Chad President Idriss Deby marked 15 years at the helm of the vast arid nation this weekend amid reports of new defections by members of his inner circle as well as the military.
Army and government sources on Monday said key local government officials as well as several officers had deserted their posts at the weekend, swelling the ranks of rebel forces hiding out in the sandy eastern stretches of the oil-producing nation.
And in a written statement handed to the media, two of his nephews and ex senior aides, Tom and Timane Erdimi, who respectively held top jobs in the country’s oil and cotton sectors, said they were joining those bent on evicting Deby from office.
“Today many Chadians are struggling in various ways and means against the Deby regime, we join them without regret,” they said in the statement.
For the past two months a group of anti-Deby soldiers-turned-rebels has operated in the volatile region bordering Sudan’s Western Darfur under the name of SCUD, which stands for “Platform for Change, National Unity and Democracy”.
Although Deby initially took power with Sudan’s blessing, the almost three-year conflict in the troubled Darfur region has spilled across the border, with Khartoum and N’Djamena at times trading accusations of supporting each sides’ enemies.
Deby, a member of the Zaghawa ethnic group, has come under attack from Chadian soldiers of the same group for not doing more to help their Sudanese kinsmen fight government forces and allied militia in Darfur.
Deby’s kinsmen were behind a mutiny in May 2004.
But SCUD leader Yaya Dilo Djerou, who is also Zaghawa, says the dissident group’s concerns are with broader government policy and that it has a far wider support base.
At a 15th anniversary speech this weekend in his hometown of Fada, more than 1,000 kilometres northeast of the capital N’Djamena, Deby did not dwell at length on the mutineers but did pledge to fight back.
“I will never allow these adventurers to undermine our democratic achievements,” said the president, who seized power in 1990 before subsequently winning elections in 1996 and 2001.
An army officer turned president, Deby appears to be facing growing dissension within his armed forces.
In October he overhauled his presidential guard days after an undetermined number of soldiers deserted their posts in N’djamena and fled to the east. In November he reshuffled officers in top military posts.
He said last month that some of the SCUD deserters were involved in a plot to topple him in May 2004 but dismissed the group as being insignificant. “It’s a short-lived venture - a minor group,” Deby said.
SCUD leader Dilo Djerou has said the group numbers several hundred.
Implicitly reiterating charges that the Sudanese government was propping up the rebels, Deby in his weekend speech urged Khartoum “to abandon all action destabilising Chad.”
In eastern Chad, local officials on Monday reported the defection of the prefect - government representative - and deputy prefect of Iriba and the deputy prefect of Goz Beida.
Last week, clashes between troops and rebels near Adre on the border with Sudan left a dozen soldiers dead and five injured, according to military sources. Rebels seized three army vehicles loaded with arms and destroyed two others.
Meanwhile military sources on Monday said several officers based at the northern Bardai barracks had deserted on Saturday.
In N’Djamena, the ministers of defence and public security met with the armed forces chief of staff but there was no confirmation available on reports that Goz Beida had fallen into the hands of the SCUD rebels.
In their statement the Ermini brothers, who were joined by the former head of the food security office Mahamat Abdelkerim Hanno and the former head of the National Administration and Magistrates School Abakar Tolli, called for a transition period leading to new elections after Deby’s ejection.
Responding to their strong words against the Deby regime, accused of corruption and of impoverishing the country, Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor accused Tom Ermini on Monday of treason and of embezzling millions of dollars while carrying out his job coordinating Chad’s oil programme from 2000 to 2004.
“He has run away because the noose is tightening both following his involvement in the 16 May 2004 attack against the head of state and because of the inquiry into his management of funds,” Doumgor said.
Ermini immediately denied the accusations in a statement on the Internet.
“The only error I will admit to is having worked and staunchly supported Deby,” he said.