Keeping Chad’s Transition on Track
One year ago, current Chadian leader Mahamat Idriss Déby took control of the country’s transitional government in a de facto coup d’état following the unexpected death of his father, longtime president Idriss Déby Into. While the former Déby regime enjoyed international recognition for its role in regional counterterrorism operations, the country is at risk of instability due to growing domestic unrest around its many socioeconomic challenges.
Chad’s transition to democracy is currently at a crossroads, with a national dialogue underway and elections scheduled to be held between June and September of this year. Now is the time for the international community to take a more active role in supporting Chad’s transition toward genuine reconciliation, democratization, and peace.
Recent Political Takeover and Transition
There have been seven coups and attempted coups in sub-Saharan Africa over the last 18 months. Military leaders have successfully seized power in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Sudan, and are consolidating control over government institutions. These unconstitutional changes in power are taking place against a backdrop of governance deficits, insecurity, underdevelopment, and influence from foreign governments. These factors put Chad at risk of further instability after former president Déby, who led for 30 years, unexpectedly died, leaving a power vacuum in his wake.
Former president Déby was killed on April 20, 2021, after sustaining injuries during clashes with rebels attempting to overthrow his government. His death occurred the day after provisional election results projected that he would win a sixth term in office, extending his 30-year presidency. Former president Déby had led since 1991, using political repression and institutional changes to perpetuate his rule. Directly following his death, in an unconstitutional change of government, a group of military officers established the Conseil Militaire de Transition, or Transitional Military Council (CMT), comprised of regime allies and led by Déby’s son, Mahamat, a 37-year-old general. This move preserved the continuity of power and regional security within Déby’s inner circle.
Mahamat and the CMT have adopted a transitional charter that includes provisions for a national dialogue and elections. However, there are concerns that the 18-month transition period is at risk of being extended indefinitely. Meanwhile, Chad is surrounded by violence while remaining stable enough to provide vital military support to counter Islamist militants. The next few months in Chad are significant for the region’s stability and could foreshadow governance and security outcomes in neighboring countries that recently experienced coups. With the trajectory of Chad’s transition still undetermined, international actors have a window of opportunity to shape post-coup Chad into a democratizing state where legitimate public participation, transition, and reconciliation foster stability and prosperity.
A Convergence of Risks
The authorities moved quickly to restore stability by appointing civilians to ministerial posts and establishing a transitional charter toward elections. However, these actions do not fundamentally address several underlying factors that will affect Chad’s potential pathway toward transition, including regional security threats, monopolization of power, underdevelopment, and climate shocks.
- Regional Insecurity: First, Chad is at the nexus of several neighboring conflicts, making it vulnerable to cross-border instability and spillover. Chad’s porous borders allow non-state armed groups based in Libya, the Central African Republic, and Sudan to move between countries, including the group that killed former president Déby. Moreover, there are Islamist insurgencies based in the central Sahel, including Boko Haram, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, which could escalate violence as Chadian forces are withdrawn from counterterrorism operations and borders remain unsecured. Even if violence does not create further instability, influxes of migrants fleeing conflict strain the country’s weak social services and scarce resources, potentially exacerbating community tensions.
- Concentration of Power: Second, the Déby regime has relied, and will continue to rely, on political manipulation and repression to maintain power. For example, in 2018, the Chadian parliament amended the constitution, allowing Déby to stay in office until 2033 and expanding his authority by creating a fully presidential system. Ahead of the April 2021 presidential elections, the Supreme Court rejected 7 of the 17 applicants for the presidential race, and security forces responded to anti-government protests with violence and arbitrary arrests. Mahamat’s ascension to power demonstrates a continuation of rule by manipulation and force. The CMT appointed Mahamat, a 37-year-old military general, while disregarding the constitution, which states that a presidential candidate must be at least 45 years old and a civilian. The constitution also asserts that, in the event of a president’s death, the president of the National Assembly should be interim president and hold elections within 90 days. Civil society-led protests against the transitional authorities were suppressed by arrests of over 700 people and repeated internet shutdowns.
- Development and Climate Concerns: Structural challenges such as socioeconomic underdevelopment and climate change are additional layers of fragility. In 2018, 42.3 percent of the population was at or below the national poverty line. Similarly, Chad’s 2019 Human Development Index score was 0.398, placing it at 187 out of 189 countries. Climate change—combined with violence, displacement, and Covid-19—has created more unstable conditions. In 2020, floods caused by record rainfall affected 20 out of 34 provinces in Chad and damaged food stocks and cultivatable land. Meanwhile, Lake Chad has lost about 90 percent of its volume since 1960, depriving the 30 million people in the region of their livelihoods. The changing environment has triggered competition over resources, irregular migration, food insecurity, and organized crime. As of 2021, 5.5 million people need humanitarian assistance, and severe food insecurity affects 1.8 million people.
