With Sahel fight at stake, Macron pledges role in Chad

“France will never let anyone question and will never let anyone threaten – not today, not tomorrow – Chad’s stability and integrity … France will also be here to support, without hesitation, the promise of a peaceful Chad” vowed President Emmanuel Macron
Saturday 24/04/2021
French President Emmanuel Macron and Mahamat Idriss Deby, son of late Chadian President Idriss Deby, attend the state funeral of the slain leader in N’Djamena, Chad, April 23, 2021. (AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron and Mahamat Idriss Deby, son of late Chadian President Idriss Deby, attend the state funeral of the slain leader in N’Djamena, Chad, April 23, 2021. (AFP)

N’DJAMENA--French president Emmanuel Macron attended the N’Djamena funeral of Idriss Deby Itno, a key figure in France-led regional fight against the Sahel’s jihadist threat, as he voiced backing for the fallen president’s son and successor, Mahamat Idriss Deby.

The elder Deby, who had ruled the vast semi-desert state with an iron fist for 30 years, died from wounds sustained fighting rebels at the weekend, the army said Tuesday.

Idriss Deby’s death has stunned the Sahel and its ally and former colonial ruler France, battling a jihadist insurgency that in nine years has swept across three countries. Though the elections that returned him five times as president were all questionable, Deby gained a reputation in the West for his reliability in the fight to roll back extremists, whose campaign has shaken the vast, impoverished region. In those nine years, the unrest has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Under his rule, Chad developed well-respected armed forces which have been deployed alongside French troops to combat jihadist activity in Mali. However, human rights groups have accused France and other Western powers of turning a blind eye to government repression during Deby’s long rule because of his co-operation on security matters.

Wary of possible repercussions of the events in Chad on the region and on its own military strategy in the Sahara and the Sahel, France had no hesitation to bet on the younger Deby.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian justified the installation of a military council headed by Deby’s son on the grounds that stability and security were paramount at this time.

“There are exceptional circumstances,” Le Drian told France 2 television.

Deby’s son Mahamat took control of the country and its armed forces on Wednesday, dissolving the parliament and suspending the constitution. According to the constitution, National Assembly Speaker Haroun Kabadi should have taken over. But he was said not to be inclined to assume that role.

“France’s interpretation of the national interest dictates that they have to support a transition that keeps as much continuity as possible,” said Nathaniel Powell, Research Associate at Lancaster University and author of “France’s Wars in Chad”.

“Mahamat’s military council is probably the best case scenario for that kind situation. The French are just hoping that military and civil discontent don’t undermine the transition too much.”

Key in the immediate term for Paris is ensuring that the deployment of a battalion of 1,200 men to the tri-border theatre between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger earlier this year remains in place. It is seen as vital to enable French and other forces to re-orient their military mission to central Mali and to target extremist leaders linked to al- Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) affiliates.

France has been seeking to boost the involvement of Sahel countries in the anti-jihadist fight and scale back its own deployment of 5,100 men, a mission called Barkhane.

Whether the Chadian troops leave or not, “efforts to ‘Sahelise’ counterterrorism… have just taken a hit,” said Yvan Guichaoua, researcher at the University of Kent in England.

Fears reverberate across the French-speaking region and beyond. “If Chad brings its soldiers back and the troops in Barkhane leave at the same time, I think Mali will collapse and there may be the collapse of Burkina Faso and part or all of Niger,” said Amadou Bounty Diallou, a former paratrooper and professor at the University of Niamey, Niger.

Chadian troops are also part of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali and a key component in the fight against jihadists in northeastern Nigeria.

“Chad helped keep the lid on regional security — it was rusty, but it was there,” an observer of the Sahel conflict said in Bamako, the Malian capital. “But will it remain so?”

Another knock-on impact of Deby’s death could be felt in southern Libya, a vast, lawless desert region from where the revolt in northeastern Chad began.

If it becomes the setting for an “overflow of Chadian rivalries or a resurgence of Daesh”, warned researcher Jalel Harchaoui, “nobody will intervene to secure it”.

