Chad: Dictatorship Continues by Other Means

1 Juni 2024

Credit: Joris Bolomey / AFP via Getty Images

By Inés M. Pousadela
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, May 31 2024 (IPS)

On 6 May, people went to the polls in Chad, ostensibly to elect a president who’d usher in democratic civilian rule. Ten days later, the Constitutional Council confirmed there’d be no change: the elected president was the leader of the military-backed transitional government supposedly handing over power, Mahamat Idriss Déby.

In 2021, Déby took over from his father, who’d held power since 1990 but had just been killed in a rebel attack. It was a coup; he wasn’t in the line of succession. At the head of a Transitional Military Council (CMT), he was in charge of leading the transition that hasn’t happened.

According to the official count, Déby won 61 per cent of the vote, easily securing the outright majority needed to avoid a runoff. There were widespread allegations of fraud. The campaign was marked by the assassination of a prominent opposition leader and the repression and killing of protesters. Civil society fears the results will legitimise authoritarian rule, deepening human rights abuses and further restricting civic space.

No democracy in sight

Since independence from France in 1960, Chad has experienced several coups and a long spell of authoritarian rule. General Idriss Déby, Mahamat’s father deposed the previous president in 1990 and had his autocratic reign rubber-stamped by six ritual elections between 1996 and 2021. Immediately after the 2021 election, rebels killed him on a visit to government troops, leading to his son installing himself as ‘interim leader’, perpetuating a political dynasty into its fourth decade.

The military initially said the transition would end with elections in October 2022, but as the date approached, instead it launched a ‘Sovereign Inclusive National Dialogue’, which extended Déby’s rule by over two years. Following the dialogue, the CMT was dissolved and Déby became head of a new transitional government, with a former opposition leader as prime minister.

The new timetable called for elections by November 2024. More than 60 people were killed in the protests that greeted this announcement, which the government denounced as an attempted coup. Numerous protesters received jail sentences. The government imposed a curfew and a three-month ban on political activity, arrested prominent opposition leaders and intimidated and harassed critical voices and journalists. Activists were detained or disappeared, with some forced to flee.

In November 2022, the government banned Wakit Tama (‘the time has come’), a coalition of civil society groups, trade unions and opposition parties, which first mobilised to demand democracy when Idriss Déby sought a sixth term. Any similar attempt at broad-based coordination was subsequently banned.

If something came out of the national dialogue, it was the need to decide whether Chad should be organised on federal or centralised lines. But the referendum held in October 2023 didn’t put this to a vote. Instead, it sought to validate a new constitution tailor-made to make the interim president’s rule permanent. Civil society and opposition groups called for a boycott, but as with every vote ever held in Chad, the dice were loaded.

Reportedly approved by 86 per cent of voters, the new constitution lowered the age required to run for president, enabling then-38-year-old Mahamat Déby’s candidacy, and required both the president’s parents to be Chad citizens, something his main rivals couldn’t easily prove. All junta and transitional government members were allowed to compete in elections.

As part of a deal to pave the way to a minimally competitive election, the government then issued a general amnesty for those involved in the 2022 protests and allowed exiled leaders to return and run. Among them was Succès Masra, who’d fled persecution and then came back after signing an agreement that made him prime minister. He ran for the Transformers party, coming in a distant second.

Third place was taken Albert Pahimi of the National Rally of Chadian Democrats, who served as prime minister between 2016 and 2018, and again between 2021 and 2022, but who now presented himself as the one who could stop the incumbent pushing the country over the edge.

Conspicuous by his absence was someone who’d been expected to be the main challenger. Yaya Dillo was killed on 28 February when security forces forced their way into the headquarters of his Socialist Party Without Borders. This happened days after a violent attack on the headquarters of the National Security Agency that the government blamed on Dillo and his party.

With an incomplete slate, a playing field heavily tilted in the regime’s favour and an election day plagued by violence and fraudulent practices that proliferated in the absence of independent observation, the results were predictable.

The international picture

There’s no pressure for democracy from Chad’s foreign partners.

Oil-rich Chad has long been a key ally of western states in their fight against jihadist insurgency, working with France and the USA against Al-Qaeda and ISIS operations in the Sahel. While other francophone countries under military rule – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – have kicked western powers out and pivoted towards Russia, Chad has so far remained in the fold.

In March 2024, Chad’s air force asked the USA to withdraw its troops – fewer than 100 – from a French military base. It was unclear why, but the USA retreated, at least temporarily. However, everything else, including France’s 1,000 or so troops, has remained in place.

France – a long-time enabler of Chad’s authoritarian rulers – has been careful not to stir things. In March, France’s special envoy to Africa met with the two ‘official’ candidates, Déby and Masra, and confirmed that French troops would stay.

Because Chad’s authoritarian rulers have long been backed by France, democracy activists have increasingly turned their anger on the country. Protesters have set fire to French flags and targeted buildings belonging to the French oil company TotalEnergies. Wakit Tama increasingly denounces the presence of French troops.

This backlash strengthens French support for the authoritarian regime, out of fear of the alternatives. The French government has consistently backed leaders who underpin its position in the region. This makes it inconsistent in its support for democracy, condemning military coups by anti-French forces in Burkina Faso and Mali but supporting the manoeuvring to keep friendly faces in charge in Chad. As long as this situation continues, there seems little hope for genuine democracy in Chad.

Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.