Fighters of the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebel group crossed from Libya over into northern Chad on April 11, the day veteran Chadian President Idriss Deby sought a sixth term in a vote boycotted by main opposition parties.
The rebels attacked a border post before advancing south, travelling in heavily armed pick-up trucks. After intense fighting, the Chadian armed forces over the weekend appeared to have slowed the FACT’s progress some 300km (185 miles) from the capital, Ndjamena.
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But in a stunning announcement on Tuesday, a day after provisional results showed that Deby had been re-elected with nearly 80 percent, the military announced that the 68-year-old president, who often joined troops on the front line, had succumbed to wounds suffered during a battle against the rebels.
Deby’s 37-year-old-son, four-star General Mahamat Idriss Deby, was swiftly named transitional leader at the helm of a military council, despite constitutional protocol saying that the speaker of the parliament should have taken power. The military also suspended the constitution and dissolved the government and parliament, but pledged to hold “free and democratic” elections after 18 months.
“Chad is not a monarchy,” FACT said in a statement posted online after the announcement of Deby’s death. “There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country,” the rebels added as they threatened to depose the new leader.
The developments have raised the spectre of a new and potentially violent power struggle in Chad, which has endured successive rebellions since independence from France in 1960. Deby himself took power spearheading a 1990 rebellion that overthrew authoritarian leader Hissene Habre, and later faced the same threat of being overthrown – rebel forces reached the capital in 2006 and 2008, before they were forced to withdraw, and came close again in 2019.
So who are FACT, the group behind the latest rebellion, and what do they want? Al Jazeera spoke to Jerome Tubiana, a researcher specialising in Chad to answer some key questions. The interview below has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Al Jazeera: When was FACT formed and who is it led by?
Jerome Tubiana: Its founder and leader is Mahamat Mahadi Ali, a long-time rebel who, as he told me, first joined a rebel movement in 1978, when he was 14 – essentially a child rebel soldier. Since then, he has joined rebellions against different successive regimes in Chad, and has also lived in exile in France, where he was a member of the French Socialist Party. Notably, he was part of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD), whose leader Mahamat Nouri led the rebel alliance which almost toppled Deby in 2008.
In 2015, Nouri, who was also in exile in France but prevented to travel by his uncertain status and old age, sent Mahadi to Libya to retake control over the UFDD fighters there, at the demands of the Misratis. At that time, Libya was engulfed in the civil war between the Misrati-backed “Libya Dawn” coalition in the west and the “Dignity” operation under Khalifa Haftar in the east – a situation that saw Chadians become mercenaries for both sides.
Once there, Mahadi noticed that Nouri was not that popular among the UFDD forces and tried to impose himself as its leader. The group was only composed of fighters from the Goran tribe, but the Mahadi takeover in 2016 provoked divisions – and fighting – along clan lines. This led to the emergence of three groups: the UFDD comprised of Nouri loyalists who, however, increasingly turned to mercenary fighting; the FACT splinter group under Mahadi; and the Council of Military Command for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR), with fighters who splintered from FACT but whose political leader Mahamat Hassani Bulmay was arrested in Niger in 2017 and handed over to Deby.
In 2017, as Haftar’s eastern-based forces took over Jufra – where the FACT was based – from Misratan forces, the FACT did not withdraw from the area. Instead, it made a tacit non-aggression pact with Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). The FACT at the time appeared stuck, since Haftar was known as a close ally of both Chad and France. However, it seems that it has gradually managed to get important military support from Haftar.
Al Jazeera: What are FACT’s goals and how much popular support does the group enjoy?
Tubiana: Like other Chadian rebels, the FACT’s goal has been to topple Deby. It derives most of its support from members of Mahadi’s tribe, the Goran – but not from all of them, since there are internal conflicts. Mahadi had also been fighting in Chad’s Tibesti region alongside Tubu rebels, and this has earned him support among the Tubu.
More recently, some members of other tribes, including Deby’s Zaghawa, reportedly joined the FACT, while Mahadi succeeded in establishing some loose coordination with the other groups – the National Front for Democracy and Justice in Chad (FNDJT), which is made of Tubu and some Zaghawa, followed FACT into northern Chad in last week’s incursion.
The Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), which is mostly comprised of Zaghawa, has also brought political support. Since Deby’s death, the FACT is likely to get more popular support among other rebel groups as well as in the wider Chadian population, but this will also depend on how much the movement succeeds in appearing to fight for more than one tribe, or ends up getting involved in tribal feuds.
Al Jazeera: How well equipped are FACT’s members and what is their relationship with Haftar?
Tubiana: They reportedly deployed 400-450 cars with heavy military equipment, which surprised the Chadian army, even though the Chadian army has until now been able to repel the attack.
But the offensive, and the fact the rebels were able to cross from Libya into Chad with all the equipment given over the years by Haftar, raises questions about Haftar’s loyalties, or at least his ability to control the foreign forces he has been hosting and backing. Both Deby’s loyalists and France must be very angry with Haftar.
With Haftar also being backed by Russia, there have been rumours that the rebels were trained by Russian military contractor Wagner. There has been, however, no evidence that either Wagner or Haftar equipped the rebels to fight outside Libya. Still, questions are raised.
Al Jazeera: What does Mahamat Idriss Deby’s appointment mean for the security situation unfolding in Chad? And what do you expect from his appointment?
Tubiana: Mahamat Deby, also known as Mahamat “Kaka”, is a general in his thirties. In recent years, he was commanding the General Direction of the Security Services of State Institutions (DGSSIE), or the elite guard under the presidency. Prior to this, he mostly earned his military reputation as deputy commander of the Chadian forces in Mali.
This gave him, in spite of his young age, some legitimacy within the army.
However, this does not mean that his new role at the transitional military council is unanimously backed by the Zaghawa tribe. But it does seem to have the support of France, in a missed opportunity to support a more inclusive, civilian-led transition.