Chad’s president of three decades has died of wounds suffered during a visit to frontline troops battling a shadowy rebel group, the military has announced, hours after he was declared the winner of an election that would have given him another six years in power.
While the military quickly named President Idriss Deby Itno’s son as the country’s interim leader, the rebel group claiming responsibility for his death vowed to continue its fight for the capital — setting the stage for a potentially bloody battle for political control of the oil-producing central African nation.
“Chad is not a monarchy. There can be no dynastic devolution of power in our country,” the rebels said in a statement late on Tuesday. “The forces of the Front for Change and Concord are heading toward N’Djamena at this very moment. With confidence, but above all with courage and determination.”
The circumstances of Mr Deby’s death remain murky and some observers immediately questioned the events leading up to the stunning announcement, raising the question of whether the military handing power to Mr Deby’s son instead of following constitutional provisions amounted to a coup. Others raised fears of violence in the days to come.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty around how events in Chad will unfold, whether the army will stay loyal to Deby’s son and continue the effort to repel the advancing rebels,” said Cameron Hudson with the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council.
Chadians who are unhappy after 30 years of Mr Deby’s rule could also align with the calls for change, he said.
“Either scenario presents a high risk of civilian casualties and a likelihood that fleeing civilians or soldiers could export Chad’s instability to neighbouring states.”
Mr Deby’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat, is best known as a top commander of the Chadian forces aiding a UN peacekeeping mission in northern Mali. The military said he will head an 18-month transitional council following his father’s death.
However, Chad’s constitution calls for the National Assembly to step in when a president dies in office.
The military called for calm, instituting a 6pm curfew and closing the country’s land and air borders as panic kept many inside their homes in the capital.
“In the face of this worrying situation, the people of Chad must show their commitment to peace, to stability and to national cohesion,” General Azem Bermandoa Agouma said.
The government has released few details of its efforts to put down the rebellion in northern Chad, though it did announce on Saturday that it had “totally decimated” one rebel column of fighters.
The rebel group later put out a statement saying fierce battles had erupted on Sunday and Monday. It released a list of five high-ranking military officials who it said were killed, and 10 others it said were wounded, including the president.
The army only said on Tuesday that Mr Deby had fought heroically but was wounded in battle. He was then taken to the capital where he died of unspecified wounds.
The United Nations has about 1,800 staff in Chad and spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York that the UN was “watching the situation hour by hour”.