 French pledge

Before the ceremony, Macron and his counterparts from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, the so-called G5 of anti-jihadist states, met the late president’s son and successor Mahamat Idriss Deby who now heads a transitional military council that has dissolved parliament but promised “free and democratic” elections, though not before 18 months at the earliest.

There was a 21-gun salute as Deby’s coffin, draped in the national flag and surrounded by elite troops, was driven on the back of a pickup truck to the Place de la Nation for the ceremony.

Idriss Deby’s death has stunned the Sahel and its ally and former colonial ruler France, battling a jihadist revolt that in nine years has swept across three countries. Though the elections that returned him five times as president were all questionable, Deby gained a reputation in the West for his reliability in the fight to roll back extremists, whose campaign has shaken the vast, impoverished region. In those nine years, the unrest has claimed thousands of lives and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Macron, who sat beside Deby’s son during the ceremony,  was the only Western head of state to attend the funeral along with the current African Union chairman, Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi.

“France will never let anyone question and will never let anyone threaten, not today, not tomorrow, Chad’s stability and integrity,” he said. “France will also be here to support, without hesitation, the promise of a peaceful Chad” .

Macon continued “I share the bereavement of a nation touched to its core by the sacrifice of its first soldier and I share the bereavement of a loyal friend and ally because you were the first to respond to the call of regional countries to defend Africa against armed terrorism in the Sahel in 2013,” he said referring to Chadian forces joining France in Mali to counter the extremist insurgency.

However, Macron also called on the newly-appointed military government headed by Deby’s 37 year-old son to foster “stability, inclusion, dialogue, democratic transition.”

At their meeting earlier, the fellow Sahel leaders and Macron had a “unity of views” and said they “stood by Chad and expressed their joint support for the process of civilian-military transition, for the stability of the region”, a French presidential official said.

Macron spared no praise for Chad’s slain strongman who had ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years and survived two serious attempted coups.

“You lived as a soldier,” said Macron, “you died as a soldier, weapons in your hands.”

The funeral was followed by prayers at the capital’s Grand Mosque. Then Deby’s remains were flown a thousand kilometres east to the village of Amdjarass near the Sudanese border, where he was  buried Friday alongside his father close to his birthplace of Berdoba..

The army said the 68-year-old president had died on Monday from wounds suffered while leading troops in battle against rebels who had crossed from Libya and had attempted to advance on N’Djamena.

Deby was injured fatally on the frontline only hours after he had won a sixth term of office in an election that was widely disputed by opposition politicians who had urged their supporters to boycott the vote. They have since branded the takeover by the military as an “institutional coup”. The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), underscoring the “terrible repression” under Deby, on Friday urged the swiftest possible return to civilian rule.

The rebels from the  Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) had vowed to pursue their offensive after a pause for the funeral, with spokesman Kingabe Ogouzeimi de Tapol telling AFP that they were “en route to N’Djamena”.

FACT, said Friday that Chad’s military carried out a bombardment Wednesday into Thursday of its command centre with the aid of French surveillance systems that it said was meant to kill its leader. However, it added that the attempt had failed and it called on the international community to look into France’s role in backing the transitional leadership.

The French Armed Forces told The Associated Press on Friday that “there has not been a single strike by the French army in Chad this week.”

Nevertheless, French diplomatic and military sources have indicated that Paris would consider intervening if the rebels were to close in on N’Djamena and threaten the country’s stability. Another source said that Paris’ immediate objective was to persuade Mahamat Idriss Deby to reduce the transition period and forge unity within the establishment.

A Macron aide said after his chief’s meeting with Chad’s new leader and the other G5 heads “What emerges from the president’s consultations with his counterparts is the need to push ahead very quickly with an inclusive transition, which hands on to political forces.  That’s the only way today, because a purely military process won’t work,” the aide said, adding that the G5 Sahel and African Union “are in the front line, and France will be playing the role of backup”.