High Stakes, Scant Competition as Chad’s Mahamat Deby Seeks Legitimacy

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Campaigns are underway for Chad’s May 6 presidential election that is unlikely to have a surprising result. For the last three decades, one family has been at the helm of the central African nation and is expected to continue leading it after this vote. Stability is critically under threat with deep ethno-political divisions, a prevailing insurrection from rebels largely based in neighboring Libya, Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR), the nearly-decade-long Islamic State and Boko Haram insurgency in the Lake Chad region, and the year-long war in Sudan. But even with the 10 candidates cleared to contest—some recurring political foes—competition remains low as the opposition is weak and divided, and key politico-armed groups have been excluded.

General Mahamat Deby inherited the Chadian presidency in April 2021 after the sudden death of his father—Idriss Deby Itno, who had just been re-elected for a sixth term while facing off rebels who have long wanted to remove the family from power. The transition period was initially set at 18 months, with Mahamat pledging not to extend his term or seek election once it ended. To stave off the rebel threat, he called for consensus talks across the political divide that were initially boycotted by the armed group behind his father’s death and based in Libya: the Front for Change and Concord (FACT), as well as the Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR).

Mahamat also faced nearly weekly protests at the start of the transition as activists and opposition politicians under the Wakit Tama (also Wakit Tamma) coalition rejected what they termed a “constitutional coup.” He remained undeterred and, in October 2022, unilaterally extended his term by two more years, sparking devastating protests led by now prime minister Succes Masra, a senior economist turned politician.

Rights groups said more than 200 people were killed, while a crackdown on dissidents ensued, targeting members of Masra’s Transformers party who fled into exile, critical journalists, and renowned anti-government activists. More than 1,000 people were jailed, many in the remote, maximum security prison of Koro Toro, where reports of torture and hunger strikes emerged until the eventual release of prominent Transformers party officials more than a year later to pacify the opposition.

The protests and arbitrary detentions were roundly condemned, but this did not reduce Chad’s support from the West. With drastic diplomatic and security setbacks in the Sahel—especially as Russia expands its foothold in neighboring Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger—Chad is one of the remaining few bastions for Western-led military intervention, particularly from France and the United States. This is quickly changing after the Chad demanded the exit of dozens of U.S. troops based in the country ahead of the election, which Washington has agreed to on a temporary basis.

Tight Contest after Painless Reconciliation

Although the reconciliation between Masra and Mahamat was easy, it also set the stage for an intense rivalry in the election that could further divide the country. Masra’s support for a contentious constitutional referendum appeared to weaken his standing as a formidable opponent. But this move was also pragmatic as it catapulted Masra to prime minister position allowing him to spearhead the transitional government that is organizing the presidential election.

“If your objective is to ensure that we are no longer going to prolong the transition, we must start from this constitution, which is not the best constitution,” he had said during referendum campaigns in December.

But Masra is in a precarious position as Mahamat retains control over key government and security installations. The prime minister also risks losing popular support as followers of his party may feel betrayed having taken part in the October 2022 protests, only for the Transformers leader to join the very government he had been opposing. Speculation is also rife that he may form a coalition government with Mahamat should the junta chief win the election.

The Wakit Tama coalition also appears to have lost momentum long before the pivotal 2022 protests. Initially formed to oppose the late Deby’s sixth term bid, Wakit Tama (which means “time is up” in Chadian Arabic) defied bans on demonstrations to sustain pressure on Mahamat to hand over power. It briefly took part in the so-called Inclusive and Sovereign National Dialogue (DNIS) with the military authorities but withdrew as it became evident that the process was only aimed at favoring the ruling junta.

“In the absence of a favorable response to these demands, we are calling on all the Chadian people to engage in civil disobedience,” the coalition coordinator Max Loalngar had said.

In response, Chadian authorities abducted and detained Loalngar and several other coalition members, highlighting the risk that comes with opposition activities in Chad. The leaders were eventually released, with some going into exile. Their absence from Chad has sidelined them from the political transition, particularly mediation between the military government and the opposition brokered by the Democratic Republic of Congo president Felix Tshisekedi that led to the Masra-Mahamat deal.

Another notable contender in the presidential election is former interim prime minister Albert Pahimi Padacke, who opposed the constitutional changes but has not mounted a formidable challenge so far against Mahamat.

In addition to the pervasive climate of fear and heightened security, Chadian authorities have banned talk shows in the media. This appears to be a means of minimizing robust debate on the stakes for the election, as Mahamat manages public opinion, as well as perceptions toward the transparency of the vote and controversies that have surrounded his tenure.

Straddling Internal Divisions and External Pressures

While Mahamat’s ascension ensured continuity in leadership, his tenure has been shaky. There has been a silent palace war as family members who have often felt entitled to the presidency stir divisions in the army that is dominated by their Zaghawa ethnic group.

The killing of leading critic Yaya Dillo—also a cousin to Mahamat who had previously waged an insurrection against Deby that briefly earned him a position in government—marked a dark chapter in the familial wars. His Socialist Party Without Borders (PSF) accused the military government of assassinating him ostensibly to diminish any meaningful challenge toward Mahamat in the upcoming election. But the military said PSF members attacked security installations in the capital N’Djamena, leading to a deadly gun exchange that claimed Dillo’s life.

Mahamat said the death will be investigated to demonstrate transparency. But it was not the first time his cousin had been deemed a political threat. Dillo was previously targeted by Chadian officials in the run up to the April 2021 presidential election–where his candidacy was rejected– for fomenting an insurrection. He lost his mother and son in the raid. Internet restrictions were imposed in both instances as Chadian authorities sought to control the narrative of the deadly incidents.

Dillo previously led the Platform for Change, Unity and Democracy (SCUD) armed group that was made up of dissident soldiers that took part in Chad’s 2005–2010 civil war. Many of the armed groups embroiled in that war continued to oppose what they termed as Deby’s dynastic rule as family members filled crucial government and security posts. They have denounced marginalization, which has worsened ethno-political divisions in the central African nation.

Over the years, sustained military operations rather than lasting dialogue and restitution has pushed many of the rebels into Libya, CAR, and Sudan where they continue to pose a threat to security and stability. Their activities are aggravated by mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group also based in the former two countries and expanding their reach in the Sahel, which broadens external threats to Chad. Mahamat momentarily appeared to manage this by visiting Moscow in January for talks with Russia president Vladimir Putin after warnings by the United States that the Kremlin was seeking to remove him.

Chad has also found itself embedded in the Sudanese civil war. It has received some of the highest number of refugees—about half a million according to UN estimates—many from the war-torn western region of Darfur. But Chad has also been accused of fueling the conflict through its ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Military equipment and medical supplies have reportedly been sent to Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) disguised as aid from the Chadian border. Chad and the UAE have denied this, but it has blighted Mahamat’s credentials.

Nevertheless, Mahamat has faced down all the internal and external upheaval by further entrenching power. Even if the election in May—with a possible second round in June and final results expected in July—only certifies a foregone conclusion, it will be closely watched. The confluence of interests in Chad, its precarious position within active conflict zones and key migratory routes, and heightening global power competition in the country and among immediate neighbors will overflow Mahamat’s in-tray. Chad’s election is also the first among countries in West and central Africa that have fallen under military rule since 2020 and sets a precedent for junta leaders set on retaining political control amid calls to relinquish power.

Beverly Ochieng is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.