Paris — Few countries are feeling the loss of Chad’s President Idriss Deby more keenly than former colonial power France. Paris has long seen Deby as a key ally in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. Now some observers say his death brings uncertainty to this campaign — and France’s hopes for an eventual drawdown of its Barkhane force in the region.
The loss of a courageous friend — that’s how President Macron’s office has described the death of Idriss Deby — a statement echoed by French Defense Minister Florence Parly. She said Chad’s slain leader had been an essential ally in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel– noting Chad had only recently deployed a new 1,200-member battalion to the high-risk three-border zone straddling Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Some experts now wonder if that force will now be diminished, as Chad faces multiple sources of instability at home.
Over Deby’s 30-year rule, France and other Western partners saw him as a key military ally in the region. They were willing to do business, despite his undemocratic practices. Analysts today call Deby’s death an especially big blow for Paris.
Geopolitical specialist Antoine Glaser told France’s Europe 1 radio that Deby was seen as France’s man in the region, supporting its pervious operation Serval which turned into today’s 5,100-man Barkhane antiterrorist operation in the Sahel. Glaser said Deby’s death will be a hard blow for Macron’s hopes to reduce France’s military role in the region. Instead, he said, France may now have to worry about Chad’s own instability.
“In particular, since the intervention in Mali in 2013, Chad has been one of the key anti-terrorism partnersin the region for France — and even before that, France has been a quite steadfast supporter of Idriss Deby,” said Andrew Lebovich, an Africa policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank..
Chad has been the biggest troop contributor to the G-5 Sahel force France partners with to fight the jihadist insurgency in the region. France’s Barkhane operation is headquartered in Chad’s capital N’Djamena.
Of the countries part of the G-5 Sahel — including Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger– Chad’s soldiers are considered the most battle-hardened and professional, those sent on the most difficult missions.
Deby’s death might change that.
“We don’t have a sense of how it’s going to shake out right now. What it does do is put much more emphasis on the other G-5 countries. I think it’s going to probably reinforce the already strong tendency to look for stability or kind of short term stability over anything else,” said Lebovich.
Analysts say the military support between France and Chad has gone both ways. Over the years, Paris assisted Deby as he faced armed insurgencies. That includes in 2019, when French forces conducted airstrikes on a rebel offensive coming from Libya.
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Journalist Vincent Hugeux told Radio France International Paris’ assistance had essentially become a French doctrine of ‘saving soldier Deby.’
Reports quoting an announcement by military officials say Deby died from battlefield wounds suffered during a visit to troops during the latest such insurgency.
The Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT rebel group, now says it will march on N’Djamena. It rejects country’s new transitional military council set up after Deby’s death — and presided by his son, Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, a four-star general. So do some opposition leaders.
Experts say while Deby’s son is likely to continue Chad’s G-5 Sahel presence, it may be reduced. And they are uncertain whether the transitional council — which promises elections after an 18-month rule– is sustainable without Idriss Deby’s strong personality. All of this, they say, equals uncertainty and worry for France and Chad’s regional partners.