It's the story hardly anyone in America is talking about. One of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, Idriss Déby of Chad (who had ruled for 30 years) was recently killed in a battle against rebels advancing towards the capital. His shocking death has thrown the country’s frequently tempestuous politics into further turmoil, even as the rebels remain in the field. On this fascinating episode, we talk about who President Déby was and what his legacy looks like, what's at stake for this troubled region in Africa, and what this means for America and our allies.
Tim Doescher: From The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., I'm Tim Doescher, and this is Heritage Explains.
Doescher: The president has been killed.
Clip 1: Okay. We're going to begin with breaking news out of Chad where the armies announced President Idriss Déby has been killed. The army says he was leading soldiers fighting rebels on the front line. Déby had just won reelection and is one of Africa's longest serving leaders.
Clip 2: Chad's army is currently combating rebel forces. They have launched an assault on the capital, N'Djamena. President Déby was expected to win a sixth term in office following elections on April the 11th.
Clip 3: At just 37 years old, Mahamat Déby is the new face of Chad. As a young general, he was in charge of his father's security detail. Now, following Idriss Déby's death, his son has been thrust into the spotlight as the head of the country's Transitional Military Council.
Doescher: It's the story hardly anyone in America is talking about. The long serving president of Chad, Idriss Déby, was killed while visiting the front lines of battle against rebel forces. After 30 years as president and several attempts to overthrow his regime, President Déby's death has been controversial within Chad and the surrounding region in Africa. France 24 was able to capture some citizen reaction.
Clip 4: From a security point of view, the president played an important role. And now we're already seeing some instability, so we're worried about his sudden death.
Clip 5: They're already talking about the dissolution of parliament. We have a constitution. So in my opinion, it's a coup d'état.
Doescher: With talk about instability and coup attempts, conflict seems imminent, but Chad is no stranger to conflict. I'm sure you've seen photos and videos of Toyota trucks with mounted anti-aircraft missile launchers and machine guns driving through the desert with soldiers hanging off of them. Well, these famous Toyota Wars against insurgents represent decades of struggle for the Chadian people. All of this while trying to keep in good standing with Western allies who support them and successfully push back against Muslim extremism. Strife is seemingly a constant problem in Chad.
Doescher: So who was President Déby, and what is his legacy? Was this a coup attempt in order to circumvent the will of the Chadian people? Why should Americans care? Josh Meservey is a senior policy analyst focusing on Africa here at The Heritage Foundation. On this episode, he explains why Chad is a vitally important country in what is arguably considered the world's most volatile region. More after this.
Doescher: Josh Meservey, in your recent piece in The Daily Signal, you called this a fast moving and murky situation, which I got to say, it's hilarious. It seems like every time I talk with you, it involves a murky situation. It seems like you exclusively deal in murky situations.
Josh Meservey: Yeah. That might be a fair way to frame it. I think part of that is just because, well, one, there's a lot of conflict, of course, that I track on a continent as large as Africa with as many sort of unstable countries. You do get a fair amount of conflict, but it's also conflicts that occur in really remote areas sometimes where there are very, very few journalists. So you have to rely on sort of sketchy Twitter feeds or statements from not disinterested parties, let's say, parties that are trying to spin one way or the other. So yeah, it can be really murky.
Doescher: You've done such a great job on this and it caught my attention because it's not every day that a president gets killed. The long serving president of Chad, he was visiting the front lines. There's a fight going on, and we'll get into that. There's a rebel army that's threatening the established government of Chad. He went to the front lines, and then the next thing you know, international headlines say that the leader is dead. So just catch us up here. Before we get into that, maybe give us a short Wikipedia, we'll call it a Meserveypedia intro for Chad, for those who have no context.
Meservey: Yeah. I like that. Let's get that copyrighted. We're going to be billionaires here. Yeah. So Chad is hugely important country. If people can visualize an Africa map, it's sort of smack dab in the middle of what we call the Sahel region, which is where the Saharan Desert meets Sub-Saharan Africa. It's a large country, former French colony, gained independence 1960. Has had a really tumultuous history ever since the now deceased president, who ruled for 30 years. He himself came to power in a coup and spent much of his tenure fighting off armed challenges and internal coups. So very tumultuous, but really, really important. They have a pretty competent military that, again, resides in a very volatile part of Africa with a lot of terrorism and other sorts of instability. The Chadian Armed Forces have been a big part of trying to fight, especially terrorism in that region and-
Doescher: So let me just stop you right here.
