A former government minister in Chad speculated Thursday that the nation’s president, Idriss Deby, did not die in battle as the military had suggested, but was assassinated by his inner circle after becoming “unbearable.”
The Chadian military announced Deby had died on the front lines fighting anti-government rebels this week. Deby was 68 years old and had ruled the country for 30 years at the time of his death. The nation’s military announced that a junta led by Deby’s son, 37-year-old Mahamat Deby Itno, would take power in the country indefinitely. Chadian opposition groups and civil society organizations like the Catholic Church have expressed concern about the abrupt military takeover, particularly given it runs afoul of the provisions in the nation’s constitution.
Faustin Facho Balaam, who served as secretary of state for planning under former dictator Hissene Habre, told Germany’s Deutsche Welle on Thursday that he did not believe the official story that Deby had died valiantly in battle.
“Deby was killed by people from his own circle,” he asserted. “He had become unbearable and the military did not want to fight the rebellion … I think it is a coup d’etat, not a death on the front line.”
Balaam has not lived in Chad since 2008, choosing exile in France. He served as a key witness in the human rights trial against former boss Habre in 2015 and wrote a book about his experience working for the dictator titled The Story of a Survivor of Dictatorship. Habre was found guilty at an international trial in Senegal of egregious human rights abuses, accused of, among other crimes, ordering 40,000 political executions, the torture of another 200,000 people, and the implementation of systematic rape, electroshock, and other abuses against political dissidents. Habre survived Deby, currently serving a life sentence in Senegal at age 78.
Partially with the help of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Deby successfully ousted Habre in a military coup in 1991. Deby served as a loyal soldier to Habre for years prior to breaking with him and taking over the country. Deby remained in control of the country through dubious presidential elections that resulted in five straight wins for the incumbent. Deby claimed to have won a sixth term as president on April 11, a day after the alleged date of his death.
A military general announced on national television on April 20 that Deby “breathed his last defending the sovereign nation on the battlefield,” fighting a rebel group known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). The military announced the full dissolution of the Chadian federal government and its replacement with a “military council” led by the younger Deby for at least 18 months. Military leaders vowed a “free and democratic election” after the first 18-month time period.
The Chadian constitution states that the head of the country’s federal lawmaking body, the National Assembly, should replace the president in the event of his death. The current National Assembly president issued a statement, however, saying he supported Mahamat Deby Itno taking power in the short term.
FACT, like Deby’s coalition under Habre, is a dissident group consisting of soldiers who no longer followed the president and sought a new government after Deby’s three decades in office. The group actively engaged in attacks on the nation’s armed forces and has established itself north of the nation’s capital, N’Djamena, where Deby allegedly died.
In addition to the ongoing civil conflict with FACT, Deby was heavily engaged in military operations against the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram at the time of his death. Boko Haram is based in Borno state, northeast Nigeria, and often conducts acts of jihad in both Cameroon and Chad, particularly around the Lake Chad area. The leaders also vowed they would continue their armed resistance against Deby’s son.
“We call on all justice-loving Chadians to join us in this struggle to stop our dear republic from becoming a monarchy,” FACT urged.
The FACT ultimatum came and went with little discord in the capital. The nation buried Deby on Friday, attracting thousands to the event, including high-profile guests like French President Emmanuel Macron. Deby had sought closer ties to France, and the West generally, as president, particularly regarding actions against Boko Haram. France currently maintains a military base in Chad.
While FACT supporters have not at press time engaged in any overt military action in the capital, civil society groups have expressed concern regarding the military coalition currently taking power. The head of the Episcopal Conference of Chad, Archbishop of N’Djamena Edmond Djitangar, issued a statement on Thursday urging the military to launch a “national dialogue” including civilians regarding how to proceed in federal governance.
“We share the anguish and the hopes of the Chadian people who are currently writing a delicate and determined page in their history, worried about the present and the future,” Djitangar said. The archbishop urged that a “politically independent, credible, and neutral body” organize a “national dialogue” regarding the country’s leadership.
The Chadian Bar Association also issued a press release Thursday honoring Deby and condemning the military junta.
“A transition has been put in place in total disregard of the texts and regulations in force,” the association stated, after describing Deby as both “illustrious” as a president generally and an “attentive interlocutor” with open ears to the concerns of the legal community.
Deby’s death follows several other sudden departures of African leaders. Tanzanian President John Magufuli died in March, officially of a “heart illness,” according to his vice president and successor Samia Suluhu Hassan. Magufuli disappeared from the public eye for weeks before the official announcement of his death, leading to rumors that he had suffered a Chinese coronavirus infection. Magufuli denied the severity of the pandemic, and opposed social distancing measures and vaccinations against the virus.
Burundi also lost its president amid the coronavirus pandemic in June 2020. Pierre Nkurunziza reportedly suffered a heart attack that month and suddenly died; his death also prompted rumors of a coronavirus infection.