Chad: What’s Happening with Hinda Deby?

In May, Jeune Afrique published an article profiling the inner circle of Chad’s military ruler Mahamat Deby – who took over after his father, Chad’s longtime ruler Idriss Deby (in power 1990-2021) was killed on the frontlines of a battle against rebels. The piece made me wonder about the fate of Hinda Deby, one of Idriss Deby’s wives and Mahamat Deby’s step-mother.

Idriss Deby died suddenly, but the question of succession was on observers’ minds well before he died. And Hinda Deby’s name was often mentioned. Born in 1980, she is of Mahamat’s generation (he was born in 1984) rather than her late husband’s (who was born in 1952). She and Idriss Deby married in 2005.

As late as the first quarter of 2021, on the eve of the president’s death, Hinda Deby’s “growing influence” was being mentioned by informed observers. Her influence ran through multiple sectors – oil, health, and education, among others – and operated both through formal channels, such as her “Grand Coeur” foundation, and through the strategic placement of family members into top posts (her father Mahamat Acyl, who died in 2020, was a senior diplomat). These family members included, as of 2021, her uncle Abdelmoutalib Abderahim Abdoulfarakh as director-general of military intelligence; her brother Khoudar Mahamat Acyl as the president’s aide-de-camp; her brother Abderahim Mahamat Acyl as deputy director of the Chad Hydrocarbons Company; her brother Ahmat Khazali Acyl as director of the National Social Planning Account; and her aunt’s ex-husband Ahmed Kogri as head of Chadian intelligence (here’s my source for the last four names and positions). From early on in her marriage to the president, journalists and their interlocutors surmised that Deby – who famously relied on his Zaghawa ethnic group as the core of his power – used his marriage to the Arab Hinda to build ties with another key ethnic group and another key family in the country.

Of course, observers of Chadian politics also long predicted that Deby’s successor might be one of his sons, several of whom held senior positions as well. Mahamat was clearly in the running.

My crude reading of what transpired immediately after Deby’s death is that power in Chad remained essentially military – obviously there is a serious gender component to consider and an ethnic one as well, but Mahamat Deby was elevated to head of state not just in preference to Hinda, but also because he had the most central position within the military hierarchy at the moment of his father’s death, namely as head of the Directorate-General of the Security Services of the Institutions of the State, the most elite unit (see more here). There was reportedly a last-minute power struggle between Mahamat and his half-brother Zakaria, a senior diplomat (ambassador to the United Arab Emirates) and a key leader within the then-ruling party, the Patriotic Salvation Movement (French acronym MPS). It’s possible that Mahamat won by strength of personality, but again, it seems the military was revealed or confirmed as the real backbone of the regime – tellingly, the MPS has seemed to be to more an appendage of power under Mahamat than a real power center in its own right, at least so far in 2021-2022. Returning to Hinda Deby’s role, her time as a sort of interim president in 2020, when Idriss Deby was sick, was reportedly a choice meant in part to manage the incipient conflict between Mahamat and Zakaria – suggesting that Idriss Deby may have found his wife more useful as a kind of mediator than as his ultimate successor.

In any case, since Mahamat’s succession, Hinda Deby’s network preserved its influence in the short term but in the ensuing months has been, at least from what I can tell, somewhat sidelined – the Jeune Afrique profile of the new president’s inner circle notes Ahmed Kogri’s continued importance as head of the National Security Agency, but the ex-First Lady’s brothers do not appear in the list. Indeed, in December last year, her brothers ran into serious legal trouble as part of a very murky affair that involved the assassination of a Chadian colonel, an attack on the home of Hinda’s brother Ahmat Khazali Mahamat Acyl, the interrogations and detention of her brothers Ahmat Khazali and Khoudar and, in March, their release as the case was closed. In April, Hinda Deby fainted from apparent heat stroke at a public event, but has otherwise kept a fairly low profile; her Twitter account, for example, features sporadic and mostly personal/spiritual posts.

That, from the limited insight I have, is where things stand – Mahamat firmly in control of palace politics, having shown where the real power ultimately lay. With that said, I wouldn’t count out Hinda Deby over the long term – not necessarily as president of Chad, but as a player in the country’s politics, given her obvious political skill and the wide reach of her family’s network.

The G5 Sahel Joint Force – More Important Politically Than Militarily

The junta in Mali, determined to antagonize France on every possible diplomatic front, is threatening to withdraw from the G5 Sahel, a regional organization created in 2014 by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. Mali’s withdrawal would in turn affect the viability of the G5 Sahel Joint Force (French acronym FC-G5S). The Joint Force is a five-nation enterprise set up in 2017 with French backing. It draws troops from the G5 Sahel countries and had an initial target of 5,000 troops. Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum has said the Malian withdrawal leaves the organization “dead.”

