Democracy in Chad takes a back seat to military might

In a rare show of solidarity, Chadians rejected the military junta endorsed by international partners.

After the sudden death of Idriss Déby Itno on 20 April, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) led by his 37-year-old son, Lieutenant General Mahamat Idriss Déby took control of Chad. Arguing an exceptional security situation, the TMC immediately suspended the constitution and all republican institutions, promising to conduct an 18-month transition.

Many Chadians rejected this unconstitutional takeover – despite it being welcomed by the international community. On 27 April, the public responded to calls for demonstrations by political parties and civil society organisations.

A security force crackdown on the protests led to at least nine deaths, several dozen injuries and numerous arrests. These events cast doubt on the TMC’s willingness to hold the inclusive dialogue needed to resolve the politico-military impasse brought on by 31 years of the late Déby’s presidency.

In a rare show of solidarity, opposition parties, civil society organisations and the country’s main trade union rejected the TMC and called for talks that include armed groups. The Episcopal Conference of Chad has joined the appeal for a return to constitutional order. A group of dissident army generals has also reportedly taken a stand against the TMC.

Key government appointments confirm the military’s desire to perpetuate Déby’s rule

The social discontent and ensuing repression are a major blow to the TMC. It now faces more resistance, in addition to the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebellion in which the former president was killed. On 11 April, FACT members launched an offensive that took them from the Libyan border to Chad’s Kanem region, about 300 km from N’Djamena, covering nearly 500 km in one week.

FACT eventually changed its position, under pressure from the Chadian army and an attempted mediation by Mauritania and Niger, Chad’s partners in the G5 Sahel. However, the TMC – confident in its ability to defeat the rebellion militarily – rejected FACT’s proposal for a political solution including all parties. Fighting resumed between Chad’s army and the rebels in northern Kanem during the week of 26 April.

The TMC ignored the dialogue called for by many sections of Chadian society and made key appointments, including that of Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke. On 2 May, Padacke chose a government which contains two important opposition parties but doesn’t reflect the broad inclusion that the opposition and civil society wanted. These appointments confirm the military’s desire to perpetuate the former president’s rule – based on family, clan, army and political allies.

Inclusive national dialogue in Chad is vital. While it is true that the late Déby’s presidency brought relative stability to Chad, this was achieved through authoritarian, personal and militarised governance, which neglected diversifying the economy.

Using an exorbitant defence budget, the late Déby secured power and diplomacy in the region

The population hasn’t benefited much from Chad’s exploitation of oil since 2003. The third poorest country in the world, Chad is now ranked 187th out of 189 on the United Nations Human Development Index. Yet it has one of the highest defence budgets relative to GDP in Africa.

The country’s exorbitant defence budget helped secure the late Déby’s power and enabled him to maintain a subtle military diplomacy in the region. The idea that Chad is indispensable for the security of the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin allowed Déby to overlook nation and state building and efforts to reduce inequality.

This explains the embarrassment of some actors in the international community, notably France, who seem to see Chad only as a provider of soldiers for the fight against violent extremism in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin – to the detriment of democracy and good governance.

In Mali, the junta that took power in August 2020 was forced – notably through sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States – to talk with certain sectors of Malian society and set up an inclusive transition. By endorsing a coup, Chad’s many partners show little regard for democratic principles when security interests are at stake.

France supports the establishment of a military regime in Chad on the ashes of another one it endorsed for 31 years. The G5 Sahel countries, that depend on Franco-Chadian military arrangements, have also failed to condemn the military coup.

The African Union was one of the few institutions to express concern about the TMC’s establishment

The African Union (AU), through its Peace and Security Council (PSC), was one of the few institutions to express concern about the TMC’s establishment. It called for a rapid return to constitutional order. An AU fact-finding mission to Chad will submit recommendations to the PSC. However, divisions among PSC members about the way forward might force the AU to maintain a wait-and-see position.

The instability caused by Déby’s sudden death shows that peace shouldn’t depend on personalised power, embodied by a leader, regardless of how charismatic they may be. Without dialogue, political parties, civil society organisations and even a section of the army could radicalise and plunge Chad back into a new cycle of violence.

The TMC seized power by bending constitutional rules. Using the region’s security problems – the FACT rebellion and instability in the Lake Chad Basin and Sahel – doesn’t justify this unconstitutional change of government. And the need for Chad to maintain its regional military commitments shouldn’t allow the international community to turn a blind eye to the coup.

The TMC must open up the government and listen to the Chadian population, which has long suffered at the hands of its leaders, rather than choosing them. Regional, continental and international diplomacy should support the military junta in this delicate exercise, which, if badly handled, could perpetuate instability in the country and the region.

Paul-Simon Handy, Senior Regional Adviser and Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, ISS Dakar

This article was produced with the support of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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