Deby’s Death and Implications for West Africa

Idris Deby’s 30-year rule as Chad’s Head of State came to an abrupt halt on Sunday April 18, when he was killed as he fought alongside Chadian troops in the Sahara.

Let’s not wail over Deby’s death while thinking it is Chad’s problem; it is an African problem. The gains of his consistent efforts against armed groups and extremism across the Sahel risk being lost if the country’s new leadership under his son Mahamat Kaka Deby, decide to concentrate their military efforts at home. With the threat of insurgents from the north under which the former president lost his life, it would not be unreasonable to think that troops operating outside the country could be called back home. 

Another issue of notable concern in West Africa is the Republic of Mali’s coup d’etat in August 2020.Elements from the Malian Armed Forces took over key formations in government, arresting senior government officials including President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was at the time forced to resign. Mali was thrown into turmoil.Recall that after the coup in 2012, Religious extremists took advantage of the vacuum in the northern part of Mali to lay waste to the region, taking over several communities and attempting to create their own version of an Islamic State. It took the intervention of French forces supported by neighboring African countries, for the insurgency to subside to an appreciable degree. More recently however, it appears that the terrorists have been emboldened by government’s non-responsiveness to tension in the region and have carried out attacks on defenseless citizens, stealing property and kidnapping women and children. The insurgency has also seen attacks on the military, with a raid on an army camp leaving 23 dead in April 2020 and UN peacekeepers killed in June. 

Unlike Deby’s strongman tactics in the Chad basin where he was able to rid Chad of Boko Haram and ISWAP fighters, former President Keita’s inability to protect the citizens of Mali from attacks by insurgents was partly responsible for his fall. 

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The recent coup to the West of Nigeria in Mali and Deby’s death to the East in Chad, are twin threats that leave Nigeria vulnerable to opportunistic armed groups who might take advantage of the lack of coordination among the countries in this region to perpetuate attacks on its citizenry. With the overthrow of the government in Mali, a new vacuum has been created and just like the coup d’etat of 2012, the door is once again open for the terrorists to potentially secure some gains in the Sahel. 

Terrorist activities stretching from northern Mali across the Sahel into Nigerand Chad have spurned a humanitarian catastrophe, with 3.4 million refugees within Nigeria’s north east alone, according to the UNHCR. It is alsowell-documentedthat the bandits raiding communities in Katsina, Zamfara and other states along thenorth-western side ofthe border, infiltratethrough NigerRepublic. Nigeria has borne the burden of policing the harsh terrain of its northern borders, avast landofmore than 1,600 kilometresfrom theBenintripoint in the west,to Chad in the east. With only a few official, but countless illegal border crossings, communities in this area live in perpetual fear and are hardly guaranteed any protection against Sahelian marauders whose only aim is to kill and destroy. 

The eleven-year war against Boko Haram, ISWAP and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb proves that there is a need to not only secure the area, but to strengthen cooperation between the countries most affected by terrorism. Several approaches are needed in the war, beginning with stemming the flow illegal weapons into the hands of the terrorists. We must remember that when it comes to Africa, there is never a shortage of weapons to fight wars and start insurgencies, even though Africans do not control the multi-billion-dollar global illicit arms trade. Countries like France, Britain, and the United States, which have substantial military and economic interests in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Nigeria should be more forthright in providing technical support, intelligence, and access to weapons in the actual fight against terrorists. The idea of foreign governments sending troops to the Sahel should not be to only protect Total’s oilfields in Mali or Orano’s uranium mines in Niger. If Mali and Chad remain unstable, the entire region, including Nigeria, will be insecure. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations in the region have always taken advantage of weak governments to steal territory and establish bases from where they can launch attacks. Boko Haram’s incursion into the Lake Chad Basin and surrounding communities in Nigeria is a clear example of what can happen when the West push to the backburner issues that seemingly do not affect them directly. 

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In the case of Nigeria, the U.S. in the past declined to provide military support or approval to Nigeria to procure weapons. Citing human rights violations by the Nigerian Army, the Obama administration seemed unbothered by the carnage taking place in the north east in 2012 and 2013, to the point that the Nigerian Ambassador to the U.S at the time openly criticized the Americans. In 2014, former Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Ade Adefuye, said the Nigerian people and government feel abandoned by America: “I am sad to inform you that the Nigerian leadership: military and political, and even the general populace, are not satisfied with the scope, nature and content of the United States’ support for us in our struggle against terrorists.” He continued, “we find it difficult to understand how and why in spite of the U.S. presence in Nigeria with their sophisticated military technology, Boko Haram should be expanding and becoming more deadly.”

Mali’s current challenges, and the death of Idris Deby in Chad are both potential threats to West Africa, but particularly Nigeria because of risks from jihadists, insurgents and other armed groups launching attacks on several fronts. 

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While we call for more coordination among the countries forming the West African Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), the West, particularly France, Britain, and the USA, cannot afford to be indifferent. Even as America is proposing a reduction in its military presence around the world, including in Africa, several speakers on global affairs have expressed concern about the increased risk of insurgency in areas that have been left defenseless. The United Nations Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Dr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas told the UN Security Council last year that “a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets is producing alarming humanitarian consequences. Militant terrorist groups in Africa set a record pace of activity in 2019, with attacks doubling since 2013.

Boko Haram, ISWAP, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other armed groups may not pose any immediate threat to the West, but they do threaten their interests in Africa. There should therefore be a clear policy proposal for how to stem the surge in attacks. Nigeria should take leadership of the MNJTF and provide proper coordination among the countries in fighting homegrown and regional threats from insurgents. Africa should therefore consolidate on Deby’s war on terror, rather than permit a vacuum to destabilize the region. 

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