The Death of Idriss Déby and The Prospect of a Domino Effect

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President Déby has died. EPA-EFE/ABIR SULTAN
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The U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his famous Cold War ‘Domino Theory’ speech during a news conference on 7 April 1954. The idea was deceptively simple: a political event in one country causes similar events in neighboring countries. For example – in the Cold War context – if one African country falls to communism, it then becomes that much more likely that the next one will also.

Attempting to prevent the fall of the dominoes subsequently became a major preoccupation during the Cold War, with the United States supporting a number of authoritarian regimes in Africa who pledged to reject the Soviet Union in order to create a “buffer zone” against the spread of socialism. Although controversial, proponents believe that the efforts at containment inspired by Domino Theory ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

The utility of domino theory has often been called into question, but was suggested first by the rapidity with which nation-states in Eastern Europe fell into the Communists Bloc under the auspices of the USSR, and later the way in which they reasserted their independence in quick succession as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s.

Domino theory can work in many different ways, but the central idea is that when a strategically important country falls – to a foreign power, insurgency, and so on – it is not just that country that flips, but the prospects of the next country also falling increase as a result of two key factors. First, the momentum that the force – whether it be an armed group, ideology, belief system, etc – gains from the victory. Second, the fact that a key line of defence has been undermined, and that the countries that lie beyond it are less well protected and so inherently more vulnerable.

Given this, one wonders whether Chad could be a domino in relation to the fight against radical insurgencies in sub-Saharan Africa. Chad has often been seen as a strategically important state that served as a buffer against the spread of terrorism. But it is now facing major turmoil following the death of President Idriss Déby, with political tension rising due to anti-military protests and government crackdown on protesters, the government’s refusal to negotiate with Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), demands for greater inclusion in governance by some opposition groups, and continued rebel activities.

So, could instability in Chad – and the victory of rebels, as unlikely as that may appear at present – have serious ramifications for the rest of the continent?

The importance of Chad

Chad is situated in the Saharan desert, a landlocked country sandwiched by Central African Republic, Cameroon, Niger, Sudan, Libya, and Lake Chad basin/Nigeria. In the last three decades, Chad has become more strategic in sub-regional politics, supported by its key foreign ally, France. In recent years that has led the vast landlocked country to become a prominent actor among the community of states in East Africa, Central Africa, West Africa and indeed within the African Union.

Déby’s Chad played an important role in the containment of terrorism within the Sahel Region of Africa – though this was not without its limitations and challenges. Collaborating with Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger, Chad was a strategic stakeholder in the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) under the political auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, pushing back Boko Haram and other Islamic fundamentalists, as well as joining regional efforts to assert government control at the expense of insurgents more broadly.

But Chad has been rocked by the death of Déby, who was purportedly killed on the frontlines while visiting his troops who were fighting the FACT rebels. His passing created a political vacuum, which has been filled by his son, Mahamat Idriss Déby, a four-star army general who took power in contravention of the constitution. This raises a number of questions. Will Déby’s son have his nous? Will Chad’s population accept having Mahamat imposed upon them? And what does the change of president mean for the country’s ability to overcome rebel forces?

In addition to to the threat posed by FACT, Mahamat Idriss Déby faces a number of other challenges. Chad’s government has been failing to deliver prosperity to its people for decades now. Non-Zaghawa ethnic groups, who complain that they have been locked out of power under the Débys, are frustrated by his takeover. Moreover, rivals within the Zaghawa clan may also begin to reconsider their rights to rule the country. There are already reports of rising opposition already in Chad.

There are also serious questions about the country’s future international relations policy, and whether Mahamat Idriss Déby will be able to sustain such the close alliance with continue that underpinned his father’s political durability. At Idriss Déby funeral on April 23, French President Emmanuel Macron declared: “We will not let anybody put into question or threaten Chad’s stability and territorial integrity.”

Yet France subsequently announced that it was planning to downscale its counter-terrorism efforts in the Sahel and West Africa, a decision that was greeted with enthusiasm by many commentators such as Emadeddin Badi, who posits that the conditions that led to Déby’s passing were also a byproduct of the myopic behaviour of France in neighbouring Libya. He further opines that Déby’s death illustrates inherent flaws in French foreign policy in Libya and Chad and the shortcomings of Paris’ impulse to prop up autocrats in Africa.

Could Chad be the first domino?

Support from international partners enabled the government to push back FACT rebels, but the threat has not been eradicated. For now, the authorities have managed to curtail the invasion, which had operated from the Tibesti Mountains via Libya and Kanem region. Should this situation hold, Chad will not be the first domino to fall.

However, an alternative future is also conceivable, one in which growing rebellions by frustrated citizens emerge in other parts of the country, placing a greater strain on the security forces. What if, against the backdrop of the drawdown of French troops, Mahamat Idriss Déby proves to be an unpopular leader and begins to lose his grip on power?

The implications for the region could be tremendous. Nigeria is still struggling to contain the Boko Haram insurgency, and Chadian forces have played an important role in this battle. In their absence, and without any border regulation, the situation would look significantly worse – at precisely the moment when many in Nigeria are concerned about the complete collapse of the state due to the combination of insurgency, secessionism and banditry.

The purported death of Abubakar Shekau, the embattled leader of Boko Haram, apparently during an attack by the rival group Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), has been celebrated as an important development by the Nigerian government. Yet some analysts have suggested that it may only make the situation worse, as ISWAP will prove to be a more effective at mobilising support and keeping territory, not least because it adopts a more flexible approach and rejects Boko Haram’s hostile stance towards local communities. If ISWAP continues to gain ground in the Sambisa forest and other areas such as the Lake Chad basin, coordination with Chadian forces will be important to contain it.

Recently, Governor Abubakar Bello of Niger state (in Nigeria) was reported to have lamented about the hoisting of flag by ISWAP in a local government area that is about 2-hour drive to Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. If the Nigerian government was to lose even more control over its territory, the political and economic ramification would be felt across West Africa.

It is therefore significant that a number of other countries also face destabilising insurgencies and conflicts, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Niger. To stabilise, these states need existing inter-regional and/or sub-regional security frameworks to be strengthened, not weakened.

The onset of a real civil war in Nigeria would also be a significant blow for the democratisation of West Africa. Following two decades of progress, the region is rocking following backsliding in Benin and Senegal, and the recent coup(s) in Mali.

From Chad, to Nigeria, to the region – that is how the dominoes could fall.

But will Chad fall?

Of course, this is conjecture and depends on the first domino tipping over.

At present, Chad looks unlikely to fall. Like his father, Mahamat Idriss Déby is using carrots and sticks to try and stabilize and manage Chad. On the one hand, the FACT rebels appear to be on the defensive.

On the other hand, the Transition Council is romancing members of the National Political Dialogue Framework (CNDP) and political stalwarts such as Albert Pahimi Padacké, who competed against the late president in the last national election. In spite of the deep frustrations simmering within the nation and allegations that Mahamat Idriss Déby political coronation was little more than a coup, this move could could potentially enhance internal cohesion.

But if Chad falls …

Sesan Michael Johnson is a research fellow of IFRA-French Institute for Research in Africa, Nigeria and a member of Lagos Studies Association.

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