Chad: Will the 11 April presidential election be Idriss Déby Itno’s final one?

By Mathieu Olivier

Posted on Tuesday, 13 April 2021 18:01
Chad’s 68-year-old President Idriss Déby Itno makes no secret of the fact that he sometimes sees power as a gilded cage. DR

On 11 April, Chadians voted in the first round of the country’s presidential election. Idriss Déby Itno is the overwhelming favourite, but the election is not without its challenges, as his supporters admitted that the question of his succession is of increasing importance.

In the embassy district, not far from N’Djamena airport, the streets were deserted in the early morning of 8 April. Police and soldiers took up positions at the crossroads of the main roads.

A few motorists were annoyed. One had an appointment, the other a flight to catch. The men in uniform remained resolute. That morning, the President had planned to go out. The outskirts of his private residence and the mosque where he goes to pray were cordoned off. The red berets were keeping watch.

Chad’s President Idriss Déby Itno has been on the campaign trail. Ever since his return from Bongor, on the border with Cameroon, the head of state – who ran for a sixth presidential term on 11 April  has been crisscrossing the districts of the capital.

Early in the morning, to avoid the heat, he had addressed the crowds that his faithful support offices had taken care to gather. Ministers and dignitaries pulled out all the stops. One of them, the youngest member of government, set up an office celebrating Déby’s “vision”, another, more experienced, focused on the theme of “convergence”, and a third, was leading a youth chapter of the Mouvement Patriotique du Salut (MPS,).

Many of them came up with cunning ideas in order to get noticed. For instance, Mahmoud Ali Seid, director of administrative affairs at the presidency, decided to create a Coalition des Associations de la Société Civile pour l’Action Citoyenne, rather than a support office affiliated to the MPS. On 4 April, on the fringes of the party’s campaign and while the first lady was travelling in the southern part of the country, he organised a rally at an N’Djamena stadium. The stands were full and the atmosphere was festive. “He’s a smart guy,” says a spectator. “While some people fight for visibility in MPS meetings, he does his own thing.”

The family on the front line

“The campaign is a crucial moment in the political game,” says a member of the MPS. “The old ones mobilise the crowds in their regions so as not to lose influence with the leader and the new ones gather the young ones to try to make a place for themselves.”

President Déby observes and takes note of everything behind his dark glasses. Meanwhile, his family is  not left out of the activities, although it was shaken by the Yaya Dillo Djerou affair. The oppositionist’s mother was killed during the attempted arrest him. She was considered an aunt of the head of state. Djerou, meanwhile, is now in exile in Belgium after fleeing via Cameroon.

“This incident deeply affected the President,” said one of his relatives. “And, beyond that, it highlighted certain tensions that exist within his family, within Dillo and the Erdimi brothers’ networks.”

However, the clan remains united around its leader. Abdelkerim Idriss Déby, the head of state’s son and deputy chief of staff, is on the front lines and has not abandoned his father. Since his appointment to the presidential palace, this graduate of the US military academy of West Point has gradually become the undisputed boss, dealing with communication as well as political, commercial, security and diplomatic affairs.

On paper, Mahamat Aziz Saleh, a close friend of first lady Hinda Déby Itno, is in charge of the cabinet. However, in reality, it is 29-year-old Abdelkerim who holds the reins.

Two of the leader’s other children: Hissein Idriss Déby, who specialises in business, and Fatimé Idriss Déby, deputy director of the N’Djamena oil refinery, have also set up their own support offices, as has the president’s brother-in-law and aide-de-camp Khoudar Mahamat Acyl.

Even within the heart of this inner circle, everyone is in competition, sporting T-shirts, caps and banners, distributing orders (and money) to their lieutenants, who are often senior state officials.

Déby borrows a page from Sarkozy

In this world where their function has become a nickname, where each person calls the other “DG” (for director-general) or “adviser”, the party in power and the administration merge, and the offices of the state bodies are emptied according to the president’s electoral rounds. The MPS machine is well oiled.

Throughout N’Djamena, posters and slogans are displayed in an anarchically methodical fashion. “Long live the candidate of unity” (or “peace”, “security”, “democracy”, depending on the variant), can be seen on one of the avenues of the capital. “Together, anything is possible” (a slogan from France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy), can be seen on another street.

Pahimi Padacké’s legislative objective

There are few few traces of the other candidates, except for a few very rare posters praising the merits of former prime minister Albert Pahimi Padacké. The latter has also been campaigning throughout the country and appeared in Pala, the capital of his home region of Mayo-Kebbi West, on 9 April. The last man to have occupied the position of prime minister, which was abolished in 2018, chose not to boycott the election, unlike the heavyweights of the opposition such as Saleh Kebzabo and Ngarlejy Yorongar.

“The boycott plays into the hands of the president. If we want change, we must gather behind a candidate,” Pahimi Padacké. says, defending his close relationship with the MPS. But does he really believe that he can push Itno out?

“For Pahimi Padacké, the presidential election is only a stage. In 2016, he allied himself with Idriss Déby Itno and became prime minister. This allowed him to place his men within the administration, build up a war chest and structure his party. Now he is going it alone and aiming for a position in the post-Déby era,” says a political scientist.

