Chadian president Idriss Déby faces threats, both real and imagined, within the country. Part of his plan to counteract these threats is to increase Chad's military presence abroad, turning his country into a regional power.
IHS Global Insight perspective
Chadian president Idriss Déby has increasingly been asserting his country as a regional military force. Chad acted as France's key partner in the recent Malian conflict and has had significant influence in the Central African Republic's conflict.
While exerting Chad's power abroad, Déby has voiced increasing concerns over domestic security threats, including the formation of rebel groups across Chad's borders. However, the greater internal threat lies within the army and in dissatisfaction from within Déby's ethnic group, the Zaghawa.
Déby's concern over internal threats is manifested in an authoritarian leadership style that is destabilising in the long term. His ability to maintain control over the Chadian army will be a key issue in the stability of his regime and this may influence his decisions over military activity abroad. Meanwhile, the current rebel militant threat remains moderate, although there are concerns that rebel alliances may increase security risks.
French president François Hollande (right) greets Chadian president Idriss Déby after
Chad is emerging as a regional player in sub-Saharan Africa, after a high-profile mission to Mali in support of French intervention forces in 'Operation Serval' – widely praised by the international community – and a barely disguised hand in the fortunes of neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR). President Idriss Déby's resolute behaviour during these crises has helped to bolster his image on the world stage. However, Déby is facing several internal challenges that threaten to overshadow his success abroad. The danger of internal destabilisation has never gone away; Déby's autocratic behaviour and the lack of a credible political opposition mean that the potential remains for coups led by members of the military or President Déby's own family. As recently as May, a number of soldiers, opposition figures, and journalists were arrested over a suspected coup plot, some of whom have still not appeared before the courts.
May's alleged "destabilisation plot" centred on Moussa Mahamat Tao, a figure of limited influence in the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Développement: UFDD) rebel group, which came close to toppling Déby after an attack on the presidential palace in the capital, N'Djamena, in February 2008. Tao and six others were arrested and brought before a court, charged with plotting, seeking to undermine the constitution, and accessory to murder. Three journalists, who were arrested around the same time, are still awaiting trial. In July, the net was widened and several senior figures from former president Hissène Habre's regime were detained after Habre himself was formally charged by a court in Senegal.
It remains unclear how credible these plot allegations are, and to what extent they have been fabricated to serve political motives and enhance Déby's control over government. While genuine threats have emerged in the past, there are currently no serious armed rebel groups active in Chad. The last significant group, the Union of Resistance Forces (Union des Forces de Résistance: UFR), which grew out of the remnants of the UFDD, has fallen into obscurity along with its leader, Timan Erdimi, despite threats issued in March from his exile in Qatar, stating that his group was again ready to take up arms against Déby. The growth of the oil export industry in Chad has allowed Déby to improve his military strength, reducing the likelihood that a coup from outside the army would be effective.
Déby has difficult relations with the military hierarchy because of deep-seated mistrust. Therefore, he frequently reshuffles the army's leadership, particularly his protection unit, the Republican Guard. The primary threat from within the army comes from Déby's own Bilia sub-clan of the Bideyat Zaghawa. Zaghawas make up only about 2% of the population but, after 22 years of Déby's being in power, wield a disproportionate sway over the country. Déby's influential half-brother, Timan Déby, also poses a threat after the president fired him as sultan of Dar-Bilia region, a Zaghawa-Bideyat stronghold, and took the title for himself.
Chad occupies a strategic position in central Africa for militant groups wanting to traffic weapons, drugs, and fighters across the Sahel region from east and west Africa. Following conflicts in Libya and Mali, the region has increasingly seen the growth of an explosive mix of Tuareg, Toubou, and Arab militias, traditionally engaged in trafficking, and retreating jihadist militants from Mali. Given Chad's prominent role in the Mali conflict, it also remains possible that Chad will be explicitly targeted for militant revenge attacks by jihadist groups. However, over the past nine months, Déby has begun to assert Chad as a regional military power, an action in part influenced by domestic stability concerns. In standing beside France in the Mali conflict, taking action to combat the threat from Islamist militants when the rest of West Africa was reluctant to commit forces, the Chadian army has proved capable and well-disciplined. This action has improved Chad's regional relations and its security relations with France, both of which will increase the provision of assistance to Chad in combating domestic security concerns. Additionally, the strengthening of the army during external conflicts will improve the efficiency of the army within Chad in combating potential rebel threats.
