Mahamat Idriss Déby, son of slain president, emerges as Chad’s new strongman

Mahamat Idriss Deby (C) at a polling station in N'djamena, Chad, April 11, 2021.
Mahamat Idriss Deby (C) at a polling station in N'djamena, Chad, April 11, 2021. © Marco Longari, AFP

The youthful general Mahamat Idriss Deby, who stood watch over his late father as head of the presidential guard, is set to take over as Chad's new head of state, according to a charter released Wednesday by the presidency.

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The presidency moved swiftly to put the reins of power in the hands of the 37-year-old general and tear up Chad's constitution, establishing a "Transition Charter" that lays out a new basic law for the desert country of 16 million people.

The new charter issued Wednesday proclaimed that Mahamat, a career soldier like his father, will "occupy the functions of the president of the republic" and also serve as head of the armed forces.

Mahamat had already been named the head of a military council on Tuesday soon after the announcement of Deby's death in combat, a move that sidelined other political institutions in Chad and has been branded a coup d'etat by opposition groups.

>> Chad's Idriss Deby, a longstanding French ally in the troubled Sahel

The four-star general was not on any list of heirs to the throne drawn up by experts, who said they believed the veteran warlord and president had not chosen a successor and seemed to worry little about it.

But Mahamat immediately took charge of a transitional military council and appointed 14 of the most trusted generals to a junta to run Chad until "free and democratic" elections in 18 months' time.

Chad reopened its borders on Wednesday, a day after they were closed following the death in combat of President Idriss Deby Itno, the military council said.

A curfew – also imposed after the veteran leader’s death on Tuesday – would now start from 8pm instead of 6 pm, according to a statement signed by the military council’s spokesman Azem Bermandoa Agouna.

Commander in chief of the all-powerful red-bereted presidential guard or DGSSIE security service for state institutions, the young new leader carries the nickname Mahamat "Kaka" or grandmother in Chadian Arabic, after his father's mother who raised him.

"The man in black glasses", as he is known in military circles, is said to be a discreet, quiet officer who looks after his men.

He is from the Zaghawa ethnic group, which can boast of numerous top officers in an army seen as one of the finest in the region.

"He has always been at his father's side. He also led the DGSSIE. The army has gone for continuity in the system," Kelma Manatouma, a Chadian political science researcher at Paris-Nanterre university, told AFP.

However over recent months the unity of the Zaghawas has fractured and the president has removed several suspect officers, sources close to the palace said.

Born to a mother from the Sharan Goran ethnic group, he also married a Goran, Dahabaye Oumar Souny, a journalist at the presidential press service. She is the daughter of a senior official who was close to former president Hissene Habre, ousted by Idriss Deby in 1990.

The Zaghawa community thus look with some suspicion on Mahamat, some regional experts say.

Challenges ahead

"He is far too young and not especially liked by other officers," said Roland Marchal, from the International Research Centre at Sciences Po university in Paris.

"There is bound to be a night of the long knives," Marchal predicted in an interview with AFP.

The rebel forces who have been blamed for Deby's death have also vowed to press on with their offensive, categorically rejecting the transition of power.

“Chad is not a monarchy,” said a statement from the group known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad. “There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country.”

>> The death of Idriss Deby: What next for Chad after president killed on frontline?

Brought up in N'Djamena, Mahamat was sent to a military lycee in Aix-en-Provence, southern France, but stayed only a few months.

Back home in Chad, he returned to training at the military group school in the capital and joined the presidential guard.

He rose quickly through the command structure from an armoured group to head of security at the presidential palace before taking over the whole DGSSIE structure.

Mahamat was acclaimed for his efforts at the final victory in 2009 at Am-Dam against the forces of nephew Timan Erdimi's forces. Those forces had launched a rebellion in the east and had reached the gates of the presidential palace a year earlier, before being pushed back after French intervention.

He finally moved out of the shadow of his brother Abdelkerim Idriss Deby, deputy director of the presidential office, when he was appointed deputy chief of the Chadian armed force deployed to Mali in 2013.

That brought Mahamat to work closely with French troops in operation Serval against the jihadists in 2013-14.

"It is hard to imagine France allowing the country to slip into chaos and not supporting Deby's successor," regional specialist Vincent Hugueux told FRANCE 24, stressing Chad's crucial role as France's main ally in the fight against jihadist insurgents in the wider region.

The French presidency has announced that President Emmanuel Macron will attend Deby's state funeral on Friday.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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