By Paul Ejime
Without doubt, the death of Chadian President Idriss Deby has created a vacuum and altered the political and security dynamics, not only in Chad but in the troubled Sahel, as well as in West and Central African regions. It is especially cause for concern to Nigeria.
Deby’s son, Lt.-Gen. Mahamat Kaka Deby has since been installed as his father’s successor and head of Chad’s ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC), which has promised to conduct transparent elections and handover to civilians within 18 months.
This is amid uncertainty and tension with the rebel groups, particularly the northern Chad-based Front for Change and Accord, FACT, in whose hands President Deby reportedly met his death, threatening to march on N’djamena, the nation’s capital.
The heightened tension and instability in Chad have dire implications on the multilateral fight against terrorism across the Sahel, and West and Central Africa.
Nigeria, the regional power and Africa’s most populous nation has a big stake in a stable Chad, not only because they are neighbours, but also, over the years, Chad is perceived to have provided a buffer against security threats to Nigeria, while the late Deby supported Nigeria in the battle against Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWAP).
He was a staunch ally of France, Chad’s former colonial power, but Chad under him also benefited from Nigeria. Paris understands the importance of strengthening relationship with Chad, with the result that President Emmanuel Macron was the only Western leader that attended the late Deby’s State burial in N’djamena. That visit afforded him the opportunity to meet first-hand with Gen. Mahamat Deby and other members of the TMC.
For Nigeria though, it was a missed opportunity to make a definitive diplomatic statement. Nigeria sent a low-level delegation led by a Minister of State to N’djamena for the funeral. In acting with such hesitancy, the country seemed to have ceded the diplomatic initiative to other countries, especially France.
Deby Jr. eventually visited Abuja on the 14th May for talks with President Muhammadu Buhari, almost one month after his father’s death on 20th April, 2021. Both sides reiterated their commitment to tackle regional insecurity. But beyond platitudes, it is expected that Nigeria did maximize that chance to express its concern over the military takeover, and at the same time extract from Chad’s new ruler concrete commitment to sustained campaign against terrorism and insurgency.
Very little is known about Lt.-Gen. Deby beyond his paternity and the battles he fought in Mali and Chad. However, he is said to have received training in France and at the British elite Sandhurst Military Academy, and has been a beneficiary of past Nigerian military leaders. His strategic value could be much higher and Nigeria could leverage early communication to influence him and the TMC.
Apart from geographical affinity, both countries have so much to gain in partnership cooperation. On the security and socio-economic fronts, they are both members of the Chad Basin Commission, the Multinational Taskforce against terrorism and Boko Haram and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CENSAD), among others.
Landlocked with an estimated 16 million multi-ethnic people, Chad occupies a vast space of about 1.3 million square kilometres in north-central Africa. Sharing direct borders with six countries – Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria through Lake Chad – confers on the politically restive nation, a geopolitical and economic strategic position of great interest to regional and global powers.
Chad’s perennial political instability is characterised and exacerbated by tribal and religious conflicts, poverty, military coups and civil wars, which are a function of both domestic factors and foreign interventions or interferences.
Late President Idriss Deby, 68, ruled the country with an iron fist and had won a sixth term mandate to extend his 30 years in office before his death, officially from injuries he sustained while fighting rebels in battle. A military paratrooper, he took the rank of Field Marshal in 2020, on the crest of Chad’s myriad crises and insecurity across the Sahel, West and Central Africa and had thus, positioned himself as a warrior leader and “regional stabilizer.”
He was a great ally of Western powers led by France, the U.S. and by extension Russia, and the United Arab Emirate, which were involved one way or the other in the conflicts in Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad itself. China has also joined the fray with its inroads into West and Central Africa.
Idriss Deby’s absence is an opportunity for Nigeria to reset and ratchet up ties with Chad with the purpose of reviewing and making its battle against insecurity more effectively. This is consistent with Nigeria’s Africa-centred and good neighbourliness foreign policy, which informed President Buhari’s decision to make Chad one of the first countries he visited shortly after he assumed office in 2015. Idriss Deby was also among regular visitors to Nigeria.
Beyond strong bilateral relations with Chad, Nigeria as a major player should also spearhead initiatives using soft power approach to mobilize its immediate neighbours, as well as members of ECOWAS, its Central African counterpart, ECCAS, and other relevant stakeholders to influence the political ecosystem for the restoration of peace and stability across the regions and by extension the entire African continent.
There is also the urgent need for France to come clean with its true agenda in Africa. Paris must allow its former African colonies to make governance mistakes and learn from them. That is the only way they can make progress in the consolidation of democracy instead of the perpetual overbearing interference which has become a major hindrance to governance and development in Africa.
This is particularly true of Chad, which gained independence from France in 1960 but from all intents and purposes, maintains its pre-independent status as a Military Territory (Territoire Militaire), for the protection of French interests in Africa.
To date, the 5,100-strong French Barkhane Forces deployed for the fight against terrorism and jihadists are headquartered in the Chadian Capital, N’djamena.
Nigeria still has ample opportunity to influence Chad’s new regime, and encourage it to demonstrate transparent commitment to democracy and intensify efforts in combatting terrorism and insecurity in Nigeria’s north-east border region. Nigeria should leverage its ties with the late President Debby, to forge an even stronger relationship with the new regime in Chad. To overcome its festering security challenges, Nigeria must spare no effort to build alliances and cooperation that cannot be shaken by even the powerful influences of former colonial interests.
*Paul Ejime, an Author and former Diplomatic/War Correspondent, is a Consultant on Communications, Media, Elections and International Affairs.