On 10 April, voters in Chad will be asked whether they want 65-year-old Idriss Deby to be their president for a fifth term.
Déby has been in power since 1990. This means that most of Chad’s youth – who make up the majority of the population in this oil-rich central African country – have known only one president all their lives.
Déby is up against various opposition candidates, but none of them seem to stand a fair chance of beating the incumbent president, who has the state’s resources and control of the media at his disposal. Not even long-time opposition stalwart Saleh Kebzabo looks as if he could lead a major regime change in Chad.
Civil society has little faith in politicians to ensure such a change and have launched their own campaigns for weeks now to show their dissatisfaction with the regime. They are leading marches against high food prices, fuel price hikes and other day-to-day issues, but clearly, the complaints are directed against Déby. The regime knows it and is cracking down hard against any dissent.
The government has announced that no mass meetings are allowed unless these are directly linked to the election campaign, which started on 20 March. Four of the main civil society leaders were taken into custody to prevent a major opposition march they had been planning for 29 March.
The domestic situation in Chad has worsened in the last couple of months due to the fall in the oil price and a deteriorating security situation in the country.
Attacks by the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, have led to many lives being lost – especially in the Lake Chad Basin area. These attacks have also led to the closing of major trade routes, like the one from the capital of N’Djamena, through Cameroon, to the Douala harbour.
In addition to that, conflicts in neighbouring countries have sent a flood of refugees to Chad. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Chad hosts over 450 000 refugees – mostly from the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Nigeria.
Despite massive discontent against his regime, and that Déby is flouting democratic principles by standing for a fifth term – even if it is not prohibited by the constitution – it has been near impossible for activists in Chad to mobilise any outside support. The international community is either keeping mum on the elections or actively showing support for Déby. This is largely linked to his position as strongman and purported guarantor of peace and stability in the region.
Déby was elected African Union (AU) chairperson for 2016 at the January AU Summit in Addis Ababa – which sends a clear message that the AU supports the Chadian leader. Very few people at the summit seemed to be aware of the fact that Déby’s rule will be challenged in elections during his term as AU chairperson.
The Constitutive Act of the AU does not seem to prohibit heads of state facing elections from holding the AU chairperson position, but it is nevertheless surprising that this was not taken into account when the Assembly made this decision. Are the AU and Déby so confident that the Chadian leader will win the election that no one even thought about this? And if Déby were to lose the presidential election, would his successor take over as AU chairperson?
David Zounmenou, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies says the decision by the AU seemingly fails to take into account the domestic impact and the message that it sends about upholding democratic principles in Africa. ‘The AU’s decision might follow regional rotation [the previous chair was Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe], but there has been a strong reaction from civil society activists and diplomats in Chad,’ he says.
The AU and other international actors approach Chad like a major regional power – and yet it is a state that relies heavily on income from its oil reserves to finance its military prowess in the region. It is also a country plagued by institutional weakness and with a highly contested president.
The drop in the oil price has clearly made a dent in the country’s finances, prompting questions over whether Chad would be able to continue financing its army as before. ‘There are reports that the state is indebted by as much as US$700 million,’ says Zounmenou. Chad played a significant role in the conflict in northern Mali in 2013, where it was the only African power to help France push back Islamist militants. Scores of Chadian soldiers died in the military intervention in Mali.
Chad was also a key actor in the conflict in CAR, its southern neighbour. While it initially supported the Séléka rebels that staged a coup in Bangui in March 2013, its troops later became part of a regional force to help bring order and stability to the country. It later withdrew its troops following allegations of bias in favour of one side in the conflict.
The second indication that Déby has strong international support is the silence around the election from the former colonial power, France. Though France’s influence on local politics in Francophone African countries is sometimes exaggerated, criticism of Déby could have emboldened the protestors – just like the perceived lack of French support for Blaise Compaoré at the end of his reign in Burkina Faso in November 2014 might have been a factor in the latter’s popular overthrow.
France clearly needs Déby for strategic reasons; to fight the war against terrorism. In his new book, Hollande l’Africain, journalist Christophe Boisbouvier points out that French President François Hollande chose to go against many of the ideas he evoked during his 2012 election campaign by supporting African strongmen like Déby.
Because France needed Chad during Operation Serval in Mali, Hollande and Déby became ‘best friends’ in 2013, says Boisbouvier. ‘Before this military operation, President Hollande stayed true to some of the commitments that he made during his election campaign about democracy and human rights in Africa.
‘After Serval, realpolitik took over – and Chad is the best illustration of this,’ writes Boisbouvier. By basing its regional anti-terrorist force, Operation Barkhane, in N’Djamena, France subsequently confirmed that it considers Chad a key player in peace and security in the troubled West and Central African region.
Zounmenou says France’s silence over Déby’s fifth-term bid contradicts what the former colonial power has always said about supporting democracy and democratic change of power in Africa. Its silence about the controversial referendum to change the constitution in the Republic of the Congo – in order for President Denis Sassou Nguesso to participate in the 20 March elections – also tarnishes France’s reputation.
‘Since France seems to prefer continuity of these regimes, rather than insisting on democratic change, this poses a real problem,’ says Zounmenou. Sassou Nguesso won the elections in the first round by 60%, an outcome widely contested by opposition and civil society in the Republic of Congo.
Zounmenou says there is currently a clear reversal of democratic gains that were made on the continent and the extension of both Sassou Nguesso and Déby’s mandates is an example of this. The fact that the international community is not speaking out about these issues is shameful, he says. ‘The international community is supposed to promote democracy in Africa, but it seems to have lost its voice.’
Written by Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant