The death of Idriss Déby on 19 April 2021 plunged Chad into political uncertainty. Déby was reportedly killed on the frontline while leading his troops against Front pour l'Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT) rebels en route to N'djamena to overthrow him.
He had just been re-elected for what would have been his sixth consecutive term in office for the ruling party Mouvement Patriotique du Salut (Patriotic Movement for Salvation). Déby’s rule – spanning almost 30 years – was becoming increasingly contested, most recently through an imminent armed insurgency from the north (south of Libya) in a tense socio-economic climate.
Four months later, following a meeting in May, an African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) meeting in August 2021 took stock of developments in Chad. Here, questions can be asked about what the transitional roadmap can deliver for Chad’s competing constituencies and how this fits into PSC expectations.
Following Déby’s death, a military transitional committee (MTC) headed by his son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, seized power, violating the constitutional provision that the National Assembly head assumes interim presidency. The MTC argued that the head of the National Assembly relinquished this prerogative, especially to allow the military to fight off the FACT rebels.
The PSC discussed the situation in Chad on two previous occasions. Following a meeting on 22 April 2021, an assessment mission was dispatched to shed light on Déby's death and meet Chad’s political and social forces to discuss the way forward.
The 14 May 2021 meeting examined the mission’s report, from which the Council noted the unconstitutional nature of the MTC takeover. However, it decided neither to suspend Chad nor impose sanctions on MTC leaders. Instead, it opted to support the transition, asking that it be confined to 18 months. However, this required modification of the transitional charter – the interim ‘constitution’ – enacted by the MTC, which allows for an extension of the process for a further 18 months.
Miscalculation and bad precedent?
In these two meetings, immediate security and stability considerations swayed the decision towards granting the MTC the leeway to oversee Chad, a regional security pillar, in this turbulent political period. This concession seemed to embolden the soldiers in N'djamena, who opposed the arrival of the AU special envoy for the transition in Chad, Senegal’s Ibrahima Fall.
The MTC preferred a more familiar figure, Republic of the Congo’s Basile Ikouébé, already a high AU representative in the country, as special envoy of the AU. This seemingly inconsequential episode reveals the AU's true difficulties in getting the MTC to align with the continental organisation’s expectations. The MTC has very strategically invoked Chadian state sovereignty in the face of a continental organisation too accommodating to Chadian soldiers following Déby’s death.
At the 14 May meeting, the PSC was also concerned about certain provisions of the transitional charter, as they give full powers to the MTC, particularly its chairman Mahamat Idriss Déby. In addition, the possibility remains to extend the arrangement by 18 months, against the PSC’s stipulations. The other sticking point is the eligibility of MTC members, Mahamat Idriss Déby in particular, to stand for election.
At this stage, it appears that AU pragmatism on Chad could be detrimental to the process. Clearly, transition means different things to different actors because expectations (and uncertainty) about what Chad’s to become vary among stakeholders. The MTC has pursued a strategy to conserve power, which many external partners believe will prevent a complete implosion of Chad with dire implications for regional security.
Some Chadian opposition parties, civil society organisations and sections of the population see the transition as an opportunity for genuine political change and a better system for the people. The PSC approach attempts a balancing act, but this may not guarantee an acceptable outcome for all Chadian actors and risks preserving the status quo ante.
The NTC, dialogue and the rebels
Two important benchmarks for Chad were establishing the National Transitional Council (NTC) and an inclusive national dialogue. The NTC will, among other things, vote on the constitution that will lay the foundations for post-transition Chad. The national dialogue, intended to be inclusive, must lead to the development of new social contract terms, while strengthening national unity and social cohesion.
The NTC is being appointed, with article 63 of the charter giving the MTC president the power to appoint NTC members. Mahamat Idriss Déby has already appointed the ad hoc committee responsible for its establishment, chaired by MTC vice-president, Major General Djimadoum Tiraina. The organising committee for the national dialogue has also been set up to define dialogue modalities in terms of both participation and content, and expected outcomes.
However, the concentration of powers in the individual and the institution presiding over the process – as was the case under Déby – seriously challenges a consensual and peaceful transition. It also casts doubt on the establishment of post-transition institutions that are credible and accepted by all components of Chadian society.
The first implication will be about the quality of the institutions regulating and managing electoral processes. The ad hoc committee recently visited Mali to draw lessons from that country’s transition. The selection of members of the NTC and the quality of the national dialogue will be the first full-scale tests of the commitment to an inclusive changeover.
However, it appears that the AU's room to manoeuvre in Chad’s transition was seriously undermined by concessions made in the PSC’s consecutive decisions. These, despite valid security considerations, favoured calculations of stability above respect for own normative frameworks and the aspirations of Chadians.
The other real challenge facing Chad is non-state armed groups, including rebels and mercenaries. Mahamat Idriss Déby made an overture to dialogue with the rebels during his Independence Day address on 11 August 2021. But this will take political will on both sides, and substantial and sustained efforts that cannot be consolidated within the remaining transition timeframe.
Clearly, Chad's problems cannot be resolved through and during transition. At best, the journey must begin to lay the foundations for sincere, credible and transparent institutions that can continue the construction and reconstruction that Chad so badly needs.
What can the AU do at this stage?
The MTC has gained the upper hand in the transition thus far. Not only has it imposed on the AU a special envoy of its choice, but it led an aggressive diplomatic campaign reassuring regional and international partners of Chad’s military engagements. However, the AU can still rebalance its approach.
It can use suspension, sanctions and other diplomatic tools to ensure progression to civilian rule and genuine political change in Chad. For this, the PSC will have to be firmer on its expectations, particularly the inclusiveness of the national dialogue and the composition of the NTC. These must lead to a consensual constitution, national reconciliation and strong institutions guaranteeing stability. A successful transition in Chad should not lead to more of the same.