campaign promise

Chad, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno and the 600 generals

By Mathieu Olivier, Special correspondent in N'Djamena

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Posted on June 1, 2023 10:10

 Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno (centre) in N’Djamena, 20 August 2022. ©Chadian Presidency
Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno (centre) in N’Djamena, 20 August 2022. ©Chadian Presidency

The Chadian army may have a reputation for efficiency, but it is the main pillar of the president’s power. Here, we delve into the heart of a system that is as political as it is military, where stripes often have little to do with military achievements. 

As the morning draws to a close in N’Djamena, the temperature continues to rise in the heart of the capital. A few lucky people have managed to get their air-conditioners working, but with the power cuts dragging on into May, Chad is suffocating even more than usual.

A few days earlier, in an outlying district of the city, an employee of the Société nationale d’électricité (SNE) narrowly escaped a vengeful mob. Queues are getting too long at service stations, forcing users to wait four or five hours with no guarantee of anything except leaving empty-handed. Chad’s only refinery is carrying out maintenance operations, as it does every two years, so fuel is no longer delivered.

The government has issued emergency import permits to resolve the crisis, but the initiative is not enough. At midday on Tuesday, the prime minister’s office was plunged into darkness. The electricity is no longer flowing, and the generators have not taken over for lack of fuel oil.

Even in the offices of Prime Minister Saleh Kebzabo, where the temperature is more conducive to rest than overwork, people are finding their way around by the light of their mobile phones, if they still have enough battery power. A stone’s throw away, at the brand new ministry of foreign affairs, the situation is the same. The lifts have come to a standstill, making it impossible to reach Mahamat Saleh Annadif’s offices on the fifth floor.

Generals without electricity

On 3 May, aware of this explosive situation, President Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno appointed a new director general at SNE. Little known to the public, he has nothing to do with the energy sector. This former governor of Logone-Oriental is neither technician nor administrator: Ramadan Erdebou is a general in the army.

An old friend of the late Idriss Déby Itno, he watched the latter’s son, now head of state, grow up. Is he the right man for the job? In any case, the general has taken the first step: on 9 May, he announced that the SNE would no longer be able to provide electricity to its beneficiaries. In other words, he is temporarily putting an end to the free privileges granted by the state to some of its employees.

A symbolic measure? The army generals are among the beneficiaries of free energy. “It went relatively unnoticed, but it’s a major risk. When you touch the generals’ privileges, you never know how far it can go,” says a civilian administration official.

“The president grew up with the top brass. He knows that this measure, even temporary, is risky, but perhaps it should be seen as the beginning of a desire to reform the army in small steps,” says an adviser to Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno. In private, the head of state has said that one of the challenges of his possible first elected term in office – if he were to stand for and win the presidential election – would be to reform the military.

Last March, he already passed an ordinance on the general status of the military, the ultimate aim of which is to review the rules for progression through the hierarchy and the retirement system, particularly for senior officers.

“Today, almost no Chadian general retires because he cannot maintain his lifestyle. As a result, the number of senior officers is constantly increasing,” says an insider. The task is a major one: while some officials, themselves military officers, put the figure at around 400, the army actually has around 600 generals. That’s as many as France and the US combined in 2022. It’s the result of decisions that are far more political than military.

Stars and allegiances

Flash back to early December 2022. Saleh Kebzabo’s government has only been in office for a little over two months, and the country is still trying to heal the wounds of 20 October 2022. According to the Chadian League for Human Rights, 218 people were killed (73, according to the government) in a crackdown on demonstrators on that day.

The second phase of the transition is off to a bad start and Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno is in a fragile state. The president has not yet revealed his ambitions for the future. He has neither confirmed nor denied his intention to stand as a candidate in the forthcoming presidential election scheduled for 2024. However, the inclusive national dialogue has given him the opportunity to do so, and several of his advisers are already working on it.

In some parts of the country, a father, a son and a nephew can all be generals

If he were to run, would it be on the Mouvement patriotique du salut (MPS, the former ruling party) ticket? Or would he create a new party, as suggested by those closest to him? Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno knows that he does not yet need to make an urgent decision and, above all, reveal his thinking. However, the time has come to consolidate the main pillar of his power: the army.

