Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee met with the president of the Transitional Military Council, Mahamat Idriss Déby, on Tuesday 22 March to press for a freely elected civilian government. In a subsequent tweet, she welcomed Déby’s report on the remaining steps of Chad’s transition, “including an inclusive national dialogue in May, a constitutional referendum, and free and fair elections.”
According to a readout from the US Embassy in N’Djamena, the pair “discussed the importance of a peaceful, timely transition to a democratically elected and civilian-led government by the end of 2022.” Déby is said to have committed to holding a national dialogue “without exclusion,” while Phee “expressed support” for the African Union’s May 2021 call that members of the military council abstain from running in the election.
Earlier on Monday, Phee met separately with Prime Minister Albert Pahimi Padacké and with Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Abakar Abdelkerim Daoud to discuss a “timely transition to civilian-led government” and the talks between Chadian authorities and the opposition in Doha and with
…I think the Chadians themselves are searching for a path forward and trying to determine what that path forward is going to be. And so if there’s an opportunity to influence that, now’s the time to do it.
Phee’s single-nation trip is a “long overdue” sign that the Joe Biden administration is ready to step up to the plate following a series of coups in the Sahel, says former State Department official Cameron Hudson. Now a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, Hudson publicly advocated back in April 2021 that the US stop viewing Chad as a “French problem” after Déby succeeded his father, Idriss Déby, who was mortally wounded last year by Chadian rebels after more than three decades in power.
“I argued very strongly at the time that we needed our own Chad policy, separate from the French,” Hudson tells The Africa Report. “I had done the rounds with the NSC (National Security Council) and State and basically got the message that … we’re going to let the French sort of lead and we will play a supporting role.”
Phee’s visit, he says, “comes at a moment when I think the Chadians themselves are searching for a path forward and trying to determine what that path forward is going to be. And so if there’s an opportunity to influence that, now’s the time to do it.”
Congress demands change
The Biden administration is also under pressure to act from Congress, where top foreign policy leaders have criticised the State Department for not labelling Déby’s rise to power a coup while urging a rethink of America’s security-heavy counter-terrorism strategy for the Sahel.
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, wrote a lettter to Phee ahead of her visit to encourage her “to lead administration efforts to develop a holistic policy approach to Chad that appropriately balances defence, diplomacy and development.” A critic of the Biden administration’s response to last year’s coups in Sudan and the Sahel, Menendez has also expressed concern that defence and security policy are taking precedence over democracy and diplomatic engagement in Africa.
In the absence of a comprehensive plan for Chad that includes robust support for good governance and institution strengthening, I will continue to object if notified of the intent to provide further security assistance.
“Our security assistance to Chad over the years has far outpaced the development assistance we have provided to the Chadian people, including in the area of democracy and governance,” Menendez wrote. “This imbalance is deeply problematic and has contributed to the militarization of the previous Chadian regime.”
Menendez added that the fact that the Biden administration has “continued to pursue a security assistance relationship” with the country’s leader “does not position us to take advantage of the window of opportunity to change Chad’s trajectory moving forward.” He hinted that he has been and will continue to hold up security aid to the country, which amounted to $1.8m in last year’s State Department budget request versus $3m in development assistance to boost civil society and the media.
“In the absence of a comprehensive plan for Chad that includes robust support for good governance and institution strengthening, I will continue to object if notified of the intent to provide further security assistance,” he said. (Neither Menendez nor the State Department responded to requests about how much security assistance is currently being held up).
The House has also expressed some frustration regarding US policy in the Sahel. Last month top Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee wrote a letter to President Biden denouncing the “alarming trend of coups” including in Chad and urging the US to take a lead role in crafting a new approach that incorporates more holistic, long-term objectives centred around governance and institution building.”
“We write to you to express our concerns with the deteriorating humanitarian, political, and security situation in the Sahel, and the urgency for developing and implementing an effective and comprehensive strategy,” they wrote. “We also urge you to soon appoint a seasoned diplomat with experience in Sub-Saharan Africa as Special Envoy to the Sahel to help coordinate US diplomatic engagement, work with regional partners to implement a refreshed and balanced strategy and refocus US support toward addressing the root causes of chronic violence, instability, and governance challenges.”
The Biden administration has begun shifting in that direction.
Phee engaged with civil society representatives, multilateral partners, humanitarian actor, media and the private sector during her visit. Meanwhile the US is seeking full membership in the Sahel Alliance, a regional partnership launched by France, Germany and the European Union (EU) in 2017 to help coordinate aid.
Russia went mostly unmentioned in official readouts other than a denunciation of the Ukraine invasion during her meeting with Déby. Still, growing Russian influence in Chad’s neighbourhood forms a central backdrop to Phee’s trip, says Hudson.
While countries such as Mali have ruptured relations with France and turned to Russia, Chad has taken the opposite approach, with Déby meeting multiple times with President Emmanuel Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian since Paris endorsed his rise to power.
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Twice the size of Texas, the country sits smack in the middle of a would-be line of Russian influence from the Red Sea in Sudan to the western Sahel. The country is also bracketed by Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries in Libya to the north and in the Central African Republic to the south.
“Chad is emerging as an important bulwark against that,” Hudson says. “And so there’s a real opportunity and a real need to engage the Chadians right now, as they are trying to figure out on their own what their next step is going to look like.”
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