Could President Idriss Deby face a shock in Chad’s elections?

The anger and scale of protests in February were unprecedented. Could this have an effect on the 10 April polls?

Could President Idriss Déby Itno experience a shock in the April elections? Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Could President Idriss Déby Itno experience a shock in the April elections? Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Weeks of protest in Chad appear to finally have run out of steam, but President Idriss Deby Itno will still faces many challenges in the run-up to, and the aftermath of, the presidential elections scheduled for 10 April.

While it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Deby does not win a fifth term in office, the recent social upheaval following the alleged rape of a teenage girl by figures linked to some of the president’s closest associates shows the depths of frustration at his 26-year rule.

The protests broke out in early February in the capital N’Djamena after a video was posted online showing the alleged victim, a 16-year-old girl called Zouhoura, naked and in tears after the attack. Five people were arrested including sons of army officers and the son of Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat.

As demonstrations against the rape spread to the main southern towns of Moundou and Sarh, at least one person was killed by riot police who fired tear gas on protestors, and the government issued a ban on unauthorised demonstrations. Social media protests exploded with young people posting pictures of themselves holding cards reading “Je suis Zouhoura”.

“Something we have not seen before”

The protests come against the backdrop of a prolonged economic crisis sparked by the dramatic drop in the world oil prices; Chad depends on oil for about 75% of government revenue and has been forced to slash spending and rewrite its annual budget.

While state repression of protests is nothing new in Chad, the unbridled nature of people’s rage is. Rather than the perennial strikes and demonstrations organised by the unions against unpaid salaries and student grants, the recent series of protests genuinely appears to have been a wave of visceral anger.

Raw shock at the schoolgirl’s plight in a socially conservative country seems to have found a natural focus on the sense of entitlement of a small clique of Deby associates, family members and ethnic Zaghawa at the heart of politics; since Deby assumed power in 1990, his Zaghawa kinsmen have dominated business and political positions in a constantly evolving turf-war of rivalry and intrigue.

For many in Chad, the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the protests was a source of both hope and concern. Mostly because of the extreme repression of the secret police under former president Hissène Habré in the 1980s, public protests are rare in Chad. But this time, the demonstrators seemed determined not to be cowed by security forces. Friends and colleagues in Chad have talked of a strong sense that things were really quite different.

Furthermore, the country’s largely ineffective opposition politicians were for once briefly able to capitalise on the wave of disgust. On 24 February, a call to protest by conducting a ‘Ville Morte’ (Dead City) was heeded by thousands in the capital as taxi drivers and shopkeepers joined students and civil servants in staying at home. In a bid to encourage more safe demonstrations away from the phalanxes of riot police, a ‘whistling protest’ was then held a few days later in which people stayed inside their compounds but started whistling en masse at 4.30am.

The scale and longevity of these protests have been described as without precedent in Chad. “What is notable is that civil society came together coherently to manage people’s anger,” says Thibaud Lesueur, regional analyst for International Crisis Group. “People from many walks of life joined in, people who would not normally join strikes or political demonstrations. It really was something we have not seen before”.

Regional strongman

As the elections approach, Deby and his entourage must be concerned that there may be a repeat of these activities. Chadians are certainly aware that peaceful demonstrations can yield results, following the almost unthinkable fall of Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso in 2014 and Arab Spring in 2011.

Additionally, ordinary people may have been encouraged by the sight of the once omnipotent former president Hissène Habré in the dock in Senegal, charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and being responsible for the deaths of thousands during his brutal eight-year rule in the 1980s. His trial gives the signal that African leaders can no longer act with impunity.

The events of last month probably came as something of a shock to Deby who was presumably expecting to pass a few quiet months reminding his citizens of the highlights of his tenure and rolling out his election posters.

