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Chad: May 6

All indications are that Chad’s May presidential and legislative elections will be a highly orchestrated exercise to ensure General Mahamat Déby remains in power. Déby took control of the Chadian government in an April 2021 military coup following the death of his father, President Idriss Déby, who had himself seized power in a coup 30 years earlier.

As a result of the extraconstitutional means by which he came to power, Mahamat Déby has struggled with a persistent legitimacy deficit. Upon taking executive authority, he promised a transition to democratic elections within 18 months. Instead of upholding that commitment, he organized a National Dialogue that was tightly controlled by loyalists. The Dialogue yielded the predictable outcome that the transition should be extended an additional 2 years and that junta leaders would be eligible to join the subsequent civilian government, something they had initially foresworn.

Chad has never experienced a peaceful electoral transition of power despite persistent and widespread demands for democratic norms by Chadians.

To mark the end of the junta’s 18-month timeline, opposition parties, civil society leaders, and ordinary Chadians intent on establishing democracy and a return to constitutional rule, held protests on October 20, 2022. The Chadian military violently suppressed the unarmed protesters, resulting in an estimated 300 deaths with hundreds more arrested.

Proceeding with their self-directed transition and disregarding an opposition boycott, the junta pushed through a referendum in December 2023 that adopted a new constitution, approved junta members participating in an elected government, and set November 2024 as the election date. This followed a general amnesty for all individuals responsible for the October 2022 violence against protesters. Chad has largely received a pass on implementing genuine democratic reforms from some Western partners given Chad’s perceived stabilizing role in the Sahel. Key African actors, meanwhile, have concerns that instability in Chad would have ripple effects for its six neighbors. Illustratively, the Economic Community of Central African States, of which Chad is a member, has proffered muted expectations that Chad uphold democratic norms.

A twist leading into the election year was the appointment of a leading opposition leader, Succès Masra, as the junta’s new prime minister. The popular leader of the reformist Les Transformateurs party that was a key organizer of the October 2022 protests, Masra fled Chad after the military’s violent crackdown. Many from his movement were killed or arrested. The junta subsequently issued an international arrest warrant for Masra. As part of a deal negotiated to enable his return from exile, the warrant was vacated and 72 detained opposition party members were released.

The shooting death of opposition politician Yaya Dillo Djérou and dozens of supporters by security forces on February 28 sent a clear signal to all political actors in Chad that Déby would tolerate no genuine threat to his hold on power. Dillo, a cousin of Déby, was the leader of the “Socialist Party Without Borders,” which has attracted the support of notable former military officers. Dillo was also an influential leader in Déby’s Zaghawa ethnic group, which has its stronghold on the Chad-Sudan border. Dillo had strongly opposed Chad’s tacit support for the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan’s civil war.

Women queue to cast their votes in N'Djamena, Chad.

Women queue to cast their votes in N’Djamena, Chad. (Photo: AFP)

Arbitrary constitutional modifications, prolonged electoral delays, assassinations, and the co-option of leading opposition figures were familiar moves in Idriss Déby’s autocratic playbook. The tactics enabled the elder Déby to hold the presidency for six terms, even though the Chadian constitution had a two-term limit for much of his tenure.

This malleable approach toward the constitution has enabled the Déby family and the military, which serves as the muscle behind the throne, to enshrine a system of hereditary succession paving the way for it to remain in power indefinitely.

This arrangement is a key reason why Chad has never experienced a peaceful electoral transition of power despite widespread demands for democratic norms by Chadians. This has contributed to the persistent instability Chad has faced over the decades with multiple armed rebellions, political assassinations, economic crises, and growing disparity in this oil-rich country of 17 million that ranks at the very bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index rankings.

Mahamat Déby has struggled with a persistent legitimacy deficit.

Chad must grapple with intensifying regional instability and cross-border tensions in 2024 as well. Prime among these is the fragmenting conflict in Sudan. Fighting between the Sudanese military and the rival militia RSF, led by Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, that erupted in April 2023, has resulted in over 700,000 Sudanese refugees spilling into eastern Chad. (This is in addition to 600,000 refugees Chad was already hosting.) In response, the Chadian military has provided armed escorts for humanitarian groups assisting these refugees.

These population movements are sensitive given that Chad and Sudan have a history of supporting rebel movements in each other’s territories, typically centered in the restive Darfur region of western Sudan that has been the focus of RSF attacks against civilians, including those from the Zaghawa tribe to which Déby belongs. There is pressure on Déby from Zaghawa leaders to support Darfur rebel groups resisting the RSF. Instead, reports indicate that Déby is allowing the United Arab Emirates to use Chad as a staging base to supply the RSF. The RSF is also the beneficiary of Russian support being funneled from Libya and the Central African Republic. Moscow is simultaneously linked to the sponsorship of armed rebel groups in southern Chad.

With Chad standing in-between Russian-sponsored military governments in the western Sahel and Sudan, Chad may be pulled deeper into regional and international geopolitical dynamics that will further strain its instability in 2024.