Last year’s peace talks between Chadian authorities armed groups and the National Dialogue may have appeared to usher in a new dawn for the central African country after the death of long-time president Idriss Deby. This was likely a mirage. Since independence in 1960, changes in Chadian leadership have never been the result of democratic, inclusive, or transparent processes. This transition is unlikely to be any different, and Chad’s allies and donors must prepare for this reality.
For too long, stakeholders like the African Union (AU), the European Union (EU), and the United States (US) have turned a blind eye to undemocratic practices in the country, ostensibly because of Chad’s longstanding relationship with France, and strong military capable of staving off armed insurgent threats. While true, these are not grounds to continue to support authoritarian practices.
The current crisis of legitimacy began in April 2021, when President Idriss Deby was killed in clashes with rebel group Front pour l’Alternance et la Concorde au Tchad (FACT) after holding onto power for 30 years. Ignoring the Chadian constitutional rule that leadership should be passed onto the president of the National Assembly until elections, Idriss Deby’s son Mahamat Deby declared himself President of the Military Transition Council, which was due to govern for 18 months until democratic elections could be held. Millions of dollars have been provided by Canada, the EU, and France to support the transition process, but the likelihood of a real transition is fading away.
In addition to elections, the 2021 transitional roadmap guaranteed the organisation of an inclusive national dialogue to determine the terms of constitutional reforms and lay the groundwork for national elections. After months of delay, a peace agreement, brokered in Doha, Qatar in early August 2022, secured the participation of many armed groups in the national dialogue processes. Although the Doha Accord is not insignificant, it unsurprisingly fell short of paving the way for any real effort to reform the security sector. Its biggest failure was that the two main peace spoilers, the FACT and the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR) as well as a handful of smaller groups, boycotted the two processes—putting into question their effectiveness and inclusivity.
One of many billboards in N’Djamena placed by Chadian authorities to thank Mahamat Deby following the signature of the Doha Accord on August 8, 2022. Photo credit: Alexandra Lamarche
Less than two weeks later, the Inclusive and Sovereign National Dialogue (DNIS) opened on August 20, 2022. The DNIS brought together more than a thousand stakeholders from opposition parties, armed groups, civil society, trade unions, as well as Chadian authorities and military. National dialogue processes should typically occur in the post-conflict stage. Of course, peace with some is better than peace with none, but the FACT and the CCMSR’s refusal to partake in the processes makes it clear that these tensions remain unaddressed.
While some international stakeholders applauded the launch of the dialogue, Dr. Yamingué Bétinbaye, senior researcher at Chad’s Centre de Recherches en Anthropologie et Sciences Humaines, told me that “rare are those who believed in a real change in the system” (original quote in French: « rares sont ceux qui croyaient à un changement véritable du système »). Their scepticism was justified when the forum culminated with the extension of the transitional government for an additional two years and the announcement that elections would only take place in 2024, after this “new phase of the transition”.
The transition has not been entirely without positive change. Exiled rebel leaders Timan Erdimi and Mahamat Nouri were able to return to Chad after nearly decades abroad in order to participate in the dialogue and former rebels have since been brought into a new unity government. While these significant changes must be acknowledged, will they truly bring change? Or have these compromises and both the Doha Accord and the DNIS mostly served to legitimise Deby’s disputed takeover?
In an ideal world, the dialogue would have been the opportunity to redefine the relationship between the state and the population. A quick look at Chad’s National Dialogue Commission Report—which troublingly isn’t widely available—shows little progress. Instead, it lays the foundation for the dynastic succession of Mahamat Deby. Although he had promised not to run for president, the report permits him and other members of the military junta to present themselves in the next election. Many Chadians feel misled since the change of plans.
On October 20, civilian frustration with the outcome of the DNIS, and the state of the transition more broadly, came to a head and thousands took to the streets across the country. Chadian security forces responded with live bullets, killing over 50 people and injuring dozens more. Despite human rights organisations’ repeated calls for thorough investigations into the gruesome event, Chadian authorities have failed to take action.
Dr. Bétinbaye lamented that since October, “we have, once again, fallen back into the old system” (original quote in French: « on est de nouveau retombés dans l’ancien système »). Deby senior’s regime—which began in 1990 following a coup—was described as “an old family kingdom as his sons, brothers, and […] in-laws have been appointed in state positions that give them access to wealth, power and coercion”—a reality that undoubtedly encouraged Mahamat Deby’s power grab in the wake of his father’s death.
The decades of Idriss Deby’s rule were known for opposition crackdowns, fraudulent elections, and unmet promises of democratisation. Despite these tendencies, international support for Idriss Deby rarely wavered. Given his son’s track record over the last two years, it is hard to imagine the new iteration of a Deby government will be very different. It is paramount that Chad’s partners and donors break the tradition of unconditionally supporting the Deby family.