Meservey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doescher: Because again, this is so complex. So Idriss Déby is his name.
Doescher: He's the former president. He was there for 30 years, and there was a lot that took place before he became the president. I mean, they had a big conflict with Libya, where Libya took some of Chad's land, and Chad was able to get that back from them. He came in, again, for 30 years, was it stable during his 30-year tenure?
Meservey: No, it wasn't. It was quite the opposite, frankly.
Meservey: So Déby is a fascinating leader for many reasons. He led for 30 years, which is a really, really long time, obviously even by African standards where you get some of these long serving presidents. And that would suggest that he oversaw some sort of Pacific peaceful country to last that long, but it's really the opposite. It was a hugely tumultuous three decades that he was in power. He was constantly beating back rebel incursions of the type, like this latest one, maybe the most... Even as recently as 2019, the French had to intervene to strike a rebel column that was headed towards the capital of N'Djamena. The French have actually intervened on a number of occasions to protect him. And then again, he's had to face down coups and other sorts of internal challenges. So he was an extraordinary survivor, to last for 30 years in that context is really something.
Doescher: Let me ask you this. So when I was prepping for this, I saw some of these rebel groups claimed that they were pro-democracy groups.
Meservey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doescher: Now, of course, obviously pro-democracy, that's sounds great, but as you mentioned, France defended Déby and many other people in the international community said that, "Well, his stability."
Meservey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doescher: So is there sort of a trade off there, that were saying, "Okay, well, it may not be as pro-democratic as it could be but at least it's stable"? Reconcile that a little bit.
Meservey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. You've put your finger right on the crux of the eternal dilemma in Africa and other parts of the world. But this seems to happen most frequently in Africa, where you have rulers of the type like Déby, who do things that very much violates the United States' ideals and principles around things like democracy, human rights, other things, but they are important to American interests. They do perform a valuable service for US interests. So you oftentimes get these colliding American interests, and Chad and Déby is a really good example of that. The argument, yes, oftentimes boils down to, "Okay, we have this problematic guy who does all these things we dislike, but he brings a certain level of stability and holds things together." And I think that's a legitimate argument to make. Now, it's impossible to prove the counterfactual, right? Because some people will argue, "Well, these dictatorships are inherently unstable themselves." And there's some truth to that. They hold things together until they don't-
Meservey: ... until it all collapses in like a house of cards, and we've seen that many, many times in Africa and elsewhere.
Doescher: Okay. President Déby is killed. He goes to the front lines. He says, "Hey, troops, I'm here. We're going to beat these rebels back who are coming down from Libya." Libya is in the north, he gets killed. And then the next thing you know, his son is taking over his position. Can you explain a little bit of what's happening here now that he is dead?
Meservey: Sure. So yes, his son, 37 years old, four-star general, named Mahamat, has been declared the president of the country and the leader of the armed forces.
Doescher: Did they vote for that?
Meservey: So what happened was, after Déby's death was announced, the military said that there was going to be a Transitional Military Council formed. Mahamat would lead it, and he would be the leader of the armed forces as I said. Now, this is not constitutional. In the constitution, it says that in this sort of contingency where the president has died in office, the speaker of parliament would become head of state until other elections could be held and choose the next head of state.
Meservey: The very thin justification that the military use, and which the French have repeated as a justification, is that the speaker of parliament declined to become the head of state. Now that was probably wise of him, let me say, in this sort of context. I assume he was under quite a bit of pressure from men with the means to make him suffer if he didn't go along. So we have, Déby's son is now in charge, and he is going to lead the country for 18 months once, supposedly, there will be an election.
Doescher: You talked about Chad being a vitally important country-
Meservey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doescher: ... in what may be, like you say, Africa, one of the most volatile regions maybe in the entire world. It's a lot going on there. Talk a little bit more about why, as the rebels are saying, "Hey, this is a coup," as a lot of other people from the outside are saying, "We have to have stability here." Why is Chad so important in the region?