With his recent appointment as the Chair of the African Union, Deby seemed to have achieved the apogee of his ambitions to raise Chad’s profile on the continent. Chad’s intervention to support France’s Operation Serval in northern Mali in 2013, its botched attempt to pacify its southern neighbour the Central African Republic, and its leadership in the pan-Sahelian attempts to tackle the regional threat from Nigeria’s Boko Haram have all proved effective in dispelling the mid-2000s image of Chad as a rebellion-ridden desert backwater. Instead, the capabilities of the L’Armée Nationale Tchadienne (ANT) have been highlighted and Deby has basked in his role as a regional power-broker.

Familiar faces

Nevertheless, the anger in Chad does appear to have abated now and, without further protests, it would be a shock if Deby did not win on 10 April. Much of this is due to the chronic failure of the Chadian political opposition to present a credible alternative, and many Chadians continue to believe in the idea of better the devil you know. “The problem is how to translate popular anger into a political movement,” says Roland Marchal, senior research fellow at the Centre for International Research at Sciences Po in Paris.

Deby’s challengers include three of Chad’s well-known ‘old guard’ politicians who have all at one point or another served under him. Saleh Kebzabo, veteran leader of the UNDR (Union Nationale de Development et Renouveau), boycotted the last two elections in 2006 and 2011; Kebzabo is a master of rhetoric but has consistently failed to broaden his power base away from the south.

The other two main contenders – Nouredine Delwa Kassire Koumakoye and Joseph Djimrangar Dadnadji – are both former prime ministers under Deby. Koumakoye served as PM from 1993-5 and again from 2007-8, while Dadnadji was PM briefly in 2013 until MPs turned against him. The only significant new blood in the race is Laoukein Kourayo Medard, the mayor of Chad’s second city Moundou. “It’s always the same old people who cannot keep up with social change,” says Marchal.

In it for the long haul?

Deby’s skill as a political operator must also be appreciated, and he has taken recent steps to placate the growing displeasure with his rule. Just before the protests broke out, he pledged to re-introduce presidential term limits if he wins in April. This was an interesting decision given that it was Deby who removed term limits in 2005 to allow him to stand again in 2006, a move that sparked a devastating five-year rebellion supported by Sudan. In addition, in the immediate aftermath of the recent protests, the government announced that there would be a new round of recruitment of young people into the civil service and Deby personally met with the leaders of the country’s main unions.

Deby is also in a strong position militarily. Chad’s security forces, and particularly his presidential security detachment, are poised to go back onto the streets if any significant challenge appears. Chad has diverted at least $4bn of the estimated $12bn it has earned from oil re-equipping its national army and making it one of the strongest in the region.

The president is also firmly backed by international powers. Indebted to Chad for its contribution to the fight against Islamist militants in Mali, France chose to base its regional Sahelian counter-terrorism force Operation Barkhane and nearly 1,000 troops in N’Djamena. Past experience suggests that if the situation deteriorates, France will do its best to keep Deby in power – he was twice saved by French intelligence as the Sudanese-backed rebels attacked the capital in 2006 and 2008.

Unable to present any workable solution to the crisis caused by the Islamist group Boko Haram, Deby’s role in sending the ANT into northern Nigeria has also been welcomed by the West and in particular the US which briefly based a contingent of military advisors in Chad in the hunt for the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls.

“So far, it seems the process is expertly managed to prevent any real challenges,” says Thomas Miles, the author of a new book Sahel; A Short History of Mali, Niger and the Lands in Between.

However, electoral success has never given much legitimacy to Deby’s rule in the eyes of Chadians. Many ordinary people have long felt disenfranchised by the electoral process, and turnout will likely be low. Although there will be a few independent observers, there will probably be cases of fraud and voting irregularities. Meanwhile, Deby continues to face the long-standing danger of a palace coup led by one of the warring factions in his entourage.

In the 10 April polls, President Deby is widely expected to continue his rule, though after 26 years in power, there are growing questions regarding the president’s strength to ride out the devastating consequences of a prolonged period of low oil prices. Furthermore, now that ordinary Chadians have had a taste of their power in the recent protests, it may prove extremely difficult for Deby to put that genie back in the bottle.

Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist with a focus on Africa and the Sahel. She is the author of Africa’s New Oil. Follow her on Twitter at @chadceleste.

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