President Idriss Déby Itno of Chad, 68, who as a general took power through a coup in 1990, has succumbed to injuries sustained “on the battlefield” fighting armed insurgents, a spokesperson for the Chadian army announced on national television on Tuesday.
The White House reacted to Deby’s passing, saying “the United States stands with the people of Chad during this difficult time.”
The administration condemned recent violence in Chad and called for a peaceful transition of power.
“On behalf of the United States, we offer the people of Chad our sincere condolences as they mourn the passing of President Idriss Deby Itno,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement to Today News Africa in Washington D.C.
“The United States stands with the people of Chad during this difficult time. We condemn recent violence and loss of life in Chad. We support a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution,” the official added.
The Chadian army said on Monday it had halted the advancement of insurgents entering the country through the northern border between Chad and Libya, reportedly en route to N’Djamena, the Chadian capital.
Déby, “always presenting himself as a ‘warrior,’” could at times be seen fighting alongside security forces, and was reportedly among them during a battle over the weekend.
It is not clear which group is responsible for his death or whether the campaign towards the capital is related to the recently concluded Presidential elections in which Déby had handedly won a 6th term, though not after cowing the opposition.
Although it’s one the world’s poorest and least developed countries – heavily reliant on oil exports for 60 percent of its revenue – Chad under Déby’s autocratic rule has been “a reliable partner” of U.S. counterterrorism operations and a linchpin for security in the Sahel region.
“Chad is a leader in exporting security through the region. Surrounded by conflict, Chad supported CT [counter terrorism] and peacekeeping forces…and provided many of the most effective military units in the most dangerous parts of central Africa,” a 2019 State Department country report on terrorism stated.
“[Chad] hosts French and U.S. forces, is engaged in the fighting of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, was critical in pushing back Boko Haram in Nigeria, and plays host to the Multinational Joint Task Force, the regional military effort to fight Boko Haram,” the Atlantic reported in 2017.
Of note is Chad’s hosting of France’s “Operation Barkhane,” the latter country’s counter terrorism operation in the region and its “largest international military operation”.
The State Department pointed out, however, that as of 2019, the U.S. has “remained the largest direct supporter of Chadian security forces” in part through its support for Chad’s Special Anti-Terrorism Group.
More recently in February, President Déby as chairman had hosted the regional G5 Sahel group in which France and the U.S., although not formal members, have both participated.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the meeting highlighted the “vital work” of the group “to bring security, stability and good governance to [the] region.” He also committed the U.S. to being a “strong partner” to the group.
Despite the efforts of countries in and outside of the region, Chad and the Sahel continue to be racked by what Blinken referred to as “violent extremism” that has only intensified.
In March 2020, for example, ISIS- West Africa extremists killed 100 soldiers at a Chadian military camp, marking “the deadliest attack in the history of the Chadian military.”
According to the State Department, in 2019, Chad experienced a two-fold increase in the number of terrorist attacks in the Lake Chad region relative to the previous year, mainly from Boko Haram – which continues to be the “most active terrorist organization in Chad” and which had conducted bombings in the nation’s capital in 2015.
For Chad, with a land mass “over three times the size of California” and with reportedly underfunded military and governmental services, securing its borders has always been a monumental task.
In addition to armed threats to security, according to USAID, Chad hosts the largest number of refugees per capita out of any African country, mainly from the Darfur region of Sudan and the Central African Republic to the country’s south. There are also a reported hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs).
The Trump administration, for its part, had last year sparked controversy among African countries and France after it threatened to withdraw U.S. military support to the region.
On Saturday, fearing the increased threat of violence and safety of Americans in Chad, the U.S. Embassy in N’Djamena ordered the family members of U.S. government employees to leave the country, citing “civil unrest and armed violence” and the threat of “violence in the city”.
Today, the Embassy directed all U.S. employees to either leave the country through commercial flight or stay and “shelter in place”. The Embassy has not released an official statement on the death of President Déby.
“Due to the reported death of the Chadian president and the potential for unrest, the U.S. Embassy has temporarily directed U.S. employees to shelter in place,” the Embassy said.