The FC-G5S is, as this post’s title indicates, more important in my view as a political symbol than as a military reality. So-called “regional forces” are appealing to Western powers for various reasons, especially when those forces offer the promise that “African solutions to African problems” (a phrase that Western policymakers deploy selectively and, in my view, sometimes disingenuously) will either allow Western forces an exit strategy, or obviate the need for large Western military deployments in the first place. Some regional forces “work,” at least in the limited sense of partly beating back insurgencies and preserving some gains afterwards; the most successful in this sense is the African Union Mission in Somalia. Other regional forces may have some impact but their presence arguably muddies the waters, even distracting attention away from the propensity of member states to act unilaterally or on ad hoc basis – witness the widely hailed Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) in the Lake Chad Basin, but also witness the tendency of Nigeria, Chad, and other MNJTF contributors to do their own thing when the chips are down. The G5 Sahel Joint Force never even achieved the kind of aura the MNJTF developed – chased out of its own headquarters in 2018, the FC-G5S has no major military accomplishments to its credit.

Mali’s withdrawal or potential withdrawal (apparently this is a legal grey area) is a rebuke to France and Niger in particular. Mali’s junta, which has been cultivating near-pariah status in West Africa and with Western powers, was denied the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel in February; the presidency has remained with Chad’s President Mahamat Deby, who came to power in a coup that was much more palatable to Paris and Washington than the coups (two) that Mali’s junta perpetrated. Chadian-Malian relations are not so bad currently and Deby is urging Mali to stay in the G5 Sahel, but Malian-Nigerien relations are not so great, especially given successive Nigerien presidents’ critiques of the Malian junta. Niger and France are also drawing even closer together as France reacts to its frayed relations with the colonels in Bamako.

The collapse of the G5 Sahel would remove yet another piece of the largely Western-designed framework – unsuccessful, it should be noted – aimed at guiding Mali and the Sahel back to security and stability. Again, I think the G5 Sahel Joint Force was never going to achieve what its backers hoped. I think it would have been better if the FC-G5S could have been more thoughtfully dismantled and debated, but one could be harsh and say that the “death” of the G5 Sahel could productively force a reconsideration of the underlying policy assumptions (fantasies??) about how this all ends – including the recurring hope that the solution is something like an African Union force (a re-hatted G5 Sahel?) with a United Nations Chapter VII (enforcement) mandate and dedicated funding. Here I would note that even that plan is not really fleshed out from what I have seen – is the idea that security will be restored through an open-ended deployment of African forces, all while the region’s politics get worse and worse?

To sum up, then:

  • Mali’s junta is reckless and is spending more time antagonizing France than improving anything in Mali
  • Some of the things the Malian junta is taking aim at weren’t doing much good anyways
  • Western powers don’t have a real plan

Chad: A Delay for the Inclusive National Dialogue, and Perhaps for the Whole Transition

In April 2021, Chad’s longtime President Idriss Deby died unexpectedly on the frontlines of a fight against the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (French acronym FACT). He was almost immediately succeeded by a transitional military-led regime headed by his son Mahamat Deby. The new regime, called the Transitional Military Council (French acronym CMT), put forth plans for an eighteen-month transition, with the provision that the eighteen months can be renewed once if necessary (see the Transition Charter, Article 97). Chad’s authorities have been given substantially more leeway by regional and international actors than have other current juntas in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.

Per the “roadmap” adopted by the transitional legislature in July 2021, one key element of Chad’s transition is a planned Inclusive National Dialogue with rebels. The Dialogue was originally slated to take place in either November or December 2021, with elections to follow between June and September 2022. The authorities have presented the Dialogue as an indispensable step; my reading is that they hope to (a) project an image of national unity, (b) bolster their own perceived legitimacy, (c) co-opt as many rebels as possible, and (d) portray any holdouts as bad-faith actors. The Dialogue is being supported by Qatar, which is also acting as a mediator; some key rebels are based in Qatar, such as Timan Erdimi (read an interview with him from late 2021 here).

A “pre-dialogue” set of negotiations, meanwhile, has been taking place in Doha. Here is Al Jazeera:

About 50 rebel groups [have] presented their demands to a delegation of 24 government representatives.

Among the requests, the groups asked for guaranteed safety if they return to the country and for the release of prisoners of war. The government is keen to hand amnesty to those accused of acts of rebellion and to free all members of the rebel groups who will sign amnesty agreements, according to a document seen by Al Jazeera.

But there is disagreement concerning other demands of the rebels, such as banning members of the TMC from running in the next elections, army reforms and a constitutional revision.

The National Dialogue has now been postponed three times. Most recently, on May 1, Chad’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that at the request of Qatar, it was delaying the Dialogue until an unspecified date. As discussed in the Al Jazeera article linked above, moreover, there was pressure from rebels and from civil society groups for the authorities to delay, even as Deby suggested for a while that he would stick to the timeline. Not to be too cynical, but the image of the junta reluctantly postponing the Dialogue to accommodate other actors doesn’t quite convince me; it is clearly politically advantageous for the TMC to prolong the negotiations until it gets maximum buy-in, and the TMC may be quite wary of the reforms it may be called upon to make – and dissidents it may have to let back into Chad – after the Dialogue concludes.

Meanwhile, the CMT can use the Dialogue as a reason for tinkering with the overall timeline of the transition. On that note, this latest delay increases the chances that the whole transition will be delayed – in other words, that the authorities will invoke the clause in the charter that lets them renew the eighteen-month window. There is now talk of holding the Dialogue in June or July, and then elections towards the very end of the year. From the rebel side, some groups say they want a delay in the Dialogue but not a delay in the transition itself.