Timan Erdimi, the leader of the Union of Resistance Forces (UFR), whose columns that swooped down on the capital in 2019 were stopped thanks to French army planes, landed in the early morning at the airport from N'Djamena where around fifty relatives were waiting for him, noted an AFP journalist.
"I am very happy to return to the country after so many years of exile," Timan Erdimi, 67, told AFP, sporting a thin white beard and wearing a traditional dress and a white cap.
A little later in the morning, Mahamat Nouri, leader of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD), also arrived at the airport in the Chadian capital. Mr. Nouri, former defense minister of Idriss Déby, before defecting, had been indicted in France for "crimes against humanity" for the alleged recruitment of child soldiers in Chad and Sudan. Incarcerated in Paris in 2019, he was released in 2020 for health reasons.
A compact crowd of several hundred people welcomed Mahamat Nouri, dressed in a large boubou and a white turban on his head, noted an AFP journalist.
The two rebel leaders must participate, from Saturday, in a major inclusive national dialogue (DNI), which must lead to "free and democratic" elections and the transfer of power to civilians.
The head of the UFR, who had been living in exile for ten years in Qatar and whose twin brother Tom has been imprisoned for several months in Egypt, is a member of the Zaghawa ethnic group like his uncle Idriss Déby, who led the Chad with an iron fist for 30 years before being killed while going to the front against rebels in April 2021.
"We cannot expect Timan Erdimi to simply rally to power, he will certainly play his own part, we can even expect that the tensions, which are important at the moment within the Zaghawa community, are fed by Timan, rather than calming them down," Jérome Tubiana, a French researcher specializing in Chad and its rebel groups, told AFP.
- Amnesty -
The two rebel leaders had participated in the 2008 offensive which arrived at the gates of the presidential palace, before finally being repelled, in particular thanks to the support of France.
In 2019, after another failed offensive, Chadian justice sentenced Timan Erdimi in absentia to life imprisonment.
In November 2021, the ruling junta decreed a general amnesty for rebels and opponents, claiming to want to "cleanse the slate of the vestiges inherited from the dark periods of our country".
Mr. Erdimi is a cousin of Mahamat Idriss Déby, Chad's new strongman, who took power following his father Idriss Déby, at the head of a Transitional Military Council (CMT). Mahamat Idriss Déby assumed almost all powers after dissolving the government and suspending the Constitution. He promised the return of civilian rule after an 18-month transition period.
- "Rebuilding Chad" -
After several years of armed struggle, on August 8, Timan Erdimi's UFR and Mahamat Nouri's UFDD, alongside some forty other rebel groups, signed an agreement in Qatar with the ruling junta, providing including a ceasefire. "We signed this agreement to rebuild Chad," Timan Erdimi told AFP.
The signatory groups are invited to participate in the DNI, a national reconciliation forum which opens on Saturday in N'Djamena after several postponements. Some 1,400 delegates, members of trade unions, political parties and the CMT, will meet for three weeks to discuss the reform of institutions and a new Constitution, which will then be put to a referendum.
But two of the main rebel groups, as well as a platform of political parties and civil society, refused to participate in the DNI, considering it "biased".
The UFR, with several hundred men, is based in southern Libya and northern Chad.
The UFDD, based in Libya, emerged very weakened from the departure of Mahamat Mahdi Ali, who left to found the Front pour l'alternance et la concorde au Tchad (Fact) in 2016, a rebel group at the origin of the offensive which cost the life of Idriss Déby.
Chad, a member of the G5 Sahel, is considered a key partner in the anti-jihadist struggle waged in Central and West Africa by Westerners, starting with France.