For days, as Chad’s military clashed with rebels north of the capital N’djamena, the government fiercely attempted to project a message of calm and control.
On Monday, government spokesperson, Ambassador Chérif Mahamat Zene, said, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can justify the panic,” as conflicting reports of continued clashes spread on social media and foreign missions called for their citizens to leave the country.
Later that evening, army spokesperson Azem Bermendao Agouna said, "The military had finished off the ‘terrorists,’ killing more than 300 combatants and seizing their weapons and vehicles."
Yet, in a shocking turn less than 24 hours later, the same spokesperson was announcing that long-term President Idriss Déby had died from injuries on the battlefield.
"He took the lead in the heroic fight."
“As he does every time republican institutions are seriously threatened, he took the lead in the heroic fight,” Agouna said in a nationwide address. “He was injured in the skirmishes and gave up his soul upon repatriation to N’Djamena.”
Idriss Déby's death has spurred a dizzying, 360-degree change of course for Chad, which was nearing the end of an election that was projected to give the president a sixth term in office.
Now the country, under a nationwide curfew, will be led by a transitional military council headed by Idriss Déby’s son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Déby, for the next 18 months, with the goal of free and fair elections afterward.
It’s a shocking end for Idriss Déby, a military leader who came to power in a coup 30 years ago and had since become a linchpin for security in the Sahel region, which is beset by extremist violence.
While the army has occasionally referred to the combatants as Libyan "terrorists" or "mercenaries," the main group blamed for the conflict is the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) (the French and local spelling for Chad is "Tchad"). It's a Chadian rebel group based in the southern Fezzan region of neighboring Libya and had attacked a border post in the north of the country on election day.
“FACT groups have been there for several years. The estimates go from 700, according to the group itself, to 1,500 to 2,000 according to the UN,” said Anas El Gomati, founder of the Sadeq Institute, a public policy think tank based in Tripoli. “Those groups have been able to move around in southern Libya.”
According to the Chadian army, FACT entered the country on April 11, the day of the presidential election, and bypassed military garrisons in the northern province of Tibesti with an intent to advance toward N’djamena.
Over the weekend, they claimed to have captured the province of Kanem, which lies just north of the capital.
And on Tuesday, the group said it rejected the military transfer of power to Idriss Déby’s son and would continue to march toward N’djamena.
But for people on the ground, things appeared to be calm.
“No sign of big panic,” said one researcher in N’djamena, who asked to remain anonymous for concerns over his security.
FACT has openly expressed a desire to see Idriss Déby — whom they described as a dictator — removed from power, and have called on Chadians to take to the streets.
“In terms of timing and propaganda it might be a good time, the election period,” said the researcher in N’djamena. “Taking power has always been their agenda.”
In a recent statement by Chad's Ministry of Communications, however, the government suggested that the incursion by the FACT rebels was a natural result of stabilizing Libya rather than of domestic politics.
While a consortium of foreign mercenaries, rebel groups and other foreign actors have been present in Libya since the civil war, a recent ceasefire and the establishment of a new interim government have brought new pressures for these groups to leave.
“Once the UN requires these mercenaries to leave so that Libya can result in a peace deal, a peace deal in Libya could actually certainly threaten the peace in stable places like Chad that are undergoing elections now, but also transitional phases in transitional places like Sudan,” said Gomati of Sadeq Institute.