Idriss Déby, the president of Chad, a close Western military ally, died Monday of wounds sustained on the battlefield fighting rebels, the military said in a statement Tuesday.
An earlier version of this article said Idriss Déby died Tuesday. His death was announced Tuesday, but the transitional government later released a statement saying he died Monday. The article has been corrected.
Déby’s death is a jolt to Western counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel, a region that runs along the Sahara Desert’s southern fringes. With help largely from France and the United States, Déby built Chad’s military into the region’s most formidable fighting force, one that is deployed alongside Western military units in interventions against Islamist militants in Mali, Niger and northern Nigeria.
But within Chad resentment brewed over ethnic favoritism and unequal sharing of mineral and oil wealth, spawning various movements to unseat Déby. Even as he was securing his latest election win, rebels based in the country’s north, where Chad borders Libya in a largely undemarcated stretch of the Sahara, had attacked army outposts and were heading toward the capital.
Gen. Azem Bermandoa, an army spokesman, said in a statement that Déby “took his last breath defending the territorial integrity on the battlefield” after visiting Chadian troops on the front lines. The exact circumstances of Déby’s death were unclear, and the military did not release information on other casualties in the battle. The death of a head of state in an active combat zone is a rare occurrence in the modern era.
Bermandoa said that a transitional military council will run the country for the next 18 months and that it will be headed by Déby’s son, Gen. Mahamat Kaka, 37. He also announced a nationwide 6 p.m. curfew and the temporary closure of the country’s borders.
Youssouf Ali Mbodou, an entrepreneur in the capital, N’Djamena, said: “People are worried. We don't know what will happen in the days to come.” He said that the situation in the city was calm and without an unusual military presence. Nevertheless, he said, “people are taking shelter.”
Bermandoa, in announcing the installment of Déby’s son, said the government and parliament had been dissolved, which is contrary to provisions in Chad’s constitution. Advocacy groups that have long criticized Déby’s disregard for human rights criticized the flouting of those legal procedures.
“This is contrary to Chad’s Constitution, which provides that in the event of the death of a president, the president of the national assembly should provisionally lead the country for 45 to 90 days before a new election,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
A rebel group called the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (sometimes referred to by its French acronym FACT) claimed responsibility for the injuries that caused Déby’s death. Over the past 10 days, the group had been moving swiftly toward the capital and said Tuesday that it was preparing to march on the capital.
“We are preparing for the final assault,” spokesman Kingabe Ogouzeimi de Tapol said.
In the past week, Western governments had warned their citizens to leave the country and removed nonessential embassy staff members. Reuters reported Monday that Chad’s military claimed to have killed 300 rebels from the group.
In a statement Tuesday, the U.S. State Department condemned the “recent violence and loss of life in Chad.”
“The United States stands with the people of Chad during this difficult time,” the statement read. “We support a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution.”
A statement from the office of French President Emmanuel Macron praised Déby and called for a peaceful transition of power. France stations more than 5,000 troops in N’Djamena, which serves as its main base for Operation Barkhane, a regional deployment against an array of militant groups including Boko Haram and affiliates of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
“Chad has lost a great soldier and a President who worked tirelessly for three decades for the security of the country and the stability of the region. France has lost a courageous friend,” the statement read. “France stands by the Chadian people in this ordeal. It expresses its firm attachment to the stability and territorial integrity of Chad.”
The French military coordinated airstrikes on Déby’s behalf against rebels a little over two years ago, the latest in a long history of interventions. Agathe Delvenne, a French army spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Paris and Washington have been muted on Déby’s well-documented repression of political opposition, which was on full display during the lead-up to the recently concluded election. One opposition candidate claimed security forces raided his home and killed his mother, his son and three other relatives.
“This news has deep implications not only for Chad but for the entire region,” said J. Peter Pham, who was U.S. special envoy for the Sahel in the Trump administration and met with Déby in August in N’Djamena.
“Whatever else one might say about Déby, he had made himself an indispensable link in the political and security balance of West Africa, with significant contributions to both the fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic State-affiliated jihadists in the Sahel and against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area,” Pham said. “If his death results in a vacuum, these militants will undoubtedly exploit it.”
Thibaud Lesueur, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Chad, said an “immediate cease-fire is crucial.”
“Rebels and government alike must embrace that path or face the prospect of widespread violence in a country that has long been considered as relatively stable amid an unstable Sahel region” and “has long been seen as an important actor in the fight against jihadism,” he said.
With Libya’s implosion and sustained conflict in all of Chad’s other neighboring countries — Sudan, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger — Chad’s relative stability meant it became home to millions of refugees, many of whom have been in Chad for more than a decade.
Despite whatever stability Déby was able to maintain, Chad remains in contention for the grim ranking of the world’s least developed country, with the poorest people — a distinction for which it competes only with other countries it borders.
Nellie Peyton in Dakar, Senegal; Lesley Wroughton in Cape Town, South Africa; and Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.