At the Crossroads of Authoritarianism and Democratization
Conditions are currently ripe for molding Chad’s ongoing political reform process. First, Chad is scheduled to hold off-cycle presidential and legislative elections between June and September 2022. The African Union has accepted the junta’s claim to power, but will reverse that decision if the military leaders fail to hold elections within the 18 months following Déby’s death (which would be by October 2022). Second, the CMT has maintained its promise to host an “inclusive national dialogue,” leading to a new constitution and elections. As a sign of progress after a series of delays, the CMT is currently hosting preliminary discussions with armed rebel groups and political opponents in Qatar. Still, the exclusion of certain opposition groups and civil society actors from the dialogue raises questions about the legitimacy and inclusivity of this process as it so far has catered to the narrow interests of those that use violence to gain and maintain political power. With the public actively demanding civilian rule, this preelection period should not be reduced to a technical exercise, but should instead be a chance for legitimate reconciliation between various political stakeholders and a transition to accountable, inclusive, and balanced governance.
The current regime’s de facto coup, authoritarian streak, and monopolization of power have gone largely unchallenged by the international community because the Chadian Armed Forces are a linchpin in regional counterterrorism operations. Situated in a hotbed of crises, the Déby regime has reinforced its international recognition through its pivotal role in countering violent extremism. The current domestic risks underscore the intrinsic link between Chad’s internal stability and regional security. On the other hand, just as some have affirmed that “coups are contagious,” efforts to prevent military entrenchment and push toward reform could have a regional proliferating effect.
Foreign partners, notably the United States, France, and the European Union, have been heavily involved in regional counterterrorism operations, while largely neglecting internal structural challenges. Since 2017, the United States has committed more than $588 million in security assistance to forces operating in the Sahel. The European Union provided €147 million to establish the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a regional counterterrorism task force, and has capacity-building missions for security forces in Mali and Niger. France maintained a robust military presence in the region with Operation Barkhane, France’s regional counterterrorism operation, headquartered in N’Djamena, Chad’s capital. Politically, France consistently supported former president Déby’s contentious rule. After his death in April, President Emmanuel Macron attended the funeral and backed Mahamat’s leadership. While Macron later called for a civilian government, little has been done to support this rhetoric. More generally, France is repositioning its role within the region, as reflected in the drawdown of Operation Barkhane. This is prompting a fundamental shift among foreign partners from an over-securitized presence—privileging stability over democracy—to assisting African-led initiatives such as the G5 Sahel Joint Force.
Converting Crisis to Opportunity
The international community, particularly France, should apply greater pressure on the CMT to pursue a transitional process based on genuine reconciliation and inclusion. Chadian opposition groups, election observers, and the African Union are three key constituents within this line of effort.
- Dialogue with Civic Groups: First, France and its Western allies should engage in substantive dialogue with opposition political factions and civil society movements. For example, Wakit Tama, a coalition of civil society organizations, has continuously protested against the CMT’s narrow and exclusive governance and demanded a more inclusive national dialogue. Similarly, an opposition party, Les Transformateurs, which was targeted by security forces ahead of the April 2021 elections, has called out the stacking of Déby loyalists in the CMT and rallied for reforming the transition process. While current leadership is marginalizing public demands for representation, external actors can leverage their political capital within the Déby regime and CMT to strategically message citizens’ priorities and demands on the transition and reconciliation processes.
- Independent Electoral Observation: Second, ahead of the scheduled national elections, external partners should seek to strengthen the capacity and transparency of the independent electoral observation. Currently, the two key Chadian election institutions are the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI)—comprised of a president and representatives from civil society, the political opposition, and the political majority—and the Permanent Bureau of Elections, which provides technical support to the CENI, though it is part of the Ministry of Territorial Affairs. These institutions remain politicized and co-opted by the ruling political party despite substantive reforms. In the absence of independent election institutions, the international community should support regional and civil society-based observation missions. This includes carefully tracking the preelection and postelection period, offering technical assistance to civil society organizations, and engaging with regional election observation missions by the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union.
- African Union Engagement: Finally, and relatedly, international actors should collaborate with the African Union to align efforts in ensuring the CMT implements the transition milestones in the 18-month timeframe. Recently, the African Union has been criticized for its inconsistent responses to African coups; the African Union’s Peace and Security Council did not sanction or suspend Chad after the unconstitutional change in power, contrary to previous coups in Sudan and Mali. This decision reflects a penchant to accept the stability that authoritarian political elites purportedly provide in the face of security crises at the expense of democratic and constitutional principles. Before walking back on the move, France endorsed the CMT, with President Macron eulogizing former President Déby as a “loyal friend and ally” in counterterrorism operations. Both regional and international actors should stand behind the Chadian public in unity, pressing for adherence to the 18-month transition charter and the reconciliation measures it stipulates. These efforts should include aligning their demands regarding criteria for the inclusion of opponents and activists in the national dialogue, conditions for fair and transparent elections, and potential political and financial costs to impose on the CMT for noncompliance.
Numerous subversive forces could compromise Chad’s fragile stability. However, the ongoing national dialogue and preelection period are a nascent opportunity to shape the country’s future trajectory. International actors should take a firm stance on validating the grievances toward the Déby regime and the CMT, inciting greater assurances from the government toward the transitional process, and supporting democratic governance based on genuine participation and reconciliation. There is an alternative response to coups that affirms international commitment to democratization in Africa.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele is a senior fellow and director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Anastasia Strouboulis is a research intern with the Project on Fragility and Mobility at CSIS.
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