Since Chad president Idriss Déby Itno’s death in April 2021, Western politicians and security experts have worried about the consequences for regional security and stability. They have voiced knee-jerk support for Déby’s son, Mahamat Déby Itno, who is now in power, while paying little attention to the country’s inherent instability.
Chad’s fragility is Déby’s main legacy, a product of his ‘gatekeeper’ politics that transformed his country into a gatekeeper state. In a gatekeeper state the ruling elite and its patronage networks exercise control over tax revenues and foreign loans and aid. This control of the politics and the economy raises the political stakes and the risk of political instability.
We analysed Chad’s gatekeeper politics in a recent article. A constant focus for Déby’s regime since 1990 was on securing international support, maintaining internal alliances, pacifying insurgents, fighting proxy wars, and distributing income from the “gate”, by which we mean the nodal point where local society meets external economy. Gate control removed the political elite from the concerns of civil society.
To support a future focus on development, which requires broader access to the gate, it is useful to understand Chad’s gatekeeper politics. Such an analysis also helps explain why Déby’s legacy of gatekeeper politics may not sustain Mahamat’s claim to power.
Chad’s politics of regime survival
Regime survival in the gatekeeper state has three vital yet competing aspects: securing international support, controlling territorial borders and maintaining internal alliances. These were Déby’s priorities, rather than consolidating the state or regulating society.
He secured international support by joining the war on terror. After Chad became a major oil producer in the 2000s, the regime built a strong military. When the Western war on terror expanded to the Sahel region Déby used the military as a bargaining chip. Regional deployments were rewarded with international support. Chad was the only state to deliver on anti-terrorism in the Sahel. Chadian forces took the lead in the US-supported war on Boko Haram. They helped France against jihadist groups in northern Mali. They contribute most troops to the UN mission in Mali and lead the G5 Sahel Joint Force for counter-terrorism. In return for its counter-terrorism, Déby faced few of those demands Western states normally place on badly governed African states.
With the backing of Western powers, Chad was treated as a stabilising factor, a strategic asset and an essential ally in the Sahel. More tangibly, France has used its military base in N’djamena to intervene militarily several times to protect the regime, most recently in 2019 when it bombed a convoy of rebels from Union des Forces de la Résistance.
The control of territorial borders has been a permanent concern. Sudan and Libya were important neighbours in both the making and breaking of Déby. He fought a proxy war with Sudan (2005-2010) and was threatened by insurgents supported by Khartoum. He supported Darfuri rebels from his own ethnic group but severed these links after the peace agreement with Sudan. After Omar al-Bashir was ousted in April 2019, Déby developed cooperative relations with Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council.
The destruction of Libya provided Chad’s insurgents with opportunities for allies, havens and resources. In fact, Déby had warned Western powers of the dangerous consequences of removing Muammar Gadaffi, as he feared – correctly – a porous northern border. The Union des Forces de la Résistance is based in Libya and aligned with Front Pour l'Alternance et La Concorde au Tchad, which has risen to prominence since inflicting fatal wounds on Déby on 19 April 2021. The Front is supported by Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and has profited from human smuggling and gold mining in Libya. These resources have allowed for more recruits and better military hardware.
During the past few years, observers have seen a rise in domestic dissent. The gatekeeping politics benefited Déby’s ethnic group and powerbase, the Zaghawa tribe living in Chad and Sudan. Its members occupy powerful positions in the government and army and benefit from oil and cotton exports. Clientelist networks organise and distribute income from cross-border trade with Cameroon and Nigeria.
A backlash against this group, which makes up a tiny proportion of the population, is one likelihood. Anti-Zaghawa propaganda by the opposition press has long persisted, with Chadian Zaghawa branded ‘Sudanese foreigners’. Fearing a reaction, some of its members have already left the capital city.
The conflict in Chad is not, however, driven by ethnic hatred or sentiments, but rather by competition for control over the gatekeeper state. Union des Forces de la Résistance is composed mainly of disgruntled Zaghawa officers and is directed by Timan Erdimi, a relative of Idriss and Mahamat Déby. The Front Pour l'Alternance et La Concorde au Tchad are mainly drawn from the Toubou tribe, which had a powerful patron in President Hìssene Habré, who was deposed by Déby’s forces in 1990.
Mahamat Déby’s future prospects
The Chadian regime, now led by General Mahamat Déby Itno, has established a 15-member transitional military council and announced that it will hold elections after 18 months. Will Mahamat prove as adept as his father in balancing the three aspects of regime survival – securing international support, controlling territorial borders and maintaining internal alliances? Chad’s post-colonial history shows that losing focus on one of these goals threatens the regime’s hold on power.
As international support is presently forthcoming, internal alliances and border control are the most pressing concerns. Alliances prevent militarised elites to move against an unpopular and inept leader. Border control inhibits Chadian insurgents’ use of southern Libya for sanctuary and staging areas. Sudan’s transitional government has sought to reaffirm relations with its Chadian counterpart. France and the US are backing the new government, but French military presence is vulnerable to claims of neocolonialism by regime opponents.
The struggle for gate control has not resulted in efforts to improve the material lives of ordinary people unconnected to the political elite. Unfortunately, Mahamat Déby’s new leadership is unlikely to change that. It is unclear if next year’s elections will challenge the gatekeeper politics, but realising its basic dynamics is perhaps a first step to mobilising them for development.