Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Idriss Déby’s death was shocking. It was shocking to Chadians, to the greater Sahel, and to policymakers and politicians. Déby, who came to power in 1990 through the force of a coup d’état, seemed to defy decades of opposition, rebellion, and even coup attempts. On April 18, the day before he was killed, he had been reelected for a sixth presidential term. Despite ongoing protests in the country and attempts to overthrow him in recent years, his grip on power seemed even more secure. Yet Déby, who “lived by the gun,” ultimately died by the gun.
Déby capitalized on his strategic use of the Chadian military to act as both peacekeepers and warriors throughout the Sahel. Through much of the 2010s, Chadian troops were deployed in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and along Lake Chad in Mali. In particular, these troops fought Boko Haram and other extremist groups in the region. For this reason alone, Déby’s death has implications for Chad and for countries throughout the Sahel; the Horn of Africa, especially Sudan; and parts of Central Africa. While the immediate après-Déby period will be fraught with uncertainty, it creates an opening for new possibilities.
Historically, Chad has faced multiple periods of political and economic insecurity. Since independence in 1960, postcolonial Chadian leaders have ruled forcefully and when transitions of power occurred, such as Déby’s ousting of Hissène Habré in 1990, they were achieved through the use of force. The military and presidential guards have long played a central role in domestic and foreign policy. For instance, Habré spent much of his rule embroiled in conflict with Libya. Habré was supported by Ronald Reagan in the fight against Libya. By the time Habré was ousted, Western support for him had waned due to Habré’s lack of interest in exploiting Chad’s oil reserves. Similarly, Déby was widely considered as an ally of the West, particularly France and the United States. Historically, both Déby’s and Habré’s engagement with the West largely centred around Chad’s ability to leverage its military might internally and regionally.
In Chad, opportunities abound for a post-Déby world. Will the Déby family, under the auspices of his son Mahamat, maintain power? Could the interim rule by the military committee led by Mahamat transition to one that includes civilians and military representatives? To be sure, the military committee was initially designed to include representatives from different ethnic groups and regions. In the weeks since Déby’s death, a new Prime Minister and government cabinet has been announced. However, Chad’s citizens are eager for democracy: not for diversity in the military committee but civilian rule. In addition, the US government has expressed its support for constitutionally-supported transfer of power. And, despite Emmanuel Macron’s earliest statements in the days following Déby’s death, the French government has begun to publicly consider new political variations in the post-Déby era.
Déby’s death might transform how Chad, the Sahel, and continent are viewed by the West. The United States and other Western countries largely view the African continent as a site for humanitarian assistance and as a landscape for geopolitical security. While international security is key, efforts towards greater diplomacy, strong internal systems, and strengthened economies would be a catalyst for greater security in the region sans the heavy reliance on the military. Here I agree wholeheartedly with Kamissa Camara, Mali’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, that there is an opportunity for the West to use more diplomatic tools in the Sahelian subregion. If the United States partners more closely with regional countries to stymie conflicts through diplomacy and not war, it will help in myriad ways. Not only would conflict decrease, but infrastructure would be protected, educational and health systems would be strengthened, and food security would improve in this largely semi-arid and arid region. The opportunity for more sustained local business and manufacturing and outside economic investment would also flourish in a more hospitable political environment.
If growing political and economic stability across the Sahel and the continent became a reality, new partnerships and possibilities would run rampant. For example, the trafficking of humans, drugs, arms, and other items contraband would diminish. To that end, migrant travel to Europe would also decrease. The movement of undocumented migrants often relies on the search for greater economic, political, and social security. With stronger educational and health systems, a larger civil society would arise. An even larger professional class would also develop, with greater support for schools, universities, hospitals, and clinics. In turn, stronger economies would begin to emerge. Strengthened institutions would also help alleviate some of the brain drain of highly educated professionals such as academics, physicians and nurses who migrate to other African countries or to the West. And, when emerging diseases and pandemics develop, a wider span of stronger health systems would help support global health security. Even now, a number of African countries are doing well in their fight against COVID-19. Imagine how much better things could be with stronger systems and an infusion of additional economic and human resources.
While this might seem like a utopian dream at odds with current global political systems, stronger political and economic systems would not just benefit the continent but also benefit the globe. If we renew how we view Chad, the Sahel, and the continent, it will allow for a new kind of Global North-Global South dialogue than the one that has persisted for too long. The conversations beginning to take place in the United States to reevaluate social, racial, and economic inequities can perhaps move into the global arena. In that vein, Chad could be a test case for the possibility of new conversations about who designs, reinforces, and reconsiders policy in Africa—and how.