“His real objective is the legislative election, which should take place before the end of the year,” says a person close to the presidency. “He wants to form a parliamentary group and probably become the leader of the opposition during the next term.” An opposition official adds: “He knows that the presidential election is set in stone and played out in advance, but he has another plan in mind.”

“Victory is guaranteed. We won’t even need to commit fraud,” says a member of the MPS campaign team. “It’s mathematical: the president has secured the vote in the northern part of the country and the south is torn between several candidates.”

The north’s only representative

On the starting line of the presidential race, Déby is indeed the only representative from the northern part of the country, while the other candidates: Félix Nialbé Romadoungar, Brice Mbaimon, Albert Pahimi Padacké, Lydie Beassemda, Théophile Yombombé and Baltazar Alladoum, are from the south.

“This is one of the president’s power plays,” continues the MPS source. “Discourage northern candidates and do nothing against those from the south, even encourage them.”

According to rumours from the presidential palace, a northern candidate did try to make his way to the 2020 presidential election. However, the ambitious man eventually gave up, after being appointed to a high and well-paid position within the customs administration. “There is a lot of talk about fraud, ballot-box stuffing and problems with registration, these things do often happen. But this is not how Déby came to power,” says a person close to the palace.

Participation closely scrutinised

Even if all observers and even actors of the 11 April election agree that it did not include an ounce of suspense, the rate of participation will be scrutinised. Did Chadians go to the polls?

Even within the MPS, many leaders fear the worst. The enrolment process has been plagued by numerous problems and large numbers of voter cards were not distributed in time. Many Chadians were also reluctant to turn out for what they felt was a low-stakes election.

A high rate of abstention would be a blow for the ruling party. However, it may well be the case as the so-called radical opposition, led by Saleh Kebzabo, Mahamat Alhabo, Ngarlejy Yorongar and Succès Masra, called for a boycott week after week.

“If Chadians do not turn out, the opposition may consider, rightly or wrongly, that its boycott campaign has worked. This would be a disavowal for the president. Finally, this election is beginning to look like a plebiscite for Déby Itno: if he passes in the first round due to a low turnout, the pro-boycotters’ cause will have gained legitimacy,” said a diplomat in N’Djamena.

He continued: “It is also a test for the MPS, which urgently needs to renew itself and find a new leader. Many regions object to the party in some way. The population reproaches the MPS for not having been present enough on the ground and this could affect how many people participate in the presidential election, but especially in the legislative election that follows.”

The legislative election, which has been postponed several times since 2015, is due to take place on 24 October. Everyone from Albert Pahimi Padacké to Succès Masra and Saleh Kebzabo has already set their sights on it. “The presidential election is the first round of the legislative election,” says an opposition official.

Perhaps finally some renewal

What kind of balance of power will there be in the future assembly? Padacké appears to have the means to make a place for himself alongside the MPS, which may be losing ground.

As for Masra, he could establish his party, Les Transformateurs, on the national scene by getting one or more representatives elected. The young economist, who supported the boycott and organised marches against Déby’s sixth term in office, met the head of state in mid-March (which earned him some criticism from within his own camp) and is pursuing his strategy of gaining media and political space.

As for Kebzabo will certainly play a role in the future of his party, the Union Nationale pour la Démocratie et le Renouveau (UNDR). The former leader of the opposition, who ran for president before withdrawing after the Djerou affair, was stripped of this position by Felix Nialbé Romadoungar in April 2019 after one of his parliamentarians left the UNDR on advice from forces within the MPS. After this manoeuvre, Kebzabo had fewer allies in the assembly than Nialbé, who became the official leader of the opposition in parliament.

“The period from 11 April to 24 October will set the tone for Idriss Déby Itno’s next mandate. He must renew the MPS, bring in some new people, so as not to be overwhelmed by the new faces of the opposition that may be Masra and Pahimi Padacké,” said the political scientist. During the campaign, Déby spoke a lot to young people and women, to whom he promised to devote the next six years, mentioning “full parity, employment and entrepreneurship” as the main challenges.

The “final” mandate?

Will he keep his promise? In the streets of the capital, a large poster stands out. Featuring Déby’s smiling face, it declares that this presidential election is the president’s “final battle”. “I don’t think this is intended, but it does raise the question of succession,” said a campaign team executive while driving past the poster.

In the corridors of the presidential palace, the question of the post-Déby era is, in any case, not taboo. Some, even discreetly, speak of this sixth term as his “last” or as a “transition”. Others are taking bets on the chances of this or that person playing a central role in the future.

“It is clear that a new generation has arrived in power, particularly behind his son Abdelkerim. There is a renewal that must continue, and its logical conclusion would be that the President plans his exit,” says a source in the palace.

The 68-year-old head of state says that he sometimes considers power to be a gilded cage. But can he get out? “The pressure from the army and his clan is strong, and that is what pushes him to stay,” says an MPS leader. “He absolutely wants to avoid an uncertain departure.”

“The challenge that awaits him, but this was already the case in 2016 during his last reelection, is to organise his exit: guarantee the safety of his family, reassure the army about a possible successor and guarantee his international partners that Chad’s security policy will not change,” says a diplomat.

Was this past election day Itno’s final encounter with the Chadian people at the ballot box? No one can say for sure, even though people are thinking about it more and more. In any case, this past Sunday’s election has raised more questions than answers.

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