In December, he decided to use one of his late father’s favourite weapons: nominations. In two decrees, which unfortunately cannot be consulted online on the president’s website, he created 78 new generals. “Unprecedented,” says a former minister. “His strategy consists of reaching out to his clan”.

“He is putting out the idea that he wants to reform the army, but at the same time, to consolidate his power, he is using the appointment of elites from the North – the vast majority Zaghawas, along with a few Gorans and Arabs – to the military hierarchy,” says a security source in N’Djamena.

“In some parts of the country, a father, a son and a nephew can all be generals,” says another member of the army.

Someone close to the presidency says: “Appointing generals has always been a way of strengthening allegiances, particularly among the Zaghawas. Idriss Déby Itno [himself a Zaghawa] often used it, particularly when the Erdimi brothers joined the rebellion. His son [who is also Goran through his mother] is doing the same thing, on a larger scale.”

An army of solid gold

“His father had decades to consolidate the power that he himself had won. He’s only had a year or two [in office] and doesn’t have the same legitimacy,” says our source, who like all the others wished to remain anonymous. “Most of them have no real position. They don’t have a unit to command. Their rank is just a title and a way of attaching them to power.”

A ‘title’ that nonetheless comes with many benefits: Free health care, access to electricity, water and fuel, provision of a company car, maintenance of a team of around ten bodyguards… Not to mention a monthly salary of around 2m CFA francs ($3,259).

“These benefits are not exorbitant, but multiplied by 600, they have an impact on the state budget,” says a diplomatic source. In addition to the privileges in kind, the generals’ salaries are estimated to cost the state around 10bn CFA francs at the very least, to which must be added the loss of revenue due to the social benefits of these beneficiaries.

Several international partners have been quick to point out these figures and diplomatically alert the transitional authorities. In vain, it seems, partly because of the difficult regional security context. As a result, the budget for the ministry of the armed forces has been increased by a further 245% between 2022 and 2023, while that for civic education has been cut by 18%.

“And then there’s the possibility for anyone to place relatives in the administration,” says another senior civil servant. “All they have to do is call a director and slip in the name of a cousin, nephew or son.” This has yet another perverse effect, our source tells us. “We end up with an administration where the allocation of posts has nothing to do with skills or merit.”

“If this system worked for all of Chad’s elites, it would be a lesser evil,” says a former minister from the south of the country. “But in reality it concerns the Zaghawas in almost three quarters of cases and the rest goes to the Goranes and Arabs, who are associated with the government. The regional imbalance is only getting worse.”

Promises and free rein

Comfortably seated in the living room of his residence on the outskirts of N’Djamena, a man is waiting to be promoted to the status of general. A supporter of Idriss Déby Itno during the campaign for the 2021 presidential election, Baba Laddé insists that the late president had promised him such an appointment in exchange for his support.

Originally from Bongor, the former rebel was expected to bring with him the support of the Fulani communities in his native region. After the Marshal’s death, he was appointed head of general intelligence and then considered for the head of the National Security Agency, replacing Ahmed Kogri, before being dropped from the race. However, the general’s stars never came. “I’m probably not from the right region,” he says, disappointed and without a job.

“The president has no choice. He has to consolidate his base and reassure the Zaghawa establishment,” says a former minister of state. In this context, is army reform possible? And, if he really wants to (which his opponents doubt), will Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno have a free hand to carry it out? Idriss Déby Itno had on several occasions announced his desire to modernise the military and make it more republican. However, all his attempts – sincere or not – failed.

“As early as the 1990s, everyone agreed that reform was needed,” says the former minister mentioned above. However, as soon as Idriss Déby Itno wanted to implement it, some Zaghawas returned to the rebellion. That nipped the project in the bud.

Reforming the army should take at least five or six years 

“The army was built on the successive integration of rebellions to reward those who rallied and ensure stability,” says a researcher specialising in the issue. Even so, most of the rebellions in recent decades have come from the North. A whole model needs to be reinvented to make the army more inclusive. “The son doesn’t have to do what the father did.”

“As the saying goes, he is even obliged to do better,” says a presidential adviser. “The changes to military retirement are a first step. It’s work that should take at least five or six years” or exactly the length of a presidential term under the current constitution. Although Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno is not yet a candidate, he is already keeping a campaign promise.

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