The events of the past year are no real surprise. This reality begs the questions: why did anyone fund this hollow transitional process and why is international condemnation so weak? Of course, stability in Chad and the broader region is important, but prioritising maintaining the status quo at the expense of the Chadian people choosing who represents them and how, undermines democracy.
Ending the game of follow the leader
Shortly after Idriss Deby’s death, Jerôme Tubiana described the transition as a family succession and “a ‘regime of exception’ in view of the clearer international condemnations of authoritarian attempts in other countries in the region” (original quote in French : « à un « régime d’exception » au regard des condamnations internationales plus claires envers les tentatives autoritaires dans d’autres pays de la région. »). This unwavering loyalty must end.
Since Chad gained independence in 1960, France has had a special, and complicated, relationship with its former colony. For too long, France was only focused on stability and propping up Idriss Deby and other countries followed suit. Despite Deby senior’s violent repression of his opposition, and the questionable elections that saw him re-elected in the 1990s and 2000, France and most of the international community continued to acknowledge his rule.
Since then, Chad has been France’s main military ally on the continent. Agreements between the two countries have led to France training Chadian soldiers and bolstering their intelligence capabilities. In return, France has maintained military presence in the country, affording it “the capacity to secure French citizens and economic interests in Chad and neighbouring countries”. French boots on the ground have also been credited with disincentivising rebel groups from overthrowing Chadian leadership. This was particularly apparent in 2008 and 2019, when French forces conducted airstrikes to stop rebels on their way to attack the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
Chad has been France’s key partner in its ‘War on Terror’ across the Sahel—from Mauritania to Chad—through its Operation Serval from 2013 to 2014, and Operation Barkhane between 2014 and 2022.
At Idriss Deby’s funeral, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged his country’s continued support: “France will also be there to keep the promise of a peaceful Chad alive” (original quote in French: « La France sera également là pour faire vivre la promesse d’un Tchad apaisé »). During my last trip to N’Djamena in 2022, Chadians made it clear that France’s support for Deby’s junta is fuelling anti-French sentiment across the country.
After years of following France’s lead in the country, international stakeholders seem to be starting to engage different in Chad. It’s high time. statements from key players in the US State Department and on Capitol Hill highlight an interest in a new kind of policy towards Chad.
While the EU has often followed suit, they appear to be less aligned with France in the face of recent events. On December 14, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling Deby’s takeover a “military coup d’état” (words few governments have uttered) and condemned the military junta’s use of violence against protestors. Of course, demanding more of Chadian authorities comes with risks. In early April, Germany’s ambassador to Chad was expelled from the country for “discourteousness and disrespect for diplomatic customs” (original quote in French : « attitude de discourtoisie et le non respet des usages diplomatiques » ), which sources claim was a reaction to the ambassador’s criticism of the delayed elections. Germany authorities responded by expelling Chad’s ambassador to Germany days later.
While France may continue to support the Deby dynasty, other players must continue to break from this harmful tradition—not in an effort to break ties with Chad but to compel the government to do right by its people and to encourage France to echo these demands.
The Role of International Stakeholders
Instead of overlooking Chadian authorities’ transgressions because of their status as a ‘regime of exception’, diplomatic partners should at the very least condition their support in exchange for basic improvements in terms of human rights and the provision of basic services—responsibilities long-ignored by the security-focused government. An opinion shared by Dr. Bétinbaye, who argued that “conditioning the support could make leaders feel compelled to change their approaches” (original quote in French: « conditionner le support pourrait faire en sorte que les dirigeants se sentent obligés de changer leurs approches »).
For its part, the African Union (AU) must play a bigger role in pushing Chadian authorities. With Moussa Faki, a Chadian, as the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, this is not without its challenges. Condemnation from the regional organisation is discounted as sabotage because of the possibility of Faki’s own political ambitions in Chad, and a lack of critique is viewed as favouring the Deby regime. Regardless, the AU’s Peace and Security Council must be more vocal about what it expects from the Military Transition Council.
The new government could very-well be leading the country to another boiling point. Mahamat Deby may hold onto power beyond two-year transitional period by repeatedly postponing elections or holding opaque elections. In these cases, he will be proven to lead another regime that rules harshly but offers a semblance of consistency. This, coupled with rightfully disgruntled population and the lack of an accord with groups like FACT and CCMSR, run the risk of further destabilising the country.
Hopes for further talks have not died, however. In early March 2023, members of the FACT and 17 other Chadian armed groups gathered in Italy in an effort to reignite the dialogue and come to an agreement with leaders of the transition. What happens next will be pivotal.
As donors continue to finance the transitional process, and shore up funding for the anticipated 2024 elections, diplomatic levers must be utilised to encourage the transition to effectively engage in these newly-initiated peace talks, and ensure that Deby doesn’t continue to shirk his responsibilities to hold elections and provide for Chad’s citizens. If international partners continue to turn a blind eye, the transition may only be a mirage and the civilians will continue to pay the price.