On Sunday 11th April, millions of Chadians took to the polls to re-elect their longstanding President Idriss Deby for his 6th term in a hostile and contested election campaign. 9 days later, he was dead. Official reports suggest that Deby died on Tuesday 20th April, succumbing to injuries sustained whilst supporting the national military in their fight against Libyan-backed rebel group Front for Change and Unity in Chad (FACT). Chadian authorities responded by swiftly installing Deby’s son, four-star General Mahmat Idriss Deby, as the leader of a military council that will govern the country in an 18-month transitionary phase, with the promise of ‘free and fair’ elections in late 2022. This instalment violates Chad’s constitutional process for a ruler’s death, which states that the National Assembly should take interim charge of the country for 90 days before overseeing elections.
Yet this official narrative has been challenged, and many experts worry that his death threatens to unstable the Central African Country. Dominique Trinquad, former head of the French UN Military Mission suggests that “we don’t know if he was killed by the people he was facing, or by someone around him.” Rumours of an internal coup are just that; rumours, yet it is clear that Deby faced rising tensions from both his own regime and wider civil society. Nathanial Powell, author of France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonisation in Africa, suggests that Deby’s “anti-democratic, authoritarian” rule has “generated long-term discontent with the regime itself” – involving the rigging of elections and violent intimidation of opposition leaders.
Opposition leaders have challenged the legitimacy of the military council, labelling it a ‘coup d’etat’. FACT’s spokesman Kingabé Ogouzeimi de Tapol has pledged to “continue the offensive,” while the military council have launched tanks and soldiers upon the capital, N’Djamena, to secure it from insurgency. Tensions are at boiling point. French leader Emmanuel Macron placed his country’s backing behind the imposed military council, calling for “stability and security.”
Yet there is one word missing here: democracy. The country must seize this moment as an opportunity for lasting change. Regime continuity may be the ideal situation for Chad’s international allies, but for millions of Chadians it would be disastrous. Deby denied political opportunities for almost all outside his small Zaghawa ethnic group and a selection of elites, using eye-watering oil receipts to consolidate patronage networks and purchase arms – while simultaneously neglecting issues like infrastructure, schooling and health. It is crucial to realise that FACT only emerged out of protest against Deby’s constitutional reforms in the mid-2000s, splintering off from the larger Union of Forces for Democracy and Development. The chaos at Deby’s death belies the inherent fragility of military rule, in that it lacks the internal legitimacy for lasting peace.
The picture is complicated further by Chad’s geopolitical significance. Chad is a major player in the G5 Sahel initiative, tasked with fighting terrorist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS around the Lake Chad region. Its role as a counterterrorism ally has brought funding and support from France in particular, with Chadian forces playing a crucial role in France’s 2013 intervention in Mali.
Nonetheless, Macron’s willingness to stabilise an unelected military council should worry the international community. The emphasis must lie instead on reversing Deby’s constitutional changes, and on shifting Chadian priorities from military action back towards the interests of its own people. Involving Chadian civil society in the political process is a crucial priority, yet this cannot happen while Chad sits under the rule of an unconstitutional military rulership. Many Chadians cannot wait 18 months. As Chad teeters on the brink, the road to democracy appears perilous.