Is Déby the new strongman of the Sahel?

Idriss Déby, Wikimedia Commons

By Colin Geraghty, Columnist


On March 11, the French Minister of Defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced an increase in French forces in the Sahel region to provide support against Boko Haram.[1] In doing so, France signaled a shift in focus that reflects Chad’s growing influence as a key military power in the region.

France intervened in Mali in January 2013 to counter the progression of al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated movements that were sweeping down from the north. France sent over 4,000 troops to the region. After 18 months of operations, France ended operation Serval in July 2014 and transitioned to operation Barkhane, a reorganization of France’s military presence in Northwest Africa in favor of a more coordinated regional approach. Since then, France has maintained approximately 3,000 soldiers spread across the Sahel region. These troops carry out surveillance missions, conduct operations against terrorist groups and provide support to African nations as part of MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali.

The purpose of the French intervention and subsequent shift to Barkhane is to manage, not solve, issues in West Africa. The French military are avoiding nation-building. France favors using its force to create a stable space, through military action and support to African partners, in which political actors can seek a political solution.

Barkhane focused initially on the Sahel, the region just south of the Saharan desert in which extremist groups were finding safe haven. It built on France’s forward-deployed forces throughout West Africa, a traditional sphere of Influence for France, and sought to coordinate these forces in a regional configuration that looked north, to contain extremists coming from North Africa into the Sahel.

By announcing support to counter Boko Haram, France’s regional presence is now looking southward as well, to Nigeria. Nonetheless, France does not wish to become entangled in the fight against Boko Haram which has spread from Northern Nigeria to parts of Cameroon and Chad. It is seeking partners to contain the organization’s regional extension. Le Drian specified that France’s contribution would remain indirect, providing logistical support to African troops from Niger, Cameroon, and Chad battling Boko Haram. France’s Foreign Minister noted in February that France cannot continue alone in this effort.[2] These comments appear targeted towards its European allies, and chiefly Great Britain, which has thus far abstained from getting involved.

One country has stepped in, repeatedly, since 2013: Chad, ruled by President Idriss Déby since he seized power in 1990. President Déby sent in forces from his own presidential guard to operate alongside the French in Mali in 2013. He also sent a large contingent to Central African Republic (CAR) and he is stepping up Chad’s efforts versus Boko Haram in the wake of an attack it carried out in Chad in February 2015.

Chad is a close partner for France, and despite the authoritarian nature of the regime its military is considered the most effective of all Francophone African nations. Barkhane’s headquarters are in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, and Idriss Déby is known to be personally close to Le Drian.

Indeed, Idriss Déby is now poised to become the new strong man of the Sahel region. He is well aware of his enhanced stature, and is not afraid to flex his muscles. While his troops were widely commended for their effective operational impact alongside the French in Mali, they received criticism over alleged human rights violations in CAR. In response, Déby withdrew his forces within 48 hours. In doing so, he not only signaled his displeasure with Western criticism but reminded Western powers of their increased dependency on Chad to counter threats in the region.[3]

This dependency highlights a structural dilemma for Western powers: when a crisis requires military action, Western capitals – and African capitals as well – look to African nations to lead the response. Yet authoritarian regimes are often the most willing to send in troops.[4] African democracies such as Senegal are in high demand for peacekeeping missions, given their military’s commitment to democratic values. As a result, its forces may be overextended.[5]

This structural dilemma creates conditions in which nations such as Chad can fill a void and offer well-equipped troops that can deploy rapidly. Yet the Chadian cooperation may come at a price: as Chad’s regional influence grows, it remains to be seen what impact it will have on regional stability, and whether it will help or hinder efforts to enshrine democratic regimes in the region.


Colin Geraghty is Master’s candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is also the co-founder and director of the Next Generation Foreign Policy Network, which organizes international security events for young professionals in DC. Colin lived in France for 16 years and speaks French fluently.


[1] Eric Schmitt, “Leading Role for France as Africa Battles Back,” New York Times, March 15, 2015;

[2] “Boko Haram : au Tchad, Laurent Fabius partage la « solidarité » de la France,” Le Monde, February 21, 2015;

[3] François Soudan, “Tchad: Idriss Déby, le boss du Sahel,” Jeune Afrique, March 9, 2015,

[4] Victor, Jonah. 2010. “African peacekeeping in Africa: Warlord politics, defense economics, and state legitimacy.” Journal of Peace Research, 47(2), 217-229.

[5] 10% of the Senegalese Army is currently deployed in various peacekeeping operations, as is 20% of its Gendarmerie, a national police force. The overall lack of equipment compounds this issue,

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