Meservey: Yeah. So if we can picture an Africa map in our minds here, and you look at just Chad neighbors, and I say this in the Peace, I actually pulled the numbers on this, the neighbor that performed best on the Fund for Peace's Fragile States Index, the most recent one is Libya, which just emerged from a civil war. There's a very tenuous ceasefire that is keeping the violence largely at bay between the two main combatants. Although, there's lots of other smaller flare ups throughout the country where there's no meaningful government presence. That's the country that performs best on that index. Okay? And they are 20th most fragile in the world.
Meservey: So that gives you a sense of the neighborhood that Chad is in. Now, if we broaden that out and think about the Sahel region, which I mentioned at the very beginning here, the Sahel has been the site of the largest increase in terrorist violence in the world over the last several years. Just to give a little bit of context. Traditionally, there was one active terrorist organization there, that's Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is a rebranded Algerian terrorist organization. They've been for decades in that region, but they were traditionally, as I said, the only one. Now, today, depending on how you count, you could count nine terrorist organizations in the Sahel. So it's been a massive explosion, both of the number of terrorist groups, but also the violent incidents.
Meservey: And it's happened very, very quickly. Burkina Faso is the case study that everybody uses now. Not many years ago, and I mean five years ago, they had virtually no terrorism. Today, they're one of the countries most affected by terrorism in the entire world, and that happened again in about five years. So this is the neighborhood that Chad is in, and these are the sorts of conflicts that Chadian forces are involved in. They are part of the UN peacekeeping operation in Northern Mali, Northern Central Mali. They are part of the G5 Sahel security group of countries that are also fighting terrorist organizations. They are a member of the Multinational Joint Task Force, which is fighting Boko Haram and Islamic State's West Africa Province in Northeast Nigeria. I mean, they are just fighting on many, many fronts against a bunch of very dangerous organizations that the US and the rest of the world really wants to see defeated.
Doescher: How has the Biden administration responded, if they have even?
Meservey: Yeah, it's been muted, I would say, unsurprisingly so. I expect that the administration is struggling a bit as is everybody with trying to figure out exactly what's going on here, because not only do you have the rebel incursion from Libya, it's unclear how close they got to the capital of N'Djamena, it's unclear where they are right now. They've apparently been scattered, potentially. They might be in Niger. They might still be in Northern Chad. So there's that element, but then there's the internal element as well. It wasn't just the political opposition that oppose this announcement, that Idriss Déby's son was going to be taking leadership. There was also elements of the military that said they did not agree with this move, and that's concerning right as well.
Meservey: Because in a country like Chad, that has a history of coups or attempted coups, where the military really is the king maker, it's concerning when you start to see schisms appearing in that sort of institution.
Meservey: And that's palace politics, it's incredibly opaque, very, very hard to figure out what are the dynamics? What are the power centers? What are the groups? Who are the leaders of the potential groups that are dissatisfied? Because Idriss's son, he does have support within the military. Now, he was a legit fighter, right?
Meservey: He fought in a number of different conflicts and he built up some real legitimacy within elements of the military, but he also led the palace guard, the presidential guard, essentially a Praetorian Guard for Idriss Déby.
Meservey: And that's a distinct discrete unit. So how far does his legitimacy and credibility extend within the military, how powerful are those who are dissenting to this, are all open questions, I think, and they're really important to getting our arms around before we can be really, really confident in, I think, any policies, new policies we might try to adopt.
Doescher: Josh, this is extremely murky.
Meservey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Doescher: And you're great at murky, so when we come back and we do an update on this, I'm going to expect maybe just a little bit more clarity as the situation develops, but I know you'll be tracking it. So we'll talk with you down the road.
Meservey: Yeah, I would love to. And I also hope there'll be a little more clarity here before too long.
Doescher: Thanks, Josh.
Meservey: Thank you.
Doescher: And this episode of Heritage Explains is over, but before we go, I just wanted to thank you for hitting that five-star rating button. Thank you for leaving comments and thank you for sharing us with your friends, your family, and on your social media sites. That really is the gold standard for us, so it's not lost on us. Thank you once again. Also, don't forget to check out the show notes, where we link to all the relevant info in this episode. As always, we can't wait to upload the next episode, Sunday at 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time. We'll catch you then.