Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed Europe’s last dictator, ended his three-day official visit to Zimbabwe on 1 February after presiding ... over the signing of several bilateral agreements between the two nations in the capital Harare.
Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno would not have imagined this ceremony two years ago, when he was in charge of presidential security and making sure, in the shadows, that nothing stood in the way of his father, Idriss Déby Itno, securing a new mandate.
However, on 10 October, as he walked up the red carpet leading to the entrance of the Palais du 15-Janvier, in the centre of N’Djamena, the general was preparing to take the oath of office and preside over a transition government that he had been heading since his father died in April 2021.
Sporting a white boubou, moccasins and matching headgear, he put on his thin black glasses and walked to the podium, surrounded by his bodyguards who were wearing red ties.
A few minutes later, wearing the head of state’s insignia, he announced: “The time has come for Africa and the world to better discover the talent of young Chadians.”
Is the 38-year-old Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno referring to himself? Is he already thinking about the post-transition era? The Dialogue National Inclusif et Souverain (DNIS) has in any case opened the door for him by allowing the transition leaders to stand as candidates in the 2024 presidential election.
He has taken a liking to power, becoming more comfortable every day in his civilian suit and abandoning his fatigues.
Abroad, he has become accustomed to asides with heads of state, particularly with the Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari, who was present in N’Djamena on 10 October.
He sees the 2024 presidential election as his next challenge and everyone is sure he will present himself as a candidate if circumstances allow.
“He discovered his attraction for the presidential office during the first phase of the transition,” says a person close to the Chadian government.
An itch to scratch
At the Palais du 15-Janvier, however, one man is conspicuously absent. Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union (AU) Commission, did not make the trip.
A former prime minister and then the late Idriss Déby Itno’s foreign affairs minister, he was one of the pillars of the regime of the Mouvement Patriotique du Salut (MPS, former ruling party) before moving to Addis Ababa in 2017.
He discovered his attraction for the presidential office during the first phase of the transition.
But he gradually distanced himself from the regime and, since April 2021, has been a discreet itching powder of the new regime.
His absence on 10 October 2022 extremely annoyed Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno’s entourage, who see it as an expression of opposition to the head of state’s investiture.
Behind the scenes, Mahamat says he respects the AU’s position. On 9 September, while the DNIS had not yet been completed, the pan-African organisation had indeed reaffirmed its opposition to a two-year extension of the transition government and to its leaders presenting themselves as candidates in the upcoming presidential election.
“Our recommendations went against what was finally adopted in N’Djamena. It is the choice of the Chadians and the Dialogue, which is sovereign, but it would have been difficult for us to come to Chad afterwards to give a kind of blank cheque to these decisions,” said a source at the AU.
“Since the beginning of the transition government, Moussa Faki Mahamat has used the AU to disguise his personal ambition, which is obviously linked to the presidential election. He is doing politics in Chad, but from Addis Ababa and without clearly stating so,” says a member of Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno’s circle.
The AU Commission’s chairman told us something else in June: “At the end of my mandate, I will be 65 years old. […] This is the retirement age. We will see when the time comes if I still have the strength to do something for my village, Chad, and for my country, Africa. If that’s the case, I won’t hesitate.”
Manoeuvres in N’Djamena
As early as April 2021, the best informed in N’Djamena said they knew what Mahamat’s intentions were.
The day after Idriss Déby Itno died on the Kanem front, he had discreetly pleaded in favour of a civilian transitional government, which would have had the effect of removing the top brass, who were loyal to the Marshal, from power.
Supported at the time by Daoussa Déby, the deceased’s brother, the solution was obviously not appreciated by the men in fatigues, led by Generals Idriss Youssouf Boy and Abdelkerim Mahamat Charfadine.
The military solution was finally imposed, with Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno at its head.
The battle then shifted to the MPS, which had lost Idriss Déby Itno and needed to be rebuilt. Under the impetus of the president of the Conseil Militaire de Transition and his then cabinet director, Aziz Mahamat Saleh, the party’s secretary-general, Mahamat Zen Bada, was gradually pushed aside.
In June 2021, following a bizarre congress organised in the latter’s absence, a new leadership was put in place, federated by the president of the National Assembly, Haroun Kabadi, who is closer to Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno’s circles.
“We wanted to prevent an axis from forming around the MPS linking Moussa Faki Mahamat, Daoussa Déby and Mahamat Zen Bada,” says a person close to the presidency.
Bada has been abroad for a long time, officially for health reasons, and has thus found himself under surveillance because of his supposed proximity to Mahamat.
Other figures are (or have been) undergoing the same fate, including Abbas Mahamat Tolli, the governor of the Bank of Central African States, Adoum Younousmi, the former prime minister, Abdoulaye Sabre Fadoul, Idriss Déby Itno’s former cabinet director, and Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, who was the interior minister.
Will the battle of 2024 take place?
“Some of them have fallen into line,” says Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno’s entourage. But Mahamat’s activism is not in any doubt.
As such, will there be a duel between the two men in 2024? The former foreign affairs minister has a solid network on the international level and can rely on his position as head of the AU to build the image of a diplomat intractable against the excesses of local powers.
On 20 October, he quickly and publicly condemned ‘the repression of demonstrators that led to deaths in Chad’.
Since then, the competition between the two men has intensified on the diplomatic front.
Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno succeeded in preventing his elder brother from being invited to the extraordinary meeting between the heads of state of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) on 25 October in Kinshasa.
For his part, the AU Commission’s chairperson submitted a vitriolic report about N’Djamena’s transition government to the Conseil de Paix et de Sécurité (PSC) on 11 November.
Although he has not yet succeeded in having the PSC adopt sanctions against the Chadian government, Mahamat is as determined as ever.
Je condamne fermement la repression des manifestations ayant entrainé mort d'hommes au #Tchad. J'appelle les parties au respect des vies humaines et des biens et à privilegier les voies pacifiques pour surmonter la crise.
— Moussa Faki Mahamat (@AUC_MoussaFaki) October 20, 2022
Translation: I strongly condemn the repression of the demonstrations that led to the death of men in #Chad. I call on the parties to respect human life and property and to favour peaceful means to overcome the crisis.
“He has every interest in pushing Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno to the margins. The more mistakes the latter makes, especially by crushing the opposition, the more Faki will appear as a solution in the eyes of foreign partners,” said a diplomat in N’Djamena.
But will this be enough, as the AU boss is becoming less and less popular in Chad, where he has not lived for years?
“Déby Itno has proven that he knows how to manoeuvre diplomatically, especially since the international community is not really intransigent with him. He has placed his people in the MPS and the army, the two pillars of power. If he manages to get his candidacy accepted and decides to run, I don’t see how Faki could counter him,” says a former minister.
“The Faki option is only credible if the president decides not to run in 2024. Everything will be decided in the coming months,” adds another former government minister.
Anxious to give pledges of openness, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno has appointed oppositionists Saleh Kebzabo and Gali Ngothé Gatta to the positions of prime minister and the presidency’s secretariat general respectively.
The experienced Mahamat Saleh Annadif was given the position of minister of foreign affairs, where he will be responsible for limiting Mamahat’s potential power of nuisance. The troops are in place. It remains to be seen whether the final confrontation will take place.
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