Chad: Déby seeks stability at any price

By François-Xavier Freland
Posted on Thursday, 19 September 2019 14:55

Still seated: Chadian president Idriss Deby Itno. REUTERS/Alain Jocard

Chad's President Idriss Déby Itno has made security the priority of his fifth mandate. But critics say his main motivation is to strengthen his own powers.

The atmosphere is festive at the headquarters of the Mouvement Patriotique du Salut (MPS), on N’Djamena’s Place de la Nation, on 8 August. In the main courtyard, guests – mostly representatives of the country’s institutions, members of parliament and ruling party officials – wave small flags in the MPS colours of yellow and blue, featuring its emblems (a rifle and a hoe supporting a torch) and its martial motto: “Die for salvation”. The history of the presidential party is emblazoned on its flag.

When it was created by Idriss Déby Itno in March 1990, the MPS was an underground rebel movement. A few months later, it became a political party after bringing down Hissène Habré’s regime in December 1990. “The MPS has transformed the Chadian political scene. It brought about the democratisation of the country and established a multi-party system,” says its secretary-general, Mahamat Zen Bada Abbas.

Despite the heavy rain, traditional dancers perform in the courtyard in front of ministers and party dignitaries. And in this compact crowd, we salute each other by raising our fists in front of the giant portraits of the uncontested leader, Idriss Déby Itno, whose third year of his fifth term all are here to celebrate. His inauguration took place on 8 August, 2016 after being re-elected in the first round with nearly 60% of the votes cast – a result challenged by some of the opposition.

Three years ago, Idriss Déby Itno was sworn in during an acute financial crisis and recession, accentuated by a costly war of attrition against Boko Haram. “Among his promises, there were three main lines of action,” says Hassan Sylla Bakari, the MPS spokesman. First, to work for peace, by guaranteeing the security of Chadian territory. Secondly, to give every citizen access to water, health, housing, energy and mobility. And, finally, to build a dynamic and prosperous country. We are addressing these challenges.”

State of emergency in three provinces

A former minister of information and communication and spokesman for the government from 2011 to 2016, Sylla is a loyal member of the executive branch, to such an extent that some opponents once called him “the griot of the dictatorship”.

He prefers to remind us that he stood alongside Chadian troops during Operation Serval to liberate Gao in January 2013, and that in Mali he witnessed the ravages of radical Islamisation and the rise of inter-community tensions. He knows about insecurity. “We can be proud. Chad has certainly given a lot, but it also pays a certain price,” the party spokesman says.

The country is indeed affected by the evils that are eating away at its Sahel neighbours. In early August, clashes between farmers and herders killed at least 50 people in 10 days in the east of the country, which is now regularly shaken by violence between Zaghawa nomads and Ouaddaïan peasants, raising fears of the first signs of inter-community crises or even civil war.

In an attempt to contain the threat, on 18 August Déby declared a three-month state of emergency in two border provinces with Sudan, Sila and Ouaddaï, and then in Tibesti in the north, calling for the disarmament of civilians and recalling that “the main cause of this inter-community conflict is the unrest that is escalating in Sudan”. On 10 September, parliament extended the state of emergency for four months.

Chad is a more fragile that it seems, and without unity it could quickly ignite into a Malian scenario, warns a German humanitarian director

Chad, whose economic growth is recovering somewhat (from -2.4% in 2017 to +2.4% in 2018 and 2019), is trying to raise its head in an still uncertain regional security context, despite the president’s attempts to reassure the international community about external threats. But a climate of instability surrounds him on all sides.

  • To the east is the border with Sudan, still shaken by the fall of Omar al-Bashir.
  • In the south, since the beginning of the year Chad has strengthened its troops’ presence on the border with the Central African Republic (from which it has also received many refugees since the 2012-2013 civil war).
  • In the west, with its neighbours Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, it continues its fight against Boko Haram.
  • In the north is its border with Libya, where, at its request, the French air force engaged in Operation Barkhane carried out controversial strikes to stop the incursion of an armed column of the Union des Forces de la Résistance (UFR), an alliance of rebel troops based in Libya.

“Chad is more fragile than it seems and, without unity, it could quickly ignite into a Malian scenario,” warns a German humanitarian director. This is something on which the vast majority of Chadians agree, even if the government is regularly accused of using the security argument “to put the democratic life of the country on hold”, according to Saleh Kebzabo, former leader of the opposition.

It is far from simple, logistically and financially, to organise calm elections in such a context. However, Déby assured parliament in July that legislative elections, which have been postponed several times since 2015, will take place at the end of the year. Even if the main opposition leaders no longer believe it, the Chadian authorities say they will rise to the challenge and show signs of willing.

Electoral dialogue

On 11 July, most party leaders went to the presidential palace at the Déby’s invitation to talk about the electoral process. Following a heated debate, decisions were taken to overhaul the electoral preparation process, including the Cadre national de dialogue politique (CNDP).

However, there has been no progress on the fundamental issues of transparency and openness in the political game. On 13 July, as a sign of appeasement, the Chadian president lifted restrictions on social networks, which had been blocked for “security reasons” since March 2018 – when challenges were being raised against the draft new constitution, adopted in April and coming into force in May 2018.

“Without dialogue, there will always be rebellions in Chad, until there is a change of regime by force, with all the risks of a civil war that this entails,” says Moussa Pascal Sougui, secretary-general of the Conseil national de la résistance pour la démocratie (CNRD).

One thing is certain, while the all-military option seems to be reaching its limits, a little democratic oxygen would calm people’s minds.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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