Déby has, therefore, exploited an external opportunity in order to reduce unrest within the army domestically. Externalising the perceived coup threat from the army by sending its most organised contingents to fight in foreign wars also necessarily reduces the risk of military takeover for the period the troops are absent from the domestic scene. After scoring significant successes in Mali, including the killing of a top militant commander, Déby made the decision to begin the withdrawal of Chad's 2,000 troops in April, when it emerged 38 Chadian soldiers had been killed in the conflict. However, he has maintained around 1,200 Chadian peacekeepers in the far north of Mali, under the umbrella of the UN stabilisation force in Mali (MINUSMA). Although there have been claims by the families of dead and wounded soldiers that they have not received compensation, the exercise has been largely successful in creating a focus and common purpose for the army. Military action in Mali has also enhanced Déby's international reputation, as can be seen in his acceptance by influential countries such as the United States and France, and international bodies such as the United Nations and the African Union.
Déby's reach into neighbouring CAR as it teetered on a precipice late last year has also been significant. When rebels from the Séléka coalition first began their march towards Bangui in December 2012, Déby expressed support for the CAR's president, François Bozizé, by sending Chadian troops to protect the capital. However, as Bozizé's position looked increasingly untenable, Déby withdrew his support and appears to have ordered his troops to allow the coup to progress. Déby's principal concern in his action within the CAR is preventing Chadian rebel groups from mounting attacks on southern Chad. Again, the difference between actual and perceived threats in this scenario is unknown, but Déby will feel more secure domestically if he is able to continue to wield influence over the political and security situation across the border.
Similarly, in Sudan, Déby's actions have been calculated to serve a domestic end. Chad's regional relations have changed dramatically since 2010. Before this, Déby's support for the Zaghawa-dominated Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in Sudan fuelled a proxy war between the two countries. In 2010, having prevented the Sudanese-backed UFDD from taking N'Djamena a year earlier, Déby turned on JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim, who was killed in Sudan. This led to a rapprochement with Sudan and an end to the proxy conflict. However, the cessation of support for the JEM has been one of the driving factors behind Déby's loss of support within the Zaghawa community, which accuses him of backing the enemy.
These years of relative peace have allowed Déby to spend the USD10 billion that Chad has earned in oil exports since 2003. The government has ripped out the old heart of the capital and replaced it with a series of modern buildings, roads, flyovers, and an airport. However, there has been very vocal criticism of the lack of wider distribution of oil revenues, and Chad's progress on the Millennium Development Goals has been limited. This has contributed to rising civil unrest in N'Djamena, characterised by increasingly frequent trade union protests and stoppages between 2011 and 2013 over unfulfilled government promises on salary increases linked to a rise in the cost of living. Such protests are usually swiftly ended by the security forces and have not previously affected foreign commercial enterprises. In February, Déby suspended the entire police force and sacked the security and territorial administration ministers, due to alleged institutional mismanagement.
Outlook and implications
Conscious that the oil is only projected to last until 2030, Déby has been keen to show his success in presiding over these boom years. Being on the front line with France in Mali is probably part of that calculation. However, with such deep discontent within the population, Déby must be wary of drawing his focus away from domestic issues. Constant reshuffles, creating a lack of continuity, coupled with resentment, have weakened loyalty and increased his susceptibility to a military coup. In August, there were reports of purges in the army's lower ranks because of alleged contacts with rebels in Libya and Sudan. In return for their support, his Beri-Bideyat kinsmen have placed great demands on him – financial rewards and high military positions – which Déby is loath to accommodate. He will also be concerned over reports that the currently ineffective UFR is receiving support from a reinvigorated JEM in Darfur, although the current threat assessment is moderate.
Déby's concerns, both real and constructed, over threats to Chadian security and to his own leadership will exaggerate his authoritarian leadership style. The perceived threat of emergent rebel groups will lead him to tighten his control over the army and ensure that those at its head remain loyal to him. As army troops return from Mali, they will be used increasingly to subdue potential areas of unrest in the northeast of the country, along the Sudanese border. Meanwhile, politically, opposition leaders are still too weak and divided to take advantage of the growing trade union movement, and Déby possesses the machinery to repress it. The risk of arbitrary arrest and detention is high and political instability is exacerbated by Déby's propensity for regular cabinet reshuffles, designed to weaken potential opposition to his leadership and ensure party loyalty.