supporter of France, given that I had lived there. And they thought we were the same as the Chadians they had fought in the Central African Republic. Over time, they came to tolerate us. But I, too, was very suspicious of it.“
The two groups had a common mission: fighting with the Libyan National Army (NLA) Haftar. “The Russians trained us in the use of certain weapons“, admits Mahamat Mahdi Ali, according to whom the cooperation did not go beyond.
After the massive intervention of Turkey in January 2020 , augmented by thousands of Syrian mercenaries, the Russians withdrew from Tripolitania on May 22. Deprived of this vital support, Haftar’s coalition was forcibly expelled the following month. The end of the war for Tripoli is accompanied by a demobilization towards the south of the Chadians.
According to some accounts, the operational proximity between Wagner and the FACT would have tightened from the summer of 2020. The Russians did not control the Chadian group, however.
However, it may be that by providing technical assistance to FACT , Moscow saw an opportunity to indirectly contribute to the disorder in N’Djamena, at a time when it could serve its interests in the Central African Republic.
Moscow set foot in this other former French colony three years ago through a military cooperation agreement concluded with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.
The latter is convinced that one of his predecessors, François Bozizé, who had taken the head of the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC) enjoyed N’Djamena’s support until Déby’s death.
Disorder and fragmentation serve Russia’s strategy in the old French “backyard” in Africa. That being said, it is impossible today to blame the origin of the Chadian crisis on Russian malice.
In addition, France cannot be surprised at the side effects emanating from the indissoluble and growing link between Wagner and the Haftar camp, since it indirectly encouraged it (just as it unwittingly sent Touadéra into the arms of the Russians in 2017, by voting in the security Council of the UN , sending “cooperating Russians in Bangui).
Finally, its strategic, even sacrosanct, alignment with Abu Dhabi concerning Libya and certain other issues, blinds Paris to the problematic components of Haftar’s coalition.
Jalel Harchaoui – Researcher specializing in Libya within the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime network based in Geneva.
Remi Carayol – Journalist.