Chad: democracy still on hold
Chad’s interim president Mahamat Déby, installed by the army when his father, President Idriss Déby, was killed last year, is in no hurry to lead a democratic transition. Fifteen months have passed of what was supposed to be an 18-month process leading to elections, but a planned national dialogue has repeatedly been postponed. Protests are often banned or violently repressed, and protest leaders have been arrested. The military government is acting with the blessing of its key partner, France, which has made Chad its lynchpin in its battle against regional insurgent forces. Instead of turning a blind eye, France should call for the immediate launch of an inclusive transition to democracy.
Chad’s military rulers are in no rush to move towards democracy. An 18-month transition period that’s supposed to end in parliamentary and presidential elections now only has three months left – but there’s scant sign of action.
Chad’s interim president, Mahamat Déby, inherited the position from his father, Idriss Déby, who seized power in a military coup in 1990 and went on to spend three decades in office. Idriss Déby died the day after he was handed his sixth term in a non-competitive election, as he commanded troops in the military’s fight against rebel forces in northern Chad. The army wasted no time in installing Mahamat as head of a Transitional Military Council (TMC). They also suspended the country’s constitution.
The political opposition, which had long urged Idriss Déby to stand aside, called out these events as a coup. The constitution had clear procedures for precisely this situation: the President of the National Assembly should have taken temporary charge and an election should have been held within 90 days. But the army simply ripped up the rules.
All this happened in April 2021 – but it may as well have been yesterday, such is the lack of progress since.
While there have been some limited concessions, such as the granting of amnesties to almost 300 detained activists and opposition members – demanded by rebel groups as a precondition of any talks – little else has moved forward. In August 2021 the TMC proposed a national dialogue with the participation of rebel groups, but its launch has been repeatedly postponed.
A preparatory consultation took place in Qatar earlier this year, but recently the dialogue was pushed back again until August 2022: a whole year of promised and subsequently withheld talks has passed.
Demands for change
Meanwhile the TMC has continued the late president’s repressive practices towards people demanding democracy.
Those calling for change include Wakit Tama – Chadian Arabic for ‘the time has come’ – a coalition of civil society organisations including trade unions, as well as human rights activists and political opposition members. Wakit Tama first mobilised against Idriss Déby’s sixth term and has pushed for reform ever since.
Wakit Tama and other pro-democracy movements face a state that routinely refuses permission for protests, and when protests go ahead it repeatedly uses force against them. Tournons La Page, a pro-democracy network spanning multiple Central and West African countries, reported that during protests against the sixth term in 2021, at least 20 people were killed, 152 were injured and 849 were arrested. The organisation documented torture in detention and complete impunity, with no one held to account for any of these human rights violations.
The pattern continued after the coup. Live ammunition was reportedly used against protests to demand a return to civilian rule in April and May 2021, with at least 16 people killed.
Chad’s campaigners for democracy are getting little outside help. France is a long-term supporter and enabler of the regime. French President Emmanuel Macron signalled his support by attending Idriss Déby’s funeral, as did the European Union’s head of foreign affairs, drawing civil society criticism for doing so.
France has long turned a blind eye to the regime’s repression and corruption, enabled by elite control of oil resources, because the country positions itself as a vital associate in the fight against terrorism. Jihadist insurgency is on the rise across the Sahel, not least in the Lake Chad area at the country’s eastern borders with Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. Those committing violence include Boko Haram forces spilling across the Nigerian border.
Meanwhile in Chad’s north, since 2016 rebel groups with bases in Libya have been trying to overthrow the government and are responsible for the fighting that caused Idriss Déby’s death.
Cooperation with Chad is core to France’s regional security strategy. Since 2014 its anti-insurgency campaign, Operation Barkhane, has been headquartered in the capital N’Djamena. In this context the French government will accept military rule as superior to insurgency. That’s why it justified support for the military’s 2021 takeover on the grounds of ‘exceptional security reasons’.
Across multiple Central and West African countries, France’s strategy is being challenged. There is growing anti-French sentiment, often linked to the presence of French troops as well as resentment at France’s post-colonial role, in which it routinely held the status of primary partner, enjoying special influence while supporting dictators.
In Mali, the government has expelled French troops – a decision that makes Chad even more important to France – and the country has become one of several where Russian mercenaries have reportedly been deployed. The recent decision by Gabon and Togo to join the Commonwealth is also likely influenced by a desire for undemocratic governments to signal to the public a distancing from France.
Since Chad’s military government is legitimised by France, democracy protesters have increasingly come to focus their anger on the former colonial power. Protesters have set fire to French flags and targeted premises owned by French oil company TotalEnergies. Wakit Tama, as part of its demand for democratic change, is now protesting against the presence of French troops and France’s support for the TMC.
It’s become increasingly clear that France’s stance on democracy in the region is incoherent: it condemned the coups in Burkina Faso and Mali but supported the one in Chad. Years of the presence of French troops have not made the lives of people in the region any more secure. It should be time for a foreign policy reset.
The implication of current French policy is that Chad’s regime has no incentive to yield to public demands for change. So instead it mobilises repression. The violence against protests continues. At a Wakit Tama protest in N’Djamena in May, police used teargas and water cannon, and then detained six Wakit Tama leaders. They each received a one-year suspended sentence.
Time for change
A stalled transition process may well suit the army and Mahamat Déby: it can offer an excuse to delay elections on security grounds and eventually hold them in the same kind of restricted circumstances that Idriss Déby thrived upon, with the incumbent using control of state resources and repression to prevent competition, enabling Mahamat Déby to legitimise his presidency. He has so far failed to give assurances he won’t run for president.
But all the repression in the world won’t damp down the demands for change. Pressure on the TMC, and on France, is likely to grow as Chad, where most already live in dire poverty, faces economic difficulties due to the pandemic and the Ukraine conflict, and a rising food insecurity crisis caused by both floods and irregular rain. The military alone can’t fix these problems. Only genuine dialogue and a real plan for inclusive transition could.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Transitional Military Council should immediately commit to a roadmap and timetable for an inclusive transition to democracy.
The authorities should allow protests to take place and stop using violence against protesters.
The government of France should urge Chad to develop and implement a roadmap and timetable for inclusive democratic transition as part of its cooperation with Chad.
Chad is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Cover photo by Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images