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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Very disturbing events in Chad

A lot of Nigerian hearts missed a beat on hearing the news today of the death of Chadian President Marshal Idriss Deby Itno. This charismatic, no-nonsense, career-warrior, sit-tight ruler of our north-eastern neighbour had ruled Chad non-stop since 1990.

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By Mahmud Jega

A lot of Nigerian hearts missed a beat on hearing the news today of the death of Chadian President Marshal Idriss Deby Itno. This charismatic, no-nonsense, career-warrior, sit-tight ruler of our north-eastern neighbour had ruled Chad non-stop since 1990.

The day before his death, he was declared winner of last Saturday’s presidential election in his country with 79% of the vote, a margin respectably less than the 99% that North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung, Albania’s Enver Hoxha and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak used to garner in elections.

Fittingly, this old warrior died on the battlefield. Even though results of elections in which he was a candidate were still being counted, Deby took personal charge of military operations when rebels based in southern Libya attacked Chadian military posts last Saturday. They advanced several hundred kilometres into the country’s thinly-populated northern patches. The threat to the capital, N’djamena was so real that US and French governments ordered their non-essential embassy staff to leave the country.

The Chadian Army said on Monday that it had halted the rebels’ advance and killed 300 of their fighters. What it did not say was that President Deby was wounded by rebel fire. He was taken back to N’djamena, where he died today.

His death, and the possible take-over of Chad by a hostile rebel force, caused panic in Nigeria. If there was one man who Nigerians think could render the greatest help in defeating Boko Haram and ISWAP insurgents once and for all, it was Idriss Deby.

The Chadian army that he built up over three decades, out of a guerrilla force, is tough, rugged, unconventional, well-armed, desert-friendly and highly tolerant of casualties. Early last decade, the Chadians swept through Nigerian territory under the aegis of the Multi-National Joint Task Force [MNJTF].

We saw very impressive photos and videos of Chadian soldiers sweeping through in open trucks, each soldier with a turban instead of a bullet proof helmet. They swept through south-eastern Niger Republic and rapidly chased Boko Haram insurgents back into Nigeria. Regrettably, they soon retreated back into their country, and the war became one of attrition.

Two years ago, Boko Haram insurgents took the Chadian Army by surprise and killed about 100 soldiers. They invited Deby’s wrath. We saw pictures and videos of him personally leading the Chadian Army into battle in his country’s western Lake Chad region. The operation was a veritable African blitzkrieg and it cast Deby in the mould of General Heinz Guderain.

Within only a few days, the Chadians swept through arid terrain, leap-frogged through islands and released a volley of fire that threw Boko Haram out of their country. Back into Nigeria, unfortunately. So successful was the Chadian blitz that Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a mournful audio cursing Deby.

Afterwards, then Army Chief Lt Gen Tukur Buratai relocated to the North East for long periods and led a military operation of his own, but it was much less successful than Deby’s operation.

Many Nigerians have been wondering why we would not invite Deby to carry out a similar blitzkrieg on Nigerian soil. Rumours were that our government did not pay him the millions of dollars that former President Goodluck Jonathan once promised him, but we don’t know for sure. Deby also had his hands full in other areas, helping the French to combat insurgents in Mali and Burkina Faso, while at the same time watching across his northern border into Libya.

It was no surprise that trouble for Deby came from across the Libyan border. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s, rebels armed and supported by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi caused much instability in Chad.

Gaddafi’s ambition, according to allegations at the time, was to seize Chad’s Aouzou Strip, which is rich in uranium. Gaddafi was alleged to have needed it for his nuclear ambitions, which he later publicly abandoned. Many guerrilla groups emerged from the Tibesti mountains and serially threatened the governments in N’djamena, though other rebel groups also came from southern Chad and from the eastern region bordering Sudan’s Dafur region.

In a way, a violent end for Deby was almost inevitable because he ruled for 30 years and had no plan to quit just yet. Besides, Chad has never had a peaceful change of government since 1960.

President N’garta Tombalbaye, very familiar to Nigerians, was killed in a coup in 1975. General Felix Malloum, who toppled him, soon faced insurgent groups. Our Head of State General Obasanjo bailed him out in 1978 after a hastily arranged peace conference in Lagos. Malloum stayed in exile in Lagos while a Transitional Government of National Unity [GUNT] led by guerilla leaders Goukouni Weddeye and Abdulkadir Kamougue took over.

In 1982, famed guerrilla leader Hissene Habre sneaked in from the north and overthrew GUNT, forcing President Shehu Shagari to remove Nigerian soldiers who were on peace keeping mission to the country. A decade later, Army Commander Deby overthrew Habre, who is now in jail in Senegal. Deby’s penchant for personally leading military operations in the end proved to be his undoing.

His son General Mahamat Kaka has been named as interim Head of State. The country is now ruled by a military council, with the parliament and cabinet dissolved.

For us in Nigeria, that is a good prospect because we expect that General Kaka will be able to rally round his father’s forces and beat back the insurgents.

Quite possibly, we will soon see the French Foreign Legion in action to save a pro-French regime, as they did at Shaba and Kolwezi in DR Congo in 1977 and 1978, in Ivory Coast in 2010 and more recently in Mali. Kaka could also be expected to continue his father’s regional security policy in the Lake Chad Basin. He is a career soldier but whether he has old man Deby’s charisma, force of character and daredevilry, remains to be seen.

We do not know exactly what the rebels that killed Deby stand for. Given that their Front for Change and Concord in Chad [FACT] operated from territory in southeastern Libya controlled by the warlord Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya including Benghazi, they are unlikely to be Islamists in the mould of the Malian rebels.

In which case, the death of Marshal Idris Deby or even the overthrow of his regime might not bring a powerful new regional ally for Boko Haram and ISWAP. Nigerians can now breathe an anxious sigh of relief.


*Jega, writes from Abuja, Nigeria.

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