Chad Holds Funeral for President Idriss Deby

President Emmanuel Macron of France traveled to the ceremony for President Idriss Deby, signaling the strategic importance that Paris has attached to the central African nation.,

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With rebel soldiers threatening to advance on the capital and the future stability of the country uncertain, Chad held a funeral Friday for President Idriss Deby, one of Africa’s most enduring autocrats, whose death was announced this week.

President Emmanuel Macron of France flew to the central African nation to join African leaders for the ceremony in a show of support for an ally long criticized for stifling dissent at home even as he joined the fight against Islamist insurgents in the region.

As thousands of residents lined the streets leading to the capital’s main square, and with the coffin of Mr. Deby draped in the flag of Chad in front of him, Mr. Macron praised the slain leader, saying, “You lived as a soldier, you died as a soldier with weapons in hand.”

During his 31-year rule, Mr. Deby benefited from the indulgence of Western powers as he remained a steady linchpin for their military interventions against Islamist insurgents in the region, including Boko Haram.

Mr. Macron was the only Western head of state at the funeral, and attended despite the succession of Mr. Deby’s son, Mahamat Idriss Deby, to the presidency, a move that has been criticized as unconstitutional both inside and outside Chad. The military council led by Mr. Deby’s son said the country would hold new elections in 18 months.

The Chadian military said this week that Mr. Deby, 68, had died from injuries sustained in clashes between rebels and government forces on Monday — the same day that his victory in a sixth election, marred by irregularities, had been confirmed.

The rebel group that claimed responsibility for Mr. Deby’s death, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, threatened to march on the capital, Ndjamena, on Friday and had warned foreign leaders not to attend the ceremony.

ImageThousands gathered in Ndjamena on Friday to witness the funeral of Mr. Deby.
Thousands gathered in Ndjamena on Friday to witness the funeral of Mr. Deby.Credit…Pool photo by Christophe Petit Tesson

France has long relied on Chad, a former colony, as a support base for its own troops and as a strategic partner for operations in the Sahel region. It has had a continuous military presence in Ndjamena since 1986.

France’s counterterrorism operation in the Sahel, known as Operation Barkhane, has been headquartered in the capital since its launch in 2014. French officials have regularly praised the Chadian military for its dedication to the fight against Islamist insurgents in the region — even though its soldiers have been accused of rape and violence against their own population.

Mr. Macron, who called Mr. Deby a “brave friend,” noted that Chad was the first African nation to send soldiers to join French troops in 2013 to defeat Islamists in neighboring Mali.

Around 1,200 Chadian troops were deployed earlier this year in the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, an increasingly unstable zone where the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has made significant strides. But analysts fear that the death of Mr. Deby may lead to a withdrawal of some of the Chadian troops.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said in an interview on French television on Thursday that Chad’s stability was crucial to the Sahel, and “also Europe’s security.”

Thomas Gassilloud, a French lawmaker who sits on a parliamentary committee focusing on the relationship between France and Chad, said that Mr. Deby had long offered stability in a region where that was difficult to find.

“Chad is at the crossroads of zones that have faced multiple security crises in recent years: Libya to the north, Niger to the west, and the Central African Republic to the south,” he said, noting that Mr. Deby had studied at the prestigious Paris-based military school that trains senior French Army officers. “France was used to working with Deby, and when it came to military operations in the Sahel, they spoke the same language.”

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French soldiers taking part in an anti-insurgent operation in northern Burkina Faso in 2019. Chad has been a strategic partner for France’s operations in the Sahel region.Credit…Michele Cattani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Even as Mr. Deby’s death led to concerns about regional security, the tensions within Chad remained high this week after a military council installed his 37-year-old son as interim president. Political opponents have denounced the move as a coup d’etat because the Chadian Constitution dictates that the president of the National Assembly should become the interim leader until elections are held.

The French authorities have said that “exceptional circumstances” in Chad justified the move. Mr. Macron met with Mr. Idriss Deby at the presidential palace shortly after arriving in Chad on Thursday evening.

Still, questions remain about the circumstances surrounding Mr. Deby’s death, with uncertainty over whether he was killed in clashes or during a meeting with the rebel group, or even if he was in fact killed by a rival.

Mr. Deby’s legacy is mixed, analysts say. Despite its vast oil resources, Chad remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 187th out of 189 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s 2020 human development index, and ranking last in the World Bank‘s human capital index.

Jerome Tubiana, an independent expert on Chad, said that Mr. Deby had initially let freedom of expression, a civil society and a multiparty system flourish, but that this opening had quickly been stifled. “When Deby rose to power in 1990, he said he was not offering gold or money to the Chadians, but freedom and democracy,” Mr. Tubiana said. “Those promises quickly proved to be short-lived.”

Although it ostensibly has civilian rule, Chad suffers from fragile political institutions, according to Roland Marchal, a longtime expert on Chad at the Paris-based Sciences Po university. The Chadian army and the country’s security apparatus, led by its intelligence agency, effectively rule the country, he said.

Mr. Marchal added that Mr. Macron’s decision to attend the funeral and meet with Mr. Deby’s son demonstrated French approval for what many consider a coup.

“France wants to keep a privileged relationship with the Chadian authorities,” Mr. Marchal said, “and for that it is ready to accept that the constitution of a country be swept away.”

Mahamat Adamou contributed reporting.

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