President of Chad killed on battlefield after 30 years in power

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Chad’s longtime leader has died of wounds suffered during a visit to front-line troops battling a little-known rebel group, the military announced Tuesday, just hours after he was declared the winner of an election that would have given him another six years in power.

The military quickly announced President Idriss Deby Itno’s son as the Central African nation’s interim leader, succeeding his 68-year-old father, who ruled for more than three decades.

Some observers immediately questioned the chain of events leading up to Tuesday’s stunning announcement on national radio and television.

Ayo Sogunro, a Nigerian lawyer and fellow at the South Africa-based Center for Human Rights, said that under Chadian law, the term of an incumbent president who dies is completed not by family members but by the National Assembly.

“The army seizing power and conferring it on the son of the president … is a coup and unconstitutional,” Sogunro tweeted Tuesday, calling for the African Union to condemn the transfer of power.

Deby’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat, is best known as a top commander of the Chadian forces aiding a United Nations peacekeeping mission in northern Mali.

The military said Tuesday he now will head an 18-month transitional council following his father’s death.

The military called for calm, instituting a 6 p.m. curfew and closing the country’s land and air borders as panic kept many inside their homes in the capital, N’Djamena.

“In the face of this worrying situation, the people of Chad must show their attachment to peace, to stability and to national cohesion,” Gen. Azem Bermandoa Agouma said.

The circumstances of Deby’s death could not immediately be independently confirmed because of the remote location.

The government has released few details of its efforts to put down the rebellion in northern Chad.

The army said Tuesday that Deby had fought heroically but was wounded in a battle.

He was taken to N’Djamena, where he later died of unspecified wounds.

Some residents of the capital said they feared there was more to the story of Deby’s demise.

“The rumors that are going around about the transitional council give me the impression that some information is false,” Thierry Djikoloum said.

“They are already talking about dissolving parliament. … So for me, I’d say it was a coup d’etat. He was killed.”

It was not known why the president would have visited the area or participated in ongoing clashes with the rebels who opposed his rule.

Some foreign observers questioned how a head of state could have been killed, saying it cast doubt on his protective guard.

Chad’s military had acknowledged only five deaths in weekend fighting in which it said it had killed 300 rebels.

“We still don’t have the whole story,” Laith Alkhouri, a global intelligence advisor, told the Associated Press.

“It raises concerns regarding the security forces’ assessment of the clashes and their intelligence regarding the severity of the situation.”

Other analysts pointed to Deby’s long history of visiting the battlefield as a former army commander in chief.

“There’s no evidence to suggest this was a coup committed by his troops. Anyone who follows Deby knows he used to say, ‘To lead troops, you have to smell the gunpowder,’” tweeted Cameron Hudson with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre.

Deby was a major French ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in Africa, hosting the base for the French military Operation Barkhane and supplying critical troops to the peacekeeping effort in northern Mali.

The French presidency called Deby “a courageous friend” in a statement Tuesday.

Chad is losing “a great soldier and a president who worked nonstop for the security of the country and the stability of the region for three decades,” it said.

Deby came to power in 1990 when his rebel forces overthrew then-President Hissene Habre, who was later convicted of human rights abuses at an international tribunal in Senegal.

Over the years Deby had survived numerous armed rebellions and managed to stay in power until this latest insurgency led by a group calling itself the Front for Change and Concord in Chad.

The rebels are believed to have armed and trained in neighboring Libya before crossing into northern Chad on April 11.

Their arrival came on the day of Chad’s election, which several top opposition candidates boycotted.

Los